“The Thorn in the Flesh” - What the Mystics Teach Us
After St. Paul not only had an amazing conversion where he literally went from killing Christians to becoming one himself, We read that he was also taken to the summit of the mystical life of prayer where he was “caught up to paradise and heard ineffable things, which no one may utter.” But even after all this he reveals that “a thorn in my flesh was given to me.”
For over two-thousand years scholars have all asked the question: what was the thorn? Was it physical, was it spiritual, or was it moral? We are in fact left no description… and in the end it probably doesn’t matter WHAT the thorn was, but WHY he was given the thorn.
Every one of us has a “thorn in our side”. It is probably different for each of you and chances are we would all would probably prefer it be something, somewhere, or someone else, but we all have a thorn. We, just like Paul, have probably asked and begged God over and over to get rid of it, take it out of us, make it better. You probably have a “thorn” too, right?
Well the real importance is not really what the thorn is, but why has He allowed it to remain? Why doesn’t God just remove this “thorn from our side?”
God gives Paul the answer! And He gives us the answer too…
“My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” This is a very clear and simple answer. Yet it is probably one that we don’t want to hear. Paul for some reason is brought to great peace when he hears this response from God. “Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”
What allowed for Paul to be so content with all of these difficulties? The thorn… and trusting that God’s power was working through it.
Think for a moment about the “thorn in your side.” What is your thorn? What is that struggle that you haven’t been able to get rid of? Maybe it’s physical. I think of people that have struggled from
birth with a disability. Maybe it’s emotional. I was just talking to someone who said that they have never struggled with anxiety their whole life and now are struggling with it… she said “if nothing else, it’s helped me to be more compassionate and loving to others who do.” Maybe it’s depression, bi-polar, or some other psychosis. It could be an addiction to drugs, alcohol, gambling, or a sexual addiction. It may be a part of your personality that is difficult for you or others to deal with. It could be someone in your life… it might even be your spouse or one of your children. Maybe it’s even a moral failing… a sin that you have tried so hard to eradicate from your life… some struggle their entire lives into their 90s with the same sins they struggled with in puberty. It could be a chronic condition or pain.
The point is we all have our thorn. Now, why hasn’t God removed it? It’s important to remember that Paul was given this clarity after having a deep mystical experience of God. He was brought to peace with this thorn through this encounter with God speaking to him in the depths of prayer.
Over these two-thousand years of Church tradition we have had many Saints who have had this similar experience. We can look to the Christian Mystics to give us guidance on this whole dilemma of the “thorn in the flesh.” Maybe, we too can gain some peace, acceptance, and even become content with our weakness.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux helps us to see that “Even if we should not prove successful, at least we can grow in gentleness and humility as we bear the burden of such a continuing struggle.” (Fulfillment of All Desire, Ralph Martin, p. 110)
Frances de Sales makes clear that the process of purification will continue throughout our life, and so “we must not be disturbed at our imperfections, since our perfection consists in fighting against them.” (Introduction to the Devout Life, pt. I, ch 5, p. 48)
St. Therese of Lisieux speaks of a “joyful resignation” to the lifetime of struggle with faults. “I learned very quickly [from the age of 13] that the more one advances, the more on sees the goal is still far off. And now I am simply resigned to see myself always imperfect and in this I find my joy.” (Story of a Soul, Ch. 7, p. 158)
Francis de Sales passionately cries out “in this war we are always victorious provided that we are willing to fight.” (Introduction to the Devout Life, pt. I, chap. 5, p. 49)
Bernard in his commentary of the Song of Songs beautifully describes how a thorn can help us by causing us to lean on God. “Who is this coming up from the wilderness, rich in grace and beauty, leaning upon her beloved?” (Song 8:5). Otherwise unless it leans on him, its struggle is in vain. But it will gain force by struggling with itself and, becoming stronger, will impel all things towards reason… “surely all things are possible to someone who leans upon him who can do all things?” (Sermon 85.5) The good news is, the Beloved loves to be leaned on.
St. Luke proclaims: “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” Acts 14:22
Teresa of Avila had to struggle to understand how it was possible that God could actually be working in her life while she at the same time still had obvious weakness and imperfections. (Ralph Martin, The Fulfillment of All Desire, p. 144) “His Majesty knows well how to wait many days and years, especially when he sees perseverance and good desires.” (The Interior Castle, sect. II, chap. 1, no. 2, p. 298)
John of the Cross explains that an impatient anger toward ourselves is also an imperfection that the Lord desires to deal with by leading us to greater meekness. “Others in becoming aware of their own imperfections grow angry with themselves in an unhumble impatience… they want to become saints in a day… [They] make numerous plans and great resolutions, but since they are not humble and have no distrust of themselves, the more resolves they make the more they break, and the greater becomes their anger. They do not have the patience to wait until God gives them what they need, when he so desires.” (John of the Cross, The Dark Night, bk. I, Chapter 5, no. 3, pp. 370-371)
Catherine of Sienna simply asks God, “Why?” And like St. Paul receives an answer from God in her prayer.
Could I and can I not make it otherwise for Paul and the others in whom I leave this or that sort of pricking? Yes. Then why does my providence do this? To give them opportunity for merit, to keep them in the self-knowledge whence they draw true humility, to make them compassionate instead of cruel toward their neighbors so that they will sympathize with them in their labors. For those who suffer themselves are far more compassionate to the suffering than are those who have not suffered. They grow to greater love and run to me all anointed with humility and ablaze in the furnace of my charity (Catherine of Sienna, the Dialogue, chap. 89, p. 166)
Later God reveals to her how He is in face liberating her through theses struggles.
“And why do I keep this soul, surrounded by so many enemies, in such pain and distress? Not for her to be captured and lose the wealth of grace, but to show her my providence, so that she will trust not in herself but in me... her concern will make her run for protection to me her defender, her kind Father, the provider of her salvation…. I want her to be humble… and to recognize that her existence and every gift beyond that comes from me, that I am her life. She will recognize life and my providence when she is liberated through these struggles (Notice not from these struggles, but through these struggles,) for I do not let these things last forever. They will come and go as I see necessary for her… it was not her own effort but my immeasurable charity, which wanted to provide for her in time of need when she could scarcely take it anymore.” (Catherine of Sienna, The Dialogue, chapter 144, p. 301)
So why does God not take our thorns away? As God revealed to St. Paul and the Christian Mystics, and continues to reveal to us… “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
May you find, as St. Paul, the Mystics, and many others have… great peace and contentment as you struggle and persevere with that sacred “Thorn” in your life.