The thorn in Paul’s flesh
What was that thorn in St Paul’s flesh which we heard about at Mass yesterday?
Just to jog your memory:
I was given a thorn in the flesh, an angel of Satan to beat me and stop me from getting too proud! About this thing, I have pleaded with the Lord three times for it to leave me.
(2 Cor 12:7-8)
St Augustine suggests Paul was referring to a physical affliction — perhaps the same “bodily ailment” which Paul mentions in his Letter to the Galatians. (Gal 4:13) St John Chrysostom argues that Paul was referring to the religious persecutions he endured. St Gregory the Great speculates that the thorn may be a temptation which Paul struggled with — anything from lust to greed to an addiction. Or maybe St Paul was reflecting on his fiery temperament, which I’ve blogged about before.
No speculation on the thorn in Paul’s flesh is complete without mention of cartoonist Tim Davis’ theory. Its implausibility in no way diminishes it hilarity:
St Paul’s terms are general and ambiguous, but there are a few things we can ascertain about this thorn. Firstly, it’s not only painful to him, but humiliating. Secondly, it’s not from God. We could go as far as to say it’s evil — Paul attributes his thorn to Satan. Thirdly, and most importantly, this unwanted and humiliating evil becomes a conduit of God’s grace.
We have thorns of our own — weaknesses, vices, addictions — which we can beg God to take away. And the good Lord probably says to us what he said to Paul. “My grace is enough for you.”
But can we respond as Paul responds? “I am quite content with my weaknesses . . . For it is when I am weak that I am strong.”
When such thorns are hidden, they possess us and deprive us of peace. But when they are named, they lose their power and the Lord’s healing work flourishes.
It’s a very humble soul who can write “I shall be very happy to make my weaknesses my special boast, so that the power of Christ may stay over me.” This is the stuff of saints! The stuff of spiritual childhood! (Same thing.)
St Paul, pray for us!