We are in the pre-Lenten time of the year. Already the altar and priest are clad in purple; already we forgo the alleluia. Ash Wednesday is only ten days away. Please make your Lenten resolutions now, write them down, and prepare to enter Lent running. We must run toward Easter, toward Heaven, with all we have.
An Angel of Satan to beat me
St. Paul had reason to boast, and he had reason to complain. He labored, and he suffered for the Gospel to an extraordinary degree: scourged five times, beaten with rods three times, stoned once, shipwrecked three times, clinging to a piece of wood in the open sea for a day and a night. No man has ever equaled St. Paul in spreading the Gospel. His greatest experience was mystical—an out-of-body experience of the third heaven, hearing “verba arcana,” unutterable words. Because of the “abundance of revelations,” that he might not extol himself, a “thorn in the flesh” was given him. He describes it also as an “angel of Satan to beat me.” It wasn’t just a passing toothache, but a chronic and painful debilitation. Perhaps it was a weakness in his feet or knees, particularly difficult for one who spent his life walking around the Mediterranean region. Maybe it was persistent sexual thoughts. Or perhaps his bad eyes. Or maybe a persistent interpersonal weakness—he was disposed to lose his temper. Maybe it was a tumor, or psoriasis, or insomnia, or alcoholism, or migraines.
“Three times” Paul asked God to heal him—that means, in Biblical language, he asked God over and over for relief. But the Lord did not heal him. And so what did the great St. Paul do? He stopped complaining. He embraced his weaknesses, for the love of Christ. He said: “God’s grace is enough for me.”
Bad anthropology and greedy pharmaceutical companies have teamed up to promote the fantasy of human life without pain. With enough technology or psychology, we are told, we can eliminate any kind of suffering. But St. Paul tells us, from personal experience, that God’s grace, not medication or psychotherapy, makes suffering bearable, even joyful. Yes, we have to try to reduce pain in our lives within reasonable means. We should take Advil, or undergo surgery, or see a counselor, when we need to. But if we find ourselves obsessed with avoiding pain, when we can’t bear any suffering, then we miss life’s deepest joys. Many beautiful things come only through suffering, self-denial, and humble submission to what we cannot control.
Strength in weakness
Suffering purifies our damning illusions of self-reliance. We learn to trust God, in our flesh, when we suffer. With St. Paul, we say “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships and constraints, for the sake of Christ. For when I am weak, then am I strong.” It is hard to suffer, to be hemmed in by life, to sustain insult peacefully, to smile on even the worst days. But we can rejoice in our sufferings, if we know that … God’s grace is enough. Lent is the time to embrace unavoidable sufferings, and to load on even extra sacrifices, for the love of God. We cannot love Him very much if we do not suffer for him. We cannot contain our own pride unless we discipline our bodies. “Gladly will I boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell within me.”
Our Lady, of course, is the most beautiful example of human weakness. She was a nobody and owned nothing, at the mercy of the men who drove the political machinery around her. She gave herself up to God, heedless of the shame, and found herself in Him. She found that He can be trusted. Let us pray to Holy Mary to help us sacrifice everything for the surpassing joy of knowing God, our Savior.