Today’s Second Reading is the last in the sequence we’ve been having from 2 Corinthians. This is the letter St. Paul wrote at a time when the loyalty of the Corinthians to him was wavering, and the relationship between them in danger of breaking down altogether. Paul then wants to insist very strongly here on his credentials as an Apostle, and as their Apostle.
Just before today’s passage, he’d been talking about his exalted mystical experiences. The Corinthians were very much impressed by charismatic phenomena: speaking in tongues, prophesying, performing miracles, experiencing visions, locutions, ecstasies and the rest. So Paul mentions that he has personally received all these graces, and indeed more abundantly than others in their community who boasted about such things. Paul himself has been caught up into the third heaven, into Paradise itself, and heard things there that cannot or may not be spoken about (12:4).
But now he gets to his main point. Yes: such things are gifts of God without any doubt, to be received with gratitude. But of themselves they do not necessarily prove our conformity to Jesus Christ. They can even lead us, however subtly, away from him, if we respond to them with any sort of spiritual pride.
So now Paul talks about other and better credentials of his. He refers, enigmatically enough, to a thorn in his flesh. As far as he’s concerned, this has come straight from Satan himself. Yet also, according to the ways of divine Providence, it has come from the hand of God. How so? Because this thorn precisely prevents Paul from being lifted up in pride. It completely destroys any sense of self-sufficiency to which he might be tempted. Just because it’s so horrible, it unites him with Christ crucified.
St. Paul’s patience in bearing this thorn is a better proof of his Apostolic credentials than his most lofty visions and other spiritual gifts. Christ can use Paul’s weakness even more effectively than he can use Paul’s strength. When Christ’s own power is allowed really to take over, in and through Paul, then indeed are great things accomplished.
But what, we cry, exactly was this thorn?
Commentators have a field day here, because they can speculate in any way they like. St. Paul doesn’t tell us. And it’s very good that he doesn’t, because that way we can more easily read our own situation into his words.
Going on well informed guess work, quite a likely explanation of the thorn would be persistent persecution from his own people, the Jews. They relentlessly hampered Paul’s every move, frustrated his plans, undid his work; and certainly sometimes physically assaulted him.
But the thorn could be something else. It could be some recurrent illness, like malaria, or migraine, or a bad back, or weakness in the throat, or eye trouble. Or it could be some embarrassing impediment like an stutter, or digestive troubles. Or it could be some recurrent temptation of whatever sort: perhaps even against holy purity. Or perhaps it could be an apparent inability to pray: some version of the dark night of the soul. One interpretation I’m sure we can rule out is personal moral weakness. St. Paul certainly isn’t saying here he’s been too morally weak to behave virtuously. That would nullify the point he’s making. No: this thorn was something externally imposed on him, over which he had no control, and he heartily wanted to be rid of it.
So he prayed to the Lord three times: and his request was refused.
What a consoling statement for us this is! The great Apostle prayed, solemnly and with great earnestness, for a good thing: and he was refused. He didn’t get what he wanted from God. We think here immediately of our Blessed Lord himself in Gethsemani, who also prayed three times to his Father, asking that the cup be removed from him. But Jesus ended: not my will be done, but yours.
So it is with St. Paul, and so it is with us. When our prayer, even our desperate and fervent prayer, seems not to be answered, that doesn’t mean it isn’t heard, or is somehow wasted. God wanted Paul to endure this affliction, because it was good for him to do so, and when Paul understood that, he accepted it with joy.
We mostly don’t have St. Paul’s lofty experiences of vision and union with God. But surely we all can recognise his thorn somewhere in our own life: maybe even several different thorns. Looking just at this thorn, we simply hate it: we see no good in it whatsoever; we receive it as a manifestation of Satan, who wants to get us down. But look in the first place at Jesus, and at our thorn only in his light, and the picture begins to change. So much so, indeed, that we can even land up seeing our thorn as one of God’s most precious gifts. By means of this affliction we are able to share in Christ’s own suffering. By this means we are saved from the temptation of pride, which is our real and ultimate enemy. By this means we are forced back on the grace of Christ, who is thus given free scope to carry out his work in us and through us. If we can’t understand now how this can be, in heaven we will, and we’ll be specially grateful to God for having given us this particular burden to carry.
In a similar way, God’s love is revealed to us much more through the Cross than through miracles. Imagine if Jesus had merely healed the sick, and fed the hungry crowds, and then been assumed into heaven. Could we really believe in the depths of his love from that? It would certainly seem from today’s Gospel that the people of Nazareth were not much impressed by the miracles or reputation of Jesus (Mark 6:3). But we see Christ loving us to the end: nailed to the Cross; betrayed, abandoned, humiliated and dying. That is the source of our hope, and the rock on which we stand.
So: however bad our troubles, let us at least be certain that they are never sufficient reason for resentment against God, or loss of faith, or despair. Surely this can apply on an institutional as well as an individual level? If the monastery seems weak, or the whole Church in our country, or if even the whole Catholic Church seems to have fallen very low: then God must turn it all to advantage, for his glory and our good. And he will. For God’s grace is always enough; his power is perfected amidst weakness (verse 9).
What then to do when we are in trouble, or confronted by a weakness that seems to defeat us? With Jesus we turn to God, saying both: “If it be possible, take this away from me”, and also: “But whatever happens, may your holy will be done”. Then with St. Paul we turn specifically to Jesus Christ our Lord: asking for his grace; asking, above all, for his love. And what we ask for will be given to us.
As a pledge of that, in a special way the grace of Christ is poured out for us in the Holy Eucharist. Here we bring to God, to Jesus, all our weaknesses and troubles: to be taken up in his own victory, through which death and defeat are turned into life and glory.