Saturday, July 4, 2009

Thorns in the Flesh

(14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, B)

Today we hear one of St. Paul’s most famous passages, in which he talks about the “thorn in the flesh,” the “angel of Satan” sent to “beat” him and keep him from being too proud or “elated.”

We can all relate to this. Here we are at Sunday Mass, and our presence here alone reveals that we are people who, to one degree or another, desire a devout life, a life of faithful response to the benevolent initiative of God. Each of us is here because at some level, we want to be good Christians. Now, as we well know, as soon as someone resolves to follow God faithfully, all kinds of obstacles appear. Some of these are internal: perhaps we feel called to pray but are distracted by useless thoughts or temptations to sin. Other obstacles are external: if we resolve, for example, to be patient and kind during our day, we may be eventually worn down by all the tiresome or annoying people we have to deal with.

In our shallowness, we tend to look at such things as preventing us from having the devout life we think we want. But in fact, troubles that appear on the surface as obstacles to our spiritual life are opportunities. We don’t know what Paul was referring to when he talks about the “thorn” in his flesh; perhaps it was a recurring temptation or a physical disability. Maybe it was a human adversary or a particularly annoying co-worker. But whatever his trouble was, the point is that Paul did not see his “thorn in the flesh” as something keeping him from sanctity, but as something that helped him. And we can do the same thing with our own distractions, with our temptations, and with everything that threatens to take away our peace in the course of our day.

Here’s a simple, almost trite example to bring out the point. Our parish secretary is a sweet lady, and in her sweetness she keeps a big jar of jelly beans on her desk. I really like jelly beans. But in truth I don’t really want to eat them. First of all, once I start I can’t stop. I’m already too heavy, and refined sugar plays with my emotions. If I eat the jelly beans, an hour later I feel depressed for no reason. In the course of a day, I pass by the jelly bean jar many times, and I have to deal with the little temptation. In this situation I have a spiritual choice. I can indulge a kind the pious self-pity that says, ‘If only the jelly beans weren’t there, I wouldn’t have to deal with this temptation and I could go through my day in prayerful peace.’ Or, I can use the little temptation as an opportunity to turn to God and hear from him, with Paul, the assurance that God’s grace is sufficient for the salvation of even a sinner like me. Thus I can turn what seems like a temptation and a spiritual obstacle to my advantage, as a reminder that I need to turn to God and depend on God’s power to help me live the healthy and joyful life that I really want.

Now this is a light and silly example. But the point is the form of the spiritual choice. And we can do this with everything negative, from bad thoughts to misfortunes, and even with the annoying and unreasonable people we have to deal with. Instead of pitying ourselves because some temptation or problem has taken away our peace, we can use the trouble as an opportunity to turn and entrust ourselves to God.

So, whatever the “thorn in the flesh” is for each of us, let us see that we have a choice in how we use it spiritually. Let us not lament it in self-pity, but give thanks to God for it. When our particular “angel of Satan” comes to tempt and beat us in the course of our day, let us use our trouble well and let it turn us to God. And let us pray, ‘I know Lord, that your grace is sufficient for my salvation. Thank you for these troubles and temptations, because they remind me that all my strength comes from you. Thank you for yet another chance to turn to you, who are my God.”

1 comment:

Karinann said...

Br. Charles,
I once had a spiritual director on a retreat tell me that sometimes distractions can become attractions. Thank you for this thought provoking homily.
God Bless!