“I was given a thorn in the flesh..to..stop me from getting too proud! About this thing, I have pleaded with the Lord three times for it to leave me, but He has said ‘My grace is enough for you; My power is at it’s best in weakness'”
These lines from this Sunday’s second reading at Mass, taken from the second letter to the Corinthians, is one for much thought. The full reading speaks of St Paul’s awareness of the mercy of Christ in granting so many graces; but it notes that along with this, there is a danger of pride – when we ourselves really have nothing to be proud of, other than the mercy and grace of the Lord.
The reading reminds us that even the greatest of Saints struggled with human failings and frailty. Sometimes, reading the lives of the Saints, it can appear as though they were born perfect and remained that way. The reality is quite different, of course. But if we do not perceive that they, too, suffered – regardless of the great graces they were given – how can we hope to imitate and emulate them? After all, is that not the very purpose of the Church placing the Saints before us? And so these words of St Paul are helpful – they resonate with all of us, because each person has his own personal thorns.
St Bernadette of Lourdes, for example, was made a Saint not because she saw the Most Blessed Virgin; rather, it was because she lived a life of genuine holiness, consisting of heroic virtue day after day after day. Suffering greatly from poor health throughout her short life, and bearing insufferable pain with meekness and humility until she died, Bernadette made her own thorns into something wonderful – a source of deep personal sanctification for herself, and a source of great edification for those around her and for all who read the story of her life.
Following the example of St Paul and of St Bernadette, our thorns can be viewed as an opportunity for grace – divine grace transforms such thorns into beautiful heavenly roses. We simply need to ask for that grace and then to recognise it as such and put it to good use when granted. Of course, the particular grace we ask for may not be the one we receive, so we need to trust that the Lord knows best regarding what we need. While we see things in the fleeting moment, His eyes have an eternal perspective.
Asking for grace from God is easy – and He is very generous. A mother knows not to give the child something too easily, as the child may not then treat it properly; what we receive too easily, we cast aside away equally easily. So it is with God. He sometimes teaches us the value of patience and perseverance in prayer, before granting grace. When we accept how important grace really is, we are happy to keep asking so that it may be given. But we need to remember that the purpose of grace, ultimately, is to help us to detach from ourselves and to seek God alone – “not My will, but Yours”, as the Lord tells us.
St Paul also reminds us that not every cross or thorn will be taken from us; we can only trust in divine providence that carrying a particular cross, or patiently bearing a stinging thorn, is for our greater good. We can be certain that if the Lord allows us to bear a particular thorn in the flesh, or to carry a particular cross in life, that He will supply the grace to enable us to do so. Then, with St Paul, we can one day proclaim – “it is when I am weak that I am strong”.