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The Thorn in the Flesh


This month, on the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, we will hear Saint Paul make one of the most astonishing claims of his life. 

paul16541After complaining to the Lord about his famous "thorn in the flesh," he reports the Lord's reply: My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.  The revelation transforms Paul into a new creation who proclaims, I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me.  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 (2 Cor 12:7-10). 

But why need it be this way? 

A sacred strategy

The "thorn" in our life is any persistent bane that frustrates us, infuriates us, or makes us feel unworthy or ashamed... and over which we remain powerless.  "Affliction hardens and discourages," writes Simone Weil, "because it imprints the depths of the soul — like a branding iron — with contempt, disgust, and even repulsion of oneself.  All innocent beings in affliction feel themselves cursed."

So then why doesn't the Lord accede to Paul's three-time plea that this leave him?  A different question provides perspective: What would I be like without the afflictions I bear?  I would be unbearable.

The source of our anxieties lies in misplaced trust in our own strength and understanding.

Saint Thomas Aquinas interprets this experience of Paul's to be a "remedy against pride — an inordinate desire for one's own excellence that can fall into other vices, such as ambition, avarice, vainglory, and the like.  Pride separates us from God, and is the root of all vices and the worst of them."

The extremeness of the treatment betrays the enormity of the ailment.  God's tactic seeks to unseat our secret, insidious attachments.  The source of our anxieties lies in misplaced trust in our own strength and understanding.  We cling to presuppositions about what holiness should look like and feel like.  But the truth is that we cannot be united with Jesus Christ and know the depth of his love to the degree that we keep on seeking things which conform to ourselves.  And, without the thorn, we would do that all the time.

What hurts opens our heart, breaking us free from attachments that put us at odds with God.  The purpose of the painful thorn is to persuade us that we have nothing to hope for in ourselves.

The blessing of the thorn

Well does Saint Jerome write that "the good Lord frequently does not grant what we wish in order to bestow what we should prefer."  Saint Thomas suggests that, inasmuch as a thorn in the flesh is "a means to virtue and an exercise of virtue, it should be desired."

Our defects stay essential to our development.

The virtue of the thorn is how it makes it impossible for us ever to become self-satisfied.  Our defects stay essential to our development.  God delights to use our imperfections to make us perfect.  Aquinas takes up the medical analogy:  "A wise physician permits a lesser disease to come over a person in order to cure a greater one.  This the Apostle shows was done to him by the physician of souls, our Lord Jesus Christ.  For Christ, as the supreme physician of souls, in order to cure greater sins, permits them to fall into lesser, and even mortal sins." 

The personal miseries God permits aim at getting us to look at ourselves so as to identify the impediments we put in the way of grace.  What glorifies Jesus is our realization of our dependence on him for everything. 

The Apostle Paul, raised a pious Jew, would appreciate the divine genius of such a scheme.  He would view it within the context of the Israelites enslaved in Egypt:  the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied (Ex 1:12).

God ordains the thorn, notes Saint Thomas, to "the good of our humility."  And "humility like this," encourages Saint Ambrose, "does away with frailty."

What to do about the thorn

What wonder of mercy: "There is consolation in affliction and grace in consolation" (Saint John Chrysostom).  Allowing Christ's grace to be sufficient means using the evil in us to drive us to God.  We heed Saint Augustine: "This need of devotion we owe to the Lord: that, if God does not remove our troubles, we are not to think that he has deserted us but rather, by lovingly bearing evil, we are to hope for greater good.  This is how power is made perfect in infirmity."&

Genuine Christian mortification consists in wanting at this moment only what God's love brings us at this moment.  We resist the temptation to make what pleases us the measure.  For the more God's love conforms us to himself, it will disconform us to ourselves. 

We unite ourselves to the certainty of Saint Basil the Great: "Do you see where affliction leads you?  To hope that does not disappoint."



cameronFather Peter John Cameron, O.P. "The Thorn in the Flesh." lead editorial from Magnificat (July, 2018) 1-3.

Reprinted with permission of Magnificat.  

The Author

cameron1 cameron2 Father Peter John Cameron, O.P. is the Director of Formation for Hard as Nails Ministries and the founding editor-in-chief of Magnificat. He is also a playwright and director, the author of more than a dozen plays and many books including: Mysteries of the Virgin Mary: Living our Lady's Graces, Made for Love, Loved by God, Praying with Saint Paul: Daily Reflections on the Letters of the Apostle Paul, Jesus, Present Before Me: Meditations for Eucharistic Adoration, and Benedictus: Day by Day with Pope Benedict XVI.  

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