Today’s Second Reading (2 Corinthians 12:7-10) is part of a somewhat tearful letter from St Paul written at a time of controversy, if not crisis, in his life. Other teachers had followed him into Corinth and were undermining what Paul had taught the church members there. These preachers were more charismatic than Paul in their preaching and used to openly boast of havening visions and ecstasies which drew people to them.
Paul’s style was less charismatic and he was unfavourably contrasted with them. As I mentioned at Mass on Tuesday, his appearance was anything but impressive and his oratory was quite limited. The Acts of the Apostles tells of how a boy fell asleep and tumbled out of a window while listening to one of Paul’s sermons (know the feeling?). The late 2nd Century work “The Acts of Paul and Thesla” contains the following unflattering description of Paul: A man of little stature, thin haired upon the head, crooked in the legs, of good state of body, with eyebrows joining, and nose somewhat hooked, full of friendliness.
Paul also experienced ‘revelations’, one of them an actual encounter with the Risen Jesus on the road to Damascus and far more profound than anything these preachers had experienced. But he did not boast about them. In fact, he said, that whenever he felt tempted to do so about the ‘extraordinary nature’ of these [personal] ‘revelations’, he was pulled up short by what he called a ‘thorn in the flesh’ which he described as ‘an angel of death to beat me and stop me from getting too proud’. This prevented him, he said, from boasting like the other preachers.
This is the background to his famous speech in Corinthians where he says that ‘if I have all the eloquence of men or angels or speak without love then I am simply a gong booming or a cymbal clashing …’
There has been much discussion about what precisely Paul meant by ‘thorn in the flesh’. The King James Version of the text uses the word ‘buffeted’, the RSV uses ‘harass’ … whatever the translation, many have understood it to mean that Paul had something like epilepsy whose convulsions would throw him to the ground; others think he may have been bipolar, suffering chronic depression which would have caused him to have spells of supra-normal activity. We can only speculate as to the exact condition but what we can say is that it was a debilitating condition which caused Paul great suffering.
Paul tells that he pleaded with God on three separate occasions to cure him but to no avail. In the end he came to accept his condition and found that when he turned to God he was given a strength to carry out his apostolic work. He saw his fragile life as bearing the mark of Christ’s cross and that God was giving him the strength to bear it. Thus, he said, my relationship with Christ is such that ‘when I am weak that I am strong’.
Is there a ‘thorn in the flesh’ that God has asked you and me to bear, something painful we cannot remove, hard as we might try? It may be a health condition that cannot be cured; a family member we have to support in testing circumstances; a person who consistently causes us much pain and worry; a partner with an addiction; a marriage being endured for the sake of the children; a disastrous decision made in the past for which we go on paying a cost; widowhood that is excruciatingly painful; a guilty conscience that just won’t disappear …whatever, I guess we all at some stage or another have such a cross to bear or ‘thorn in our side’ that won’t go away?
So what can we learn from St Paul?
He says that when he was at his lowest and weakest, he somehow saw his condition as something God was asking him to bear, and in that spirit he then found from God the strength not just to cope but for his ‘weakness’ to actually become a strength. God’s grace at work in him then was such that ‘when I am weak that I am strong’.
Might the same be possible for some of us – that I can see my personal cross as the mark of Christ’s suffering on me and something God is asking me to bear for a greater good? Can my weakness actually have a purpose in God’s overall plan for me? Might it be possible for us to find, as Paul did, that when we turn to God in weakness and desperation we find strength?
Despite Paul suffering poor health, God achieved much through him. It’s a reminder, perhaps, that most of God’s best work is done by people not in the best of health or ‘not feeling so good’. Poor health and other thorns in the flesh do not restrict God, if we are willing, from working through us – we can still be kind, compassionate, merciful, encouraging and supporting others even when we are weighed down by our own problems.
Holy Name, Jesmond
4 July 2021