A Catholic priest of the Chaldean rite was recently interviewed about his over forty years of experience ministering to Christians in Iraq. Predictably, the questions soon turned to the war’s effect on Christian life in Iraq. The priest noted that in the history of the region, whenever there is political instability, there is sure to be harmful effects—including the persecution of Christians. “What about the American military presence?” the interviewer objected, “aren’t they able to safeguard your churches and schools?” “We ask for help,” the priest responds, “but the answer is always the same: ‘not my job.’” The interviewer appears a bit agitated by his response. “Then where do you turn for help and protection?” His answer was equally sober. “God,” he said.
Wherever there are persecuted Christians in the world, there is St. Paul. While we aren’t sure exactly what the “thorns in his flesh” were, we do know he felt them. He must have felt them when rivalries developed in the early churches. Or when the Gospel message met with suspicion and rejection. Or when local officials looked the other way while Christians suffered for their faith. At times in his ministry, Paul must have been understating the aches and pains of discipleship. His thorns must have felt more like daggers.
But his thorns were not confined to the outside. Paul suffered thorns from within his all-too-human will. We know that Paul struggled with conflict within his heart. His real tendencies toward God could be at odds with equally real tendencies away from God. It’s no less the case for us. Like Paul, we too have to deal with these internal spiritual struggles. We too seem to struggle at the margins-- between the person God created us to be and the person our illusions tell us to be. To be sure, these tensions need discernment and awareness if we are to grow in the life of faith. Jeremy Driscoll, O.S.B. describes the danger of unresolved inner thorns. In reflecting on the spiritual warfare that people wage on others, he writes, “Those who enter into this conflict with others do so because they do not know how to enter into spiritual combat with themselves.” **
Point well taken. Perhaps Paul did get it right. Power is perfected in weakness. To realize our own human weakness is to turn towards the strength of God. If we are better able to acknowledge and tend to the thorns within our hearts, we would be less inclined—even if unknowingly-- to stick others with them. Our attitudes of self-righteousness or vengeance might give way to greater reliance on God, and a more genuine solidarity with others. In realizing these thorns, our hearts would open up to the spiritual gifts God has in store for our lives in the Kingdom.
Those who have confronted harmful addictions of various kinds understand how strength is realized only in weakness. If we are full of ourselves apart from God, then we cannot help but look to ourselves alone. God becomes not only irrelevant to our situation, God may even become the object of our resentment. The inner thorns strike again. But those who travel the road of recovery are better attuned to these thorns. They recognize how they affect our commitment to God, our connections with others, and our own sense of balance and peace. In realizing their own inner poverty, those who suffer addictions come to grips with the God who empowers them to overcome them.
In the creed, we profess that Jesus is both begotten of God and born of woman. This is not only a statement about Christ, but also a revelation of God’s unity with humanity. God knows about thorns, for Christ has fully entered human weakness and limitation. The Eucharist celebrates the God who has redeemed all of this, and continues to do so. With Christ, we are afflicted at the same time we are being healed. With Christ, we are weak at the same time we are being strengthened. With Christ, we are dying to ourselves at the same time we are being lifted up into his life.
**Jeremy Driscoll, O.S.B. A Monk’s Alphabet: Moments of Stillness in a Turning Word. New Seeds Books: 2006