14th Sunday in Ordinary time (2 Cor 12:7-10).
One of the interesting things is that when you read the stories of some of the great saints across the pages of history, almost inevitably when you go through their story you come across some great shadow or darkness that hung over their lives. For example when the diary of Blessed Teresa or Calcutta came to life after her death, we have seem that for so much of her life, Teresa struggled simply to believe. Even though she was so widely acclaimed as a living saint; even though she was in such demand to address the United Nations, Presidents and royalty; even though her work amongst the poorest of the poor in India was so highly valued – she struggled at times simply to acknowledge the existence of God. Other saints also – like St Therese of Lisieux – went through this great period of darkness, where she couldn’t pray or believe. She found it impossible to get through the thick cloud that surrounded her.
And yet these saints continued – like so many others who are afflicted with grief, who experience physical illnesses or disease, trials and turmoil, who are in the depths of sadness and suffering because of the loss of a child or a loved one. Whatever it is, the thing that marks their greatness – is not the particular tragedy – but the way that they deal with that; the way that they find life through that tragedy – in the midst of that tragedy and darkness.
I guess that is what St Paul is struggling with in our reading today. Paul had a lot of reasons to boast. He had an incredible ministry from the Lord. In the previous chapter of 2 Corinthians and in the beginning of this chapter 12, he goes through in those 33 verses of chapter 11 and the first 7 verses of chapter 12 a long list of experiences that have marked and characterised his life. All the ways that the Lord has blessed him and given him incredible gifts and allowed him to suffer. But he says – so that he couldn’t boast about these incredible visions that he had received – that he was caught up into the seventh heaven that he had these personal encounters with the Lord. He had received these incredible words of insight into the mystery and experience of God. So that he wouldn’t boast; so that that wouldn’t be the thing that would mark and characterise his life – he says he was given this ‘thorn in his flesh.’ We don’t know what this thorn was. There have been over centuries dozens and dozens of interpretations as to what this might have been – ranging from the bizarre to the more likely. From the extreme literalists who have said it was an actual physical thorn that had become infected, to those who said it was some form of illness – of epilepsy; or headaches; of hearing loss or speech impediment; others have said it was some form of temptation such as sexual lusts. We have all sorts of people projecting these things onto Paul as to what this thorn may have been.
Whatever it was – he wanted it gone. Whatever it was it caused him great suffering. He said this caused him great suffering. He said that he begged the Lord three times for it to be gone. Now that is not like a child asking for an icecream: ‘Please…’, ‘Pretty Please…’, ‘Pretty please with sugar on top…’ It is the deep heartfelt longing for this to be gone. Three times in the Semitic mind represent a fullness – it means he begged the Lord again and again and again. In the previous part of the passage Paul speaks of events that happened 14 years ago – that is the time frame of what he has been experiencing – the time frame of his desire and his prayer and his heart-felt longing for the Lord to take this thing away from him.
How many times have we begged the Lord in the same way; how many times have we pleaded with the Lord for whatever it is that is our thorn in the flesh? How many times have we thought if only this thing was not there: If only that darkness; if only that depression; if only that sadness; if only that illness or sickness; if only that member of my family wasn’t like that; if only the people at work weren’t like that; if only I could forgive that person who wronged me; if only I …
And then the Lord addressed Paul; then the Lord gave to Paul what is perhaps one of the deepest insights that we can achieve in the Christian life. If we get this one realisation correct and true, then I think we can truly call ourselves followers of Jesus Christ. If we understand (with Paul) – that my grace is enough for you; my grace is sufficient; if we begin to realise that it is not about what I do – it is not what I achieve – it’s not my benefits or the things that I do well; it’s not my strengths; it’s not because I’m good or holy; it’s not because I come to Mass; it’s not because of any of these things that the Lord has favoured me. It is because ‘his grace is enough.’ It is because in my weakness the Lord can be strong.
If we can grasp that; if we can cling to that; if we can find our life in that – then the Lord can do work; then the Lord can satisfy his desire to fill us; to free us; to bring us life. So let’s ponder the thorn that is in our flesh; let’s consider whatever the areas of darkness or trials or tribulations that we endure – that are part of our life – and let’s rejoice today that the Lord allows us to sit with them; to stay with them. Let’s celebrate with St Paul the great gift of finding life in that – of finding our strength in our weakness – because it is in that place that we discover that God’s grace is enough.
Recorded at St Michael’s 8am (8’38”) – with Matt Maher’s ‘Empty and Beautiful’