|FOURTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
The Thorns in Life
First Reading (Ezek 2:2-5):
The Prophet Ezekiel was sent to the rebellious people
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.” 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 12:7-10 )
Paul had a thorn in his flesh. Each of us have such ‘thorns’, perhaps many, even a great many, thorns! Life can be very difficult or discouraging, or at least unsatisfactory. It doesn't mean we have a negative attitude towards life, but rather amid the disappointments we try to console ourselves. This is the reality of life, whether we wish it or not.
Although the thorn that Paul mentioned may refer to something else, no matter what it referred to, it was some difficulty which presented him with a challenge throughout his life, a problem that could not be solved or a fault unable to change, or a burden at times almost too difficult to bear.
Because it was so hard to face, a burden so difficult to carry, Paul says that “three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me,” that he would not have to bear this cross, similar to Jesus during the Agony in the Garden when he repeatedly prayed to his Father to remove from him the bitter cup. (cf. Mt 26: 36-46) The Lord answered in a manner perhaps incomprehensible to us, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
God's response was not that God would lessen or remove the suffering, the ‘thorn’ of one's life, but rather that God would grant each of us more and more grace, sufficient for us to face life's ‘thorns’: courageously and happily bearing the suffering. The result was that Paul received from God abundant support, consolation and encouragement. And from this experience Paul could be happy in the midst of suffering: “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses. I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ” Paul willingly faced the ‘thorns’ in his life, - he was not forced to succumb, but he truly was ‘content’ to submit.
Confucius thought that whether to study, pursue knowledge or learn to be a full human person, we should arrive at a stage of joy and happiness. In Yong Ye, 6:20 , he said, “They who know the truth are not equal to those who love it, and they who love it are not equal to those who delight in it. ”(1)
When Confucius said, “To learn at the bottom, to reach the higher level of life”(2), he meant that in life there are different kinds of trials and each time we experience a difficulty, we can rise to a new level of life. Three stages are mentioned above, knowing, loving and delighting, and we move from knowing to loving, from loving to delighting. That is, we understand so we are happy and then we feel joyful. In other words, if we carry this out in practice throughout life we will always be content, even in the midst of suffering.
Meng Zi said in Gao Zi, “It is sorrow and calamity that make us live with liveliness.; and it is ease and pleasure that let us ‘die’ gradually!”(3) Actually faith also grows in sorrow and calamity. When we are ‘at the ultimate’ of life and cannot control ourselves and feel completely helpless, then we can more easily come into contact with God.
There are Scripture passages too, as the familiar Psalm 23, that may be helpful: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and they staff, they comfort me.” (v. 4) On a bright sunny day, or when bright lights illumine a church service, or when life feels secure with no challenges, these words may have little meaning. In these circumstances, how can we understand their deep meaning ? Or feel their reality in our life?
Because Paul already had endured much suffering for the sake of Christ, and in the midst of his suffering had experienced God's presence, grace and power, he could look back on his life with peace and understanding. “I am a better one: with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death.. on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I am not indignant?” (2 Cor, 11:23-29) This was the experience of a great Apostle, and also can be the experience of anyone with ideals.
“Not having experienced coldness in the bones, how will the plum flowers have a sweet fragrance? ”(4)
The fragrance of Paul's virtue overflowed into his entire life. He
had experienced ‘coldness in the bones,’ great sorrow and suffering
in his life, and so in Christ he was able to overcome to the end.