We all complain from time to time. Some people are professional moaners, and others keep life’s disappointments largely to themselves, but we all gripe and wine. Gripenheimers and Winebuckets, all of us. Even St. Paul complained, as he does in today’s second reading. “Three times” he begged the Lord to remove his “thorn in the flesh,” but the Lord did not remove it. And so what did the great St. Paul do? He stopped complaining. He embraced his limitations, in the name of Christ.
Thorn in the Flesh
Let’s look more closely at Paul’s famous “thorn in the flesh.” He describes it also as an “angel of Satan to beat me.” It wasn’t just a toothache, but a chronic, painful debilitation. Perhaps it was a problem with 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 what did Paul do when God didn’t heal him? He took a deep breath, pulled himself up straight, and said: “God’s grace is enough for me.”
A great error of our time is to imagine that we can somehow, with enough technology or psychology, eliminate all suffering from life. So if you have a physical problem, just keep trying new meds until the pain is covered over. The pharmaceutical companies will love you! If you have an emotional problem, just jump from one relationship to another until something works. And see a therapist while you’re at it! And if all else fails, there’s always whisky.
But St. Paul tells us today, flat out: God’s grace is enough for us. Yes, we have to try to reduce pain in our lives within reasonable means. I don’t mean we shouldn’t take Advil, or get surgery when we need it. But if we find ourselves obsessed with avoiding pain, when we simply can’t accept the experience of suffering in our lives, then we miss life’s deeper meanings. Because some beautiful things only come through suffering, self-denial, and humble submission to what we cannot control. Pain is necessary for growth. “Growing pains.” In our fallen state, since we suffer from the disorder of Original Sin, we only learn perfection through the school of hard knocks. “But what doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger….”
Strength in weakness
Suffering purifies our illusions of self-reliance. We learn to really trust God when we suffer. Suffering melts our icy hearts and opens them to others who suffer: it develops humility and compassion. “Compassion” in Latin means to “suffer with,” and we cannot know another person in their pain unless we too have suffered with them. A woman philosopher (Alice von Hildebrand) once told an auditorium full of priests: “You men labor under the distinct disadvantage of never having had a baby. When a child is pushing a woman’s body apart, trying to get out, she knows beyond doubt that she is not in control of her life. She gives herself over to Providence.” So we shouldn’t waste our energy obsessing over our sufferings and weaknesses. It is better to say, with St. Paul, that “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships and constraints, for the sake of Christ. For when I am weak, then am I strong.” Yes, dear brothers and sisters: it is hard to suffer, to be hemmed in by life, to sustain insult with a peaceful demeanor. But we must know that … God’s grace is enough. It is enough!
Mother Teresa would often say, “I am nobody, and I have nothing.” This is really the state of things. We are nobody outside of God’s grace, and nothing we have is ours. It all belongs to Him.
Our Lady, of course, is the most beautiful example of human weakness and poverty. She was nobody and owned nothing, at the mercy of the men and the political machinery around her. “My spirit rejoices in God my savior, because he has looked upon the lowliness of his servant.” She gave herself up to God, and found herself in Him. Let us pray to her to do the same.