2 Corinthians 12:7-10
“A thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated.”
When we hear this bizarre statement from St. Paul, one of the first questions that come to mind is ‘What was the thorn in the flesh?’ Unfortunately we don’t really know the answer. Saints and scholars throughout the centuries have debated and made great arguments. Some say it was sexual temptation, others suggest it was a physical deformity or illness, still others believe it was rejection from the Christian community or even a literal thorn that was permanently embedded into him. The reality is that while we may not have much knowledge about the thorn, what we do have is a beautiful example of what to do when we are experiencing some sort of trial.
All of us have a thorn in the flesh; something that makes us realize that we are not in control. It could be an illness we or a loved one have, it could be financial difficulty, spiritual desolation, sinful desires or any number of things. Whatever it is, we all have the task of dealing with it in a way that will bring us closer to Christ. To help with this, we have the words of St. Paul to guide us.
Let us first notice the great openness he has with the community to whom he writes. He bares his soul in a most courageous way in order to help them and us, not because he is boasting in himself but because he knows the importance of boasting in Christ. Opening himself to the Corinthian community, he gives us a sort of four-step method to dealing with trials: humility, perseverance, abandonment and trust.
First, we must humble ourselves. This is always the necessary first step in the spiritual life. It is easy to try to handle things ourselves and to devise our own plans and methods of operation, but in reality the only thing guaranteed to help us is to simply realize that there are some things that we cannot fix but that God can. So, we humble ourselves and bring our prayers before God to let him know that we are in need.
Secondly, we must persevere in our prayers. Three times St. Paul turned to the Lord in prayer seeking for the thorn to be removed. He persisted in his prayers until the Lord gave some response. We must follow his example and bring our own thorns before the Lord and pray for their removal. If the thorn is removed, we rejoice. But if the thorn is like that of St. Paul and remains, then we must recognize, like him, that God is permitting it for a reason. St. Paul points out that the thorn in his flesh kept him from getting too elated, which helped him to be humble and grow in holiness. The same goes for us too; the thorns of our lives may be the very things that gain us entry into heaven. But to admit this takes faith. This leads us to the next step.
Once we accept the reality of the thorns in our lives, we are faced with a choice: we can with either abandon ourselves to the Lord or we can simply abandon the Lord. I have seen many good Catholics faced with great trials pushed almost to the point of abandoning the Lord because they were not able to see that God was doing something beyond what they could see, feel or understand. We also get a glimpse of it in the scriptures this weekend. We hear about the ancient Israelites who were obstinate of heart and also about the Israelites of Jesus’ hometown who received no healings or miracles because they were unwilling to believe that God would work through – and even become - a humble carpenter that they knew. We, the spiritual children of Israel, can easily be the same. And so we must make a conscious choice to abandon ourselves to the Lord – to let go of our expectations and plans and allow God’s plan to come into view.
Once we have begun this third step of abandoning ourselves to the Lord, we have the fourth step of continuing to trust that the Lord’s plan is what is best for us and will bring us true joy despite some difficulty. This can be difficult, but here we lean once again on the promise of Christ made to St. Paul and which he makes also to us: “My grace is sufficient for you.”
And from where does that grace come? The Eucharist and Confession, as well as Eucharistic Adoration and personal prayers. Here, in the places where we encounter our God in a real and tangible way, we find the grace that permits us to allow Christ to live in and through us and to be the strength in our weakness. Through St. Paul’s intercession, may we have hearts open to receiving that grace today, that we might rely upon Christ and Christ alone.