This post is about those mysterious words of St Paul in the second letter to the Corinthians:
And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given to my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but He said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."
My reflection is personal and based on my own experience of illness and all the world, the flesh and the devil like to throw at us. I am not intending to speak for St Paul.
The more a person opens up to allowing God to let His will and His glory be their life, the more joyful they are. It is that Christian joy, the joy that cares neither for suffering or sweetness, it is the joy of being in the Eternal Present, it is somewhat detached from the human condition. This person will walk in imitation of St Paul, as he walked in the life of Christ and not in his own. That level of peace, self mastery and generosity of spirit should be something we all ought to aspire to, rather than the somewhat lesser goal of trying to overcome temptations and sin. In both cases we will fall short of the mark, but surely it is better to have aimed higher and not to succeed than to have aimed lower and to have landed somewhere very unpleasant.
There is no way we can sustain such a state with our wills. There is no way such a state is in our control, we are passive to it, we have to be obedient to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Such a state is a gift and often the receiver of such a gift is, I think, almost unaware that they have it.
So what about the thorn in the flesh?
Personally I agree with those commentators who say that it was some sort of bodily affliction and that St Paul does us a favour by not being specific. It would be wrong to associate a particular ailment like cataracts, haemorrhoids or tennis elbow with a growth in holiness. But it has to be some sort of medical ailment. A temptation or a persistent sin simply in someone otherwise healthy doesn't make sense. It has to be an ailment because ailments weaken us. It is like a permanent Lent. We are brought low, we are made helpless, we are frustrated and it is not of our doing, we have not tripped up, we have been tripped up, upended and are lying flat on our faces in the mud. Overcoming temptations makes us stronger. Illness weakens and weakens and weakens..... Granted, such a state could lead to temptations within us to despair, to be filled with self-pity, to be horrid to others who seem to be better off than us, to lose our trust in God. And when you are ill, these things are precisely what the devil will tempt you to do. He is persistent. He constantly whispers in your ear that everything is futile, that "your God won't save you", that life is nasty, brutish and short, that your love of the divine is a sham, that you have nothing of the sort, that you are deluded... and even if you are not tempted to give in and follow his advice and wallow in the misery of your own self-pity.... you are ground down by his persistence and the weakness grows and grows and becomes unbearable.
And yes, then you do cry out to God that you have had enough, that you want this to end. For me this passage is not about suffering. I don't think suffering has any intrinsic merit and I steer clear of the writings of saints that talk too much about "embracing suffering". To me to suffer is to lose faith and to lose charity. That is true suffering and a true abomination, and not something with any merit in itself. This passage is about a physical affliction that will bring us low and then tempt the devil to kick us when we are down.
And because God's grace is sufficient, all that the kicking, screaming and petulance of the devil does is make us love God more.
"Rejoice I say again rejoice" Phil 4:4.
......and the NHS, and the whole panoply of doctors and pharamacists and health care professionals can't touch that.....