St. Paul’s “Thorn in the Flesh”
14th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
This week I want us to take a look at the second reading, from 2 Corinthians 12:7-10. In writing to the Church in Corinth, St. Paul makes reference to “a thorn in the flesh” that was given to him; an “angel of Satan” that he asked the Lord three times might be removed from him. What was this thorn in the flesh St. Paul had to endure?
It is clear that St. Paul was struggling with something that caused him to suffer. But St. Paul never comes right out and says what it is. This has led many Christians over the centuries to speculate.
Because St. Paul calls it a thorn in the flesh many believe that it refers to some physical ailment; a sickness or a disability. This makes sense. We do know from other places in St. Paul’s writings that he suffered from failing eyesight. He writes in his letter to the Galatians about his “bodily ailment” and how he knows that they would have plucked out their own eyes to give to him, if possible (Gal 4:13-15). He also makes reference in that letter to the large letters of his handwriting, due to his poor vision (Gal 6:11). So we know St. Paul suffered from some ailment which affected his eyes. But this may or may not be the thorn in the flesh he references in 2 Corinthians.
Some people believe that St. Paul may have had the stigmata. Stigmata is a mystical phenomena in which a person so identifies with the suffering of Jesus that they manifest physically the wounds of Christ, usually on their hands and/or feet. These wounds have no physical cause and typically do not heal. St. Francis of Assisi was a stigmatic, as was St. Pio of Pietrelcina (“Padre Pio”) in more modern times. Some have suggested that St. Paul might have been a stigmatic because of Galatians 6:17 where St. Paul writes: “I bear the marks of Jesus in my body.”
However, most scholars do not interpret that verse to mean Paul was a stigmatic. St. Paul could have been referring to his physical scars from the many beatings he endured during his imprisonments for preaching the gospel. Or he could have meant the indelible mark of baptism, which sacramentally marks the Christian as belonging to Jesus.
We don’t know whether or not St. Paul had the stigmata, but if he did, it seems unlikely that the saint would refer to the mystical wounds of Christ as “angels of Satan.” Instead, it seems more likely St. Paul would have embraced these mystical wounds as gifts allowing him to personally identify with Christ’s passion.
But “thorn in the flesh” may not mean something physical at all. We see the word “flesh” and immediately think body but the idiom “thorn of the flesh” was used in Hebrew to denote any sort of opposition or harassment. In the Old Testament, in Numbers 33:55, the Israelites are warned that unless they drive the Canaanites out of Isreal, they would become “barbs in your eyes and thorns in your side.” So St. Paul may also be using the phrase to describe some kind of personal opposition or resistance he faced to his ministry. We know that he faced many obstacles to his preaching the Gospel of Christ among the Gentiles. He was arrested and imprisoned on more than one occasion, and faced persecution at the hands of both the Romans and the Jews.
The persecution Paul speaks of as a “thorn in the flesh” may not necessarily refer to outside forces. It could be a persecution from within. I’m talking about the temptation to sin. We often think of saints as perfectly holy people and forget that they also are sinners who struggled with the same temptations that we do.
St. Paul makes reference to his own struggle with sin in his letter to the Romans:
“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good that I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me” (Rom 7:15-20).
Any of us who have ever struggled with overcoming a particular sin in our lives can easily identify with St. Paul’s words here. So some of suggested that the “thorn in the flesh” Paul suffered from might be the temptation of a particular sin.
Weakness as Strength
The above are all possibilities that have been put forth by many scripture scholars over the centuries. But at the end of the day, we just don’t know what St. Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was. All we know is that it was something that caused him to suffer. And that knowledge is sufficient.
Each of us suffers from different things, in different ways, at different stages in our lives. It may be a disease or disability. It may be a form of persecution or oppression. It may be a particular sin that we struggle to overcome. Whatever we are suffering from at the moment, we can identify our own struggles in St. Paul’s “thorn of the flesh.”
In the end, St. Paul considered his thorn in the flesh, whatever it was, as a blessing — and even a source of strength. How? Through Christ.
Paul writes that when he prayed that this thorn might be removed from him, God told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). St. Paul’s weakness was a sign that the good works he achieved were not rooted in his own human strength, but in Christ’s strength. His “thorn” was a constant reminder to Paul of the need to rely on Jesus. It was a reminder that true strength can be found only in our reliance upon God.
Our Lord himself knows what it is to suffer, to be weak, and to rely on the grace of God. In the Garden of Gethsemene on the night before he suffered, Jesus prayed to the Father that “this cup” (meaning the suffering he was about to endure) be taken from him, but “nevertheless thy will, not mine, be done.” Jesus knew what it was to suffer weakness and to rely on God. And because of this, death was conquered, sin was overcome, and the salvation of the world was won.
In the end, Paul’s thorn in the flesh helped him to identify with Christ, and for that Paul was grateful. This passage in 2 Corinthians concludes:
“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 12:9-10).
Each of us will suffer from some form of weakness, hardship, persecution and all these other things mentioned by St. Paul. When we do (and perhaps that time for us is now), let us pray for the grace St. Paul had to be content with them — to even boast of them — trusting that through Christ, our weaknesses may become sources of strength.