St. Paul was burdened with a mysterious thorn in the flesh, which an angel of Satan gave him, allowed by God, ultimately, out of the Love which disciplines a child toward perfection. Throughout the Old, and New, Testament, there are numerous reflections upon God’s Love which are imaged as a purifying force. This often involves images of the pruning of plants, the burning of excess, and the malleability of the potters clay.
Not exactly pleasant experiences.
Likewise, in the life of the disciple of Jesus, many things afflict us which are not good in, and of, themselves. But God can turn what is not His Will for us, into the good of what He truly wills. In other words, God can triumphantly bring good, even through evil. Evil which He doesn’t bring, but, in paradox, allows for the triumph of His greater good.
Thorns can come in many forms. None of them are what we truly want. Nonetheless, for a time and a season we are stuck with them. Cancer, betrayals, failures, consequences of sin, addiction, incarceration, depression, temptations, guilt, shame, loss, are but a few of the various thorns we are stuck with for a time and a season. God does not bring these things upon us, but allows them to stick to us, or, better yet, in the case of personal choice, allows us to be stuck to what we committed–or omitted–so that we can be purified of them through greater faith and hope in His Abiding Love. Like cancer, some of these things may not be our fault. But the truth is, whether our fault or not, thorns that we do not want stick to us in the un-pleasantries of life. And the greater Truth is, God can bring good out of evil. The good of increased faith, hope, and, particularly, in the merciful compassion, which springs from thorn born solidarity, in God given charity.
The Cross of Jesus, unlike the thorns, is always the Will of God. Particular thorns are either the consequence of fallen nature in sin or natural happenstance, or the consequences of fallen nature in concupiscence acted upon, which equals sin. For the Cross represents the manifestation of God’s Love in the ultimate gift of self in Jesus Christ. It subsumes, consumes, and sanctifies all the thorns of our suffering in the victory of Jesus’ Mercy which transforms our heart, mind and will from desire for thorny propositions in sin to the loving acceptance of the Sacrificial Love of the Lord.
But something peculiarly familiar happens when the thorns and the Cross are addressed by the pop ethos of post-Christian America. St. Paul’s thorn, and our thorn, is romanticized into a natural pleasure demythologized of Divine purification and Trinitarian Love. Sin is no longer sin, but natural desire fulfilled. Catholic morality is but a superstitious, archaic, and trivial kill-joy. Sexuality is no longer fulfilled by marital love and procreation, but by sheer pleasure and momentary ecstasy. Marriage is no longer an image of Jesus and His Bride the Church, but an image of the lust of the fallen human heart. Tragedies like cancer and the results of ‘acts of nature’ are no longer instruments of purification and grace in the hands of the Merciful God, but random and meaningless tragedies which only the cold, impersonal, and clinical emptiness of science, medicine and technology can address. The thorn has become merely a meaningless stab from an unintelligible, and uncompromising Universe, or the self-injected needle of pleasure. The Cross has become an unenlightened joke, the scruples of a sexually hindered churchgoer, the language of the weak, the symbol of those who fear, the burden of the narrow.
And they are so very correct!
The Cross is ‘a stumbling block…and foolishness’ to those whose inner light is darkness. The Cross, moreover, is holy ‘scruples’ for those who suffer from the prevailing ‘sexual revolution,’ but repent in truly ‘enlightened’ grace. The Cross is the language of the weak (humble), for Jesus told St. Paul, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ The Cross, praise the Lord, is the symbol of those who fear, those who have holy fear for the Lord!
And, finally, the Cross is the blessed burden of the narrow path of Jesus.