by Amy Carr
Who among us does not experience spiritual thorns, at least from time to time?
We don’t need to be in the reality show Naked and Afraid to find ourselves going along our way, trying to wear sheaves of wide grassy leaves around our feet, only to suddenly step on painful prickly things — in this case, thorns and little spiky seeds that pierce our sense of well-being from within rather than without.
Paul spoke of living with something like this, although against the backdrop of feeling the greatness of being an apostle:
“Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations to me [from Christ], in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh — a messenger of Satan to beat me — to keep me from exalting myself! Three times I begged God that it might leave me. And God said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’ Most gladly, therefore, I would rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9).
Every generation has speculated on what Paul’s thorn might be.
Forbidden sexual desire is a common guess today.
But by not naming his thorn, we can each read our own into his confession of having one, and his description of how he handled it within prayer.
Some thorns that snag our spirits may arise out of shame — shame at having not lived up to our own expectations, or at feeling uncertain we are accepted in whatever circles matter to us (as public figures, as parents, as children, as spouses, as friends).
But knowing his own temptation to feeling special because of the divine revelations he experienced, Paul suggests that our thorns keep us from thinking too highly of ourselves.
I’ve shared Paul’s gratitude for reasons to find myself humbled.
But when humility becomes a sense of feeling like others will or do reject us, or snag us in some other way that keeps us from feeling free to move about with confidence, then it may be helpful to bring into our lectio these words of Paul.
He starts by praying to God that the thorn will go away.
God doesn’t say yes or no, but redirects Paul’s attention to his baptismal identity in the grace of Christ, asking Paul to notice and trust that grace is the power that truly animates his life.
The thorn reminds Paul of his own weakness, his fragility — and by accepting rather than resisting his thorn, even boasting in it, Paul learns to see the thorn as a pathway to God’s own transformative work.
It’s not that feeling the prick of the thorn itself is what is good; the thorn is good in interaction with divine grace.
In the world of plants, a thorn serves a defensive purpose, protecting the life or seeds of the plant; in the landscape of our spirits, our inwardly tangible thorns may serve to protect some part of us, or to direct us in some way — we may not always know.
But if Paul is right, every persistently prickly or piercing thorn in our inner lives becomes an occasion for reorienting our gaze to God’s grace as that which carries our lives forward, even when we feel unable to walk on with the thorn.
I’ve written in the past about listening to the demons upside down, hearing what they might be trying to say in their desperate distorted way, and Paul likewise speaks of the thorn as “a messenger of Satan to beat him” — if also as something God-permitted to keep him from “becoming conceited.”
In this vein, the monastic tradition speaks of twin temptations — to presumption (being conceited) and despair (being beaten).
Paul’s words here are echoed over the centuries by those who note that battling tricky inner states can open us away from presumption into despair, while Christ’s cruciform-yet-risen accompanying presence twists and turns with us through the snagged places, into an ability to walk (and one day to run) as a new creature.
What have you learned in your own life about dealing with spiritual thorns?