After describing his highest mystical experience, when he was lifted up to the third heaven (‘whether in the body or out I do not know’,) St Paul then says that he was given a thorn in the flesh to prevent him becoming proud. It was some aggravating thing, presumably, that reminded him that he was very much in the body and subject to its limitations and contradictions.
He asked God to take this thorn away from him. He doesn’t say what it was so we are left to freely imagine what are our own thorns. No doubt he wanted to be better, more perfect, more effective. Instead, though, God told him something that must have disappointed him at first and then thrown him open to an insight even deeper than his mystical experience. He realized that his very imperfection and weakness were the crucible in which the power of God could manifest. ‘When I am weak then I am strong’. He had, understandably, wanted to be thorn-free so that he cold be stronger. But instead he discovered that, thorns and all, he would be stronger because of his weakness.
When we don’t get want we want, despite feeling sure that it is the right and natural thing for, us we confront the block and impasse to our will that sends a two year old into tantrums. Even later in life our ego rebels, angrily, self-pityingly or despairingly, when our desires are frustrated. At the worst, on the large scale, it leads to the lunacy of Hitler’s suicidal reaction to his inevitable defeat or to the present Syrian war in which 11 per cent of the population have already been killed and 70 per cent displaced from their homes. In both cases there is the refusal to embrace the weakness of the human condition. The ego’s perverse conclusion is, better death than defeat.
At the individual level this lunacy becomes self-hatred and manifests in progressively addictive self-destructive behaviour. Lent is a time to scan our selves for any tendency in this direction. Silence, a stillness of mind free from thought and simplicity in intention, is the best way to scan. Meditation shows up any part of us where we are dug into a bunker of denial, protesting our desires futilely against the real world.
We are whole beings. But we are made up of many working parts. Often these different dimensions are not synchronised. And so, we may have large areas of ourselves in healthy condition while several other smaller areas are struggling with thorns. They are better understood than ripped out. The powerlessness of meditation empowers us to embrace this weakness as the source of true strength and our meeting with God.