A Sharp Thorn of Grace 


And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (2 Corinthians 12:7-9)


St Paul wanted God to free him from his torment – the thorn in the flesh, whether physical, mental or spiritual – and God told him, “NO!” Now many of us might wish that God would answer our prayers clearly, but what if what we were sincerely pleading God to deliver us from is something that God wants in our life? What if God’s clear response to our prayer is “No way!” Would we lose faith? St Paul didn’t. Rather, he gracefully accepted that his infirmity was something God was allowing for some mysterious reason. For St Paul it appears that his ego had to be limited for a reason known only to God, and St Paul accepts that. He realizes he is God’s servant and God apparently wanted him to experience some weakness in his life, an infirmity perhaps to remind him of his human limits. Paul remained a faithful servant and accepted that God’s plan for him and world included a weakness in his own life which required him to remain dependent on God to help him through his struggles. Roman Catholic scholar Vincent Pizzuto comments:


Try as we might, we fail to love as much as we are loved. Neither can we pray as we ought. And too often our demons have the upper hand. But the beauty of these failures is that in and through them we come to realize our utter poverty before the richness of God’s love.  We come to realize our total dependence on the mercy of God. We come to realize we cannot save ourselves but can only accept our deification in Christ despite ourselves. Our failures become the seeds of God’s success. Paul understands this as a radical abandonment to God’s grace: A thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness. So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor 12:7b-10)


We should not miss in Paul’s experience a description of what we would call the death of ego: to be “content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ.” He is describing spiritual freedom by which the ego is no longer vulnerable to manipulation by the false self. Asceticism exposes our weaknesses and attachments, opening us to the ever-present need for God’s sustaining presence in our lives. When the scaffolding of our distractions and the false pretenses of our self-sufficiency fall away, we at once discover our inability to save ourselves and the freedom of realizing we do not have to: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.


To fail in the ascetical life is not to fail in the spiritual life but to discover the sustaining presence of Christ dwelling in us. Asceticism is not an effort to make oneself worthy before God but rather to learn what it means to completely abandon oneself into the hands of God in every situation. For the desert contemplatives, anxiety and worry were interior signs of a lack of trust in God. It is perhaps also a subtle form of idolatry, whereby the ego is given central place in the inner sanctuary of the heart, which belongs to God alone. By contrast, apatheia is the expression of faith in a state of total surrender of one’s cares to God. (Contemplating Christ: The Gospels and the Interior Life, Kindle Loc 2189-2207)