The thorn in his side

II Corinthians
We are just about half way through Lent. I had planned to be further along with the reflections; reading Romans by now. However, I don’t want to skip anything, because in the end I would like a more holistic and balanced look at St. Paul, show his letters as they are, a significant entre into the life of Christ and as such provide a wealth of material for personal and spiritual growth. Having said that, I know I still haven’t adequately covered the length and breadth, heights and depths of St. Paul. But journeying with Paul through Lent is making a difference in my day to day life and I hope that this might be your experience as well. His words stay with me throughout the day. It’s challenging to live into and keep before my sights Paul’s words and wisdom. But they are also a companion cheering me on.
Yet when I tell others about what I am doing, there are often mixed reactions. It is becoming more clear to me that Paul has been dismissed by many, misunderstood and misrepresented by a contingent I fear only know Paul by sound bites. Or by those who use Paul as a battering ram rather than love letters from a man passionate for faith in Christ.
In his 2nd letter to the Corinthians Paul uses the images of the veil, earthenware jars and tents. Each carry with it insights further into Paul’s – what I would call – earthed mysticism. Again, I may have referred to Rahner’s quote before but it bears repeating in this context. He said that theologians of the future will be mystics or they will not be theologians at all. Paul fits the bill then. And again, my recurring premise is that definitions, i.e. meaning, of words like mysticism require updating, renewed nuance, for our contemporary world, not because they are no longer relevant, but because they are more relevant than ever.
Paul’s abiding affection for the people of Corinth continues to shine throughout this second letter to that community. Many things he has already written about thus far continue to trouble him. Among them, his often discussed, persistent and mysterious thorn in his side. It has been speculated that this was some illness, perhaps malaria. But I’ve often wondered if it wasn’t the unremitting threats of violence and death that he was referring to. Or if it wasn’t the challenges he faced in his teachings from the other apostles, like James and Peter in Jerusalem, which I think bothered him a lot. What our enemies say may be easily dismissed, but not so those with whom we share a common goal. He says that the threats he faced often deterred him from his planned visits, like the one to Spain. It seems this disappointed him greatly.
After asking three times to be quit of it, Paul finally accepted the thorn in his side, whether ailment of body or mind, from without or within, as a humbling. Like all else he suffered and endured for his mission he accepts this as a gift from God, who uses it to demonstrate his strength in the face of Paul’s weakness.
We might say, on the other side of adversity, the thorn in our sides, is the God-life of well-being. The Christ-life stronger than our own troubles and failings. It is what Paul was speaking of when he champions God’s yes of life, to life, in the face of death’s no. Again, we don’t have to work at it, we only have to believe in it.
Like Paul too, we carry our own humbling within us. I think mine is more like Shakespeare’s tragic flaw. But one would hope, as Paul continually encourages hope, that God’s gifts and grace will out, and our failings become something to boast about as God’s never failing promise, our gift for building up, not tearing down. Wasn’t it Aquinas who said give me only your love and your grace and I will be rich enough and desire nothing more?
It appears there were many who wanted to tear down Paul and his message. It wasn’t easy then, and I don’t think it’s especially easy now to preach and live the gospel. (You don’t have to peer very far between the lines in this and Paul’s other letters, to get a sense of the challenges and accusations that are hurled at him.) He is defensive about the money he is collecting, wanting to make sure the people know that he is not profiting from his preaching, setting about to make this clear to his accusers and converts alike. Paul was a tentmaker and although he did receive some support from his friends, he made his living making tents. His ‘day job’. I think it was E.P. Sanders who painted a picture of Paul sitting outside his residence, perhaps while under house arrest in Rome, sewing his tents, while he spread the good news.
What are our necessary humbling’s? Perhaps the things I experience outside myself, as happening to me. But rather after some much needed reflection or a corrective dream, the awareness that I am often the source of the life that comes at me, come at me full bore. We are God’s diamond in the rough. I can’t help hoping ahead to another passage of Paul’s in Ephesians. We are God’s work of art. Or also translated God’s workmanship. His city shining on a hill. Just as we are gifted with being wonderfully made so too are we gifted by Life itself with our necessary humbling’s. They polish off the rough edges. So we can reflect through the facets of faith the Light of Christ in the service of the gospel, sewing our tents for the one who pitched his tent among us.


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