We can’t help but wonder about this “thorn in the flesh” that St. Paul claims to have been given and that he asked God time & again to take away from him. Some think it may have been a speech impediment; others suggest it was a distracting relationship with another person. I’ve heard the suggestion that it was an embarrassing illness — or poverty that left him virtually homeless. And so on. I guess that we will never know for sure what it was.
What we do know is this: Paul learned to accept this condition of his life and asked God to turn it into power for good. He came to the revolutionary conclusion that this weakness, this disability, this negative, destructive, maybe embarrassing thing in his life was actually a major blessing in disguise — for himself and for those he served in Jesus’ name.
Why? Because it reduced him — with all his pride and self-determination and resourcefulness — to complete dependence on God. It forced him to his knees, so to speak, in which submission he could finally face his human limitations, his near-nothingness, and admit that ultimately he was powerless. Having done that, he could then become the channel through which the awesome power of God would flow.
It is so important for us also to see this great light that came to Paul, because there is not one of us who does not have some sort of disability, whatever it may be. We can react to it in one of only two ways: 1) We go on fighting it vainly, permitting it and our frantic efforts to sap our strength and distract us from our Christian course of life. Or 2) We accept it as inevitable but recognize that it offers us the opportunity to empty ourselves in an act of abandonment to our Creator, inviting the Spirit of God to use us as an instrument of power for good.
Many years ago I had a priest friend who was afflicted with the disease dystonia, which is a progressive destruction of the central nervous system. He walked with his head at knee level, bumping into walls and doorways to guide his course. His whole body shook constantly with what is called disconesia. Despite all that, his mind was clear and his sense of humor was sharp. On a visit to him one Christmas, I asked what he was most grateful for during that season that he so loved. He answered simply, “Everything!” I took the bait and put a question to him that I had wanted for years to ask: Does that include the disease? His answer: “The disease? Above all! You’ll never know what a powerful tool for good it has been in my life as a priest.”
If Paul thought that his personal cross was given him by God, I must say that I do not agree. I cannot imagine God as giving any sort of suffering to us creatures. The truth is that creation is unfinished and very imperfect; therefore, all kinds of terrible things happen to all forms of life before and after our birth. They just happen – that’s all. They are planned by no one, God included.
In the meantime, we take Paul’s excellent advice and invite God to turn even our weaknesses into power for good.