Dear friends. Years ago at home, we used to keep some sheep. From time to time during the lambing season, a lamb would be born who would be rejected by its mother or injured or sick. This then became a ‘pet lamb’ that we took and placed in a cardboard box by the fire, gave it milk and tried to nurture it to health. One time as a child I remember a lamb had injured its leg at birth so we took it in, gave it milk and shelter until it was better and fit to re-join the rest of the flock. When it re-joined the others, it was always the one who was most tame when you entered the field. When the others ran away, the lamb we had helped get better stayed close by. Through its woundedness, it had come to know you.
Something similar is told by St Paul in the second reading today, not about lambs and their owners but about himself and God. Paul begins by a frank admission which risked scandalizing those who considered him a holy man. He confesses that for all his life he has struggled with what he describes as a ‘thorn in the flesh’. He doesn’t share what this was but it certainly refers to some part of his nature that was fragile and weak. For Paul, it was frustrating and despairing to find himself like this. He begged God to remove this thorn of flesh and to be cured of his weakness. He says: ‘about this thing, I have pleaded with the Lord three times for it to leave me’. Perhaps with these words Paul thought to himself: ‘if only I could bypass this human nature of mine and be cured of all my weaknesses and struggle, then I would be free to love God and serve him as I want’.
Yet as Paul grew in faith and wisdom, he comes to a shocking conclusion: God would not cure him of his weakness or remove his thorn in the flesh because it was God himself who had placed it there. It was only then that Paul realized that his path to God did not bypass his human nature but ran through his human nature in all its strengths and flaws. God astonishes Paul by saying: ‘My grace is enough for you, my power is at its best in human weakness’. God also provided Paul with a reason why he had deliberately made Paul this way: ‘to stop me from getting too proud’. Finally, as he prays, Paul changes what he prays for. At the beginning he used to ask God to remove his weaknesses from him. Now, instead, he thanks God for them and is not ashamed to admit them saying: ‘I am happy to make my weaknesses my special boast so that the power of Christ may stay over me’. Here is a man who no longer hates his weaknesses but who has befriended them and accepted them because they reminded him of his need for God’s strength, grace, forgiveness and love.
Friends, at times we think that we must bypass our flaws and failings to reach God and attain holiness. The truth is that holiness has just as much to do with imperfection as perfection. Like Paul, we all have our thorns in the flesh that have been placed there by God to stop us getting too proud and so that we might know our need for Him. As the pet lamb comes to know its owner because of a wound, so we come to know God and his mercy because of our imperfection.
Together with St Paul, many other saints teach us this valuable lesson. St Bernard of Clairvaux admitted that ‘I am more used to falling down than to climbing …I can only tell you what I know myself, the downward path’ (‘The Steps of Humility and Pride’, 22, 57, Treatises II). For St Teresa of Avila: ‘It is foolish to think that we will enter heaven without entering into ourselves, coming to know ourselves, reflecting on our misery…and begging him often for mercy’ (Interior Castle, 2, 1, 11). St Therese of Lisieux advised those who seek God to meet him in their own flawed humanity: ‘You wish to scale a mountain, but the good God wants you to descend; he is waiting for you at the bottom of the fertile valley of humility’ (Story of a Soul).
Fellow sinners, it is easy for us to become discouraged by our own thorns in the flesh – weaknesses and failings that we seem to carry all our lives and that we would like to be rid of. Yet sooner or later we come to realize that our weaknesses are not something to be cured of but to be accepted as the way God has made us and as God’s way of keeping us close to him. It is also God’s way of inviting us to be humble and to have a compassionate heart for the weaknesses of others.
I conclude with the words of the beautiful prayer composed by Pope Francis for the Jubilee Year of Mercy that puts this message before us priests: ‘You willed that your priests would also be clothed in weakness in order that they may feel compassion for those in ignorance and error: let everyone who approaches them feel sought after, loved, and forgiven by God’.
‘Lord, your grace is enough for me. May you be glorified through my gifts and flaws. May I know your strength in my weakness. Amen’.