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07/08/18 Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time - Fr. Reggie

St Paul was not perfect; in fact, no saint was perfect. They were human beings, just like us, and they had to face problems, hardship, suffering, and temptation, just as we do. They did not live carefree lives; in fact, it was their very challenges and failings that God used to make them into saints. That's what St Paul is trying to tell us in today's Second Reading. He says that although God has given him extraordinary mystical experiences, God has also given him a "thorn in his flesh, an angel of Satan to beat him." Paul prayed repeatedly for God to remove this thorn, but God refused, in order "to keep him from being too elated."

This strange passage raises two questions.

First, what was this thorn?

No one really knows, but scholars have many theories. It may have been a physical ailment of some kind; or a particular temptation, like lust or greed; or the discouragement he constantly felt from being rejected by his Jewish confreres; or it may also have been his fiery temperament, which always seemed to get him into trouble.

Whatever it was, it was a continual source of pain and irritation to St Paul.

The second question is: why didn't God take this thorn away? St Paul tells us that it continually reminded him of his human weakness, inspiring him to depend more fully on God's grace. This is what he means when he writes: "when I am weak, then I am strong."

And this should be a comforting thought for us.

It means that our thorns, whatever they may be, are not signs that God's anger or displeasure, but signs the he is teaching us, as he taught St Paul, true wisdom, the wisdom of humility and trust in God.

The ancient Fathers of the Church used to call Jesus the doctor of the soul.

That's a comparison that can help us understand this idea. Sometimes doctors and dentists have to cause temporary discomfort or pain in order to bring about long-term health. The cut of a surgeon's knife hurts, but it leads to healing and strength in the long run. Sometimes the medicine that a doctor prescribes tastes bitter and harsh. And yet, that same medicine will cure the sickness that is much more dangerous. The thorn that St. Paul mentions in this Reading is like the surgeon's knife or the bitter medicine. As painful as it is, he recognizes that God is permitting it for a reason; to cure him of his tendency to arrogance and self-absorption. Likewise, when God allows difficulties to plague us, he is not absent from them, but at work through them, like a good doctor with a sharp scalpel.

Experienced hunters also have to face this reality. Sometimes they will set a trap for bear or a beaver, but their own hunting dogs will mistakenly step into it, catching one of their legs in the painful grip of its sharp, steel teeth. In order to free the dog, the hunter has to actually push the dog's leg further into the trap, so that he can release the catch and remove the pressure. While its leg is being pushed deeper into the trap, the beloved dog howls and whines because the pain gets worse, little knowing that the increasing discomfort is actually the first step on the path to freedom.

Once we learn this lesson, we will be able to say with the great St. Patrick of Ireland:

"Whether I receive good or ill, I return thanks equally to God, who taught me always to trust him unreservedly."

In St Matthew's Gospel, Jesus promised us that his "yoke is easy and his burden is light" (Matthew 11:30).

We can only experience that kind of interior peace and freedom once we learn to accept our limitations, the thorns that God permits in our lives. This was not an easy thing for St Paul. It was only after many years of suffering and working for Christ's Kingdom that he was able to write this beautiful sentence: "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."

Accepting our limitations and the thorns that God permits in our lives is not easy for us either.

We need God's help, which is always available through prayer and the sacraments.

And we also need to exercise the virtue of humility. There are three ways we can do that almost every day. First, by not insisting on getting our own way all the time. Second, by listening to others more than talking about ourselves. And third, by doing acts of kindness for others instead of constantly expecting them to do acts of kindness for us. When we exercise the virtue of humility, we begin to experience the interior fruitfulnessstrength, and peace that only God's grace can give us. We begin to experience firsthand what the Lord told St Paul: "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness."

During this Mass Jesus will renew his commitment to us through the sacrifice of the Eucharist.

When he does, let's renew our commitment to him, and ask him to help us accept the thorns he allows in our lives, so that we can also experience the full transforming power of his love.

 

 
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