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What’s the Thorn in Your Flesh?

St. Paul's struggle with carnal temptation "vaccinated" him against sinful pride. How is God keeping *you* humble?

Homily for the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2021

Brothers and sisters:
That I, Paul, might not become too elated,
because of the abundance of the revelations,
a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan,
to beat me, to keep me from being too elated.
Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me,
but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you,
for power is made perfect in weakness.”
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

A few months after the beginning of all our troubles with the virus, I saw my doctor to be tested to see if I had been exposed to it. He is an eminently reasonable man, and not given to excess drama, and he told me cheerfully that it would be better if I came down with the virus, to get it over with and to have the antibodies solidly in my system. I asked him if he would rather make me sick right now to avoid a worse outbreak later, and he told me that yes, he would! And this was before there were any vaccines.

Now, I do not intend at all to discuss here the different opinions regarding vaccines, but only to use vaccines in general as an example. The logic of a vaccine has been around for many centuries; it is found in the practice of medicine called “homeopathic,” that is, the practice whereby illnesses are warded off by smaller doses of the natural principles on which a given illness is based. One could call it the “fight fire with fire” method. This is also controversial, working for some illnesses, but not all.

No one denies that getting a lesser case of an illness to ward off a fatal case is a desirable thing. Polio, German (!) measles, small pox, all used to afflict horribly the human race, and now in most places are practically eliminated because of this treatment: a little evil allowed, with some risk, to prevent a greater, and more fatal one.

Now, natural things are often suitable images for supernatural ones. So it is that St. Thomas, in commenting on this passage from the second epistle to the Corinthians, tells us about the healing art of Christ the Physician of our souls. He tells us:

Often a skilled physician procures and permits a lesser sickness to come over a sick person, so that he may cure or prevent a greater one. This the Blessed Apostle shows to have been done in his own case by the supreme physician of souls, Our Lord Jesus Christ. For Christ, as the supreme physician of souls, in order to cure the grave illnesses of the soul permits very many of even of the greatest of his elect to be gravely afflicted by sicknesses of the body, and what is more, to cure greater evils he permits them to fall into lesser ones, even though they be mortal sins. And among all sins, the graver sin is pride…the root and beginning of all vices.

St. Paul had much of which he could be proud. He had just told the Corinthians, in the passage immediately preceding this one, that he had been lifted up to the highest mystical experiences. We also know, since he told us, of the whole litany of accomplishments and trials that he had valiantly undergone. He also boasts (his own word!) of the purity of his Jewish lineage and practice before his conversion.  Paul was called by the Lord himself a “chosen vessel” of his Holy Name.

This same Jesus who so loved Paul as to shower him with graces also sent him a severe trial to keep him from becoming puffed-up with pride. This is what the apostle tells us. Yes, God will allow us to fall into great weaknesses and temptations in order to keep us from the worst of sins: pride, which St. Thomas calls “the root and beginning of all vice.”

This applies especially to God’s allowing sins of the flesh in “very many of even the greatest of his elect” (think of David and his penitential psalm 50/51). Paul asked the Lord many times (three meaning a perfect number in the Bible) to remove this temptation, but the answer was that he “glory” in his weakness in order to show forth the power of Christ. So in addition to all of his other qualities he now could boast even of his weakness.

If some question this interpretation, saying that it was only a physical malady, like sciatica, we add the interpretation of Aquinas, who, without denying his frequent sicknesses, still insists on the point that Paul had this fleshly struggle. He says explicitly that this “thorn in the flesh” refers to the movements of lust.

In our times especially there are many souls who are sincere believers, and yet they are caught in the grasp of habits of impurity in thought and deed. They pray the rosary, they go to adoration, they promote the Faith, they perform works of charity, they want to become holy, and yet they fall repeatedly. The devil would like them to believe that they are abandoned, doomed to die in grave sin, but this is not the case.

God is infinitely more powerful than sin and the devil. He is so powerful that he can use our grave sins and besetting faults to make us reach a deeper level of love of God and neighbor. He can even make us humble and protect us from pride by the undeniable evidence of our sins. Christ Jesus is the Great Physician of Souls, and could it be that his permission of our sins is part of his great therapeutic strategy to make us humble and holy?

Yes, indeed, when we look at the sins of the world it cannot be any other way. So if you, dear reader, have struggles with sins of weakness, with sins of lust or intemperance, know that the Physician of Souls may be even now preparing your healing and your protection from your sicknesses of soul, and especially of the sickness of pride which infects so many of those who appear to be righteous.

Our world is full of people who accuse and attack and seek to bring down people they are sure are evil. This occurs even in the Church. They should remember as St. Alphonsus taught “There are many virgins in hell, but no humble souls!”

Who would you like to be: David, Peter, the Magdalene, Paul, or just your own model of someone who has nothing to be ashamed of, that is, the kind of saint that is never, ever found outside the Holy Family? The choice is between reality and spiritual illusion. So boast of your weakness and of Christ’s power. And then stop justifying yourself, avoid the occasions of sin insofar as you can, and get to confession often! Now that’s an effective vaccination.

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