“…a thorn in the flesh was given to me…” (2 Corinthians 12: 7). No one really knows what caused St. Paul to struggle, but there was something that really bothered him. He pleaded with the Lord that his difficulties be taken away, but Paul received an answer that he was not looking for: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12: 9).
We all take as a given that the goal of Christianity is entering into eternal life; however, attaining this goal requires intense daily effort on our part. The spiritual life is not an easy endeavor because of our wounded human nature. True, Baptism washes away original sin, but we are left with the effects of original sin. We do not have complete control over ourselves. The spiritual life is a continual battle.
Because of original sin, our weakened wills and darkened intellects will always move us in the wrong direction. Continual effort is necessary to control the inner movement of our ego and allow the presence of grace to take control of our thoughts, desires, and actions. The battle of the spiritual life might be compared to walking in a river against the current. If we do not continue walking or reaching out toward a rock for support, then the current will most assuredly carry us in the opposite direction.
The Catechism tells us, “Because man is a composite being, spirit and body, there already exists a certain tension in him; a certain struggle of tendencies between spirit and flesh develops. But in fact this struggle belongs to the heritage of sin. It is a consequence of sin and at the same time a confirmation of it. It is part of the daily experience of the spiritual battle” (CCC #2516).
If the spiritual life is a continual struggle because of original sin, the present circumstances of our contemporary culture make this struggle even more difficult. We have all grown up in a culture that denies us nothing. Everything is permissible. We tend to view discipline, self-control, and virtue with distaste. The producers and writers of television programs, films, music, and other aspects of pop culture knowing exactly what buttons to push, gently ease us into accepting a more permissive attitude toward interests and activities that we ought to shun. Our decadent world is thus made more attractive to our fallen human nature. We find it easier and easier to succumb to any of the seven deadly sins.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls self-mastery a training in human freedom. “The alternative is clear: either man governs his passions and finds peace, or he lets himself be dominated by them and becomes unhappy” (#2339). The Catechism goes on to say that “self-mastery is a long and exacting work. One can never consider it acquired once and for all. It presupposes renewed effort at all stages of life” (#2342).
It is quite possible that when we consider the demands of our spiritual life and the impact on us of the continuous bombardment we receive from the prevailing culture, we may simply throw up our hands in despair and give in. Without a doubt, authentic Christianity is difficult to live and demands radical decisions on our part. We must never be afraid of the struggle. Remember, Babe Ruth struck out 1,330 times, but he also hit 714 home runs.
Although developing and strengthening our spiritual life requires an intense effort on our part, all our efforts will only be successful with the help of God’s grace. A daily disciplined regimen of prayer, scripture reading, and sacramental life helps to develop those channels of grace through which the Holy Spirit gives us the ability to control ourselves and conquer our baser tendencies.
Since the spiritual life is a daily struggle, we must understand that there are always risks involved. Thus we sin, failing once again through human weakness or a lack of ardent love. But the true disciple of Jesus will always get up and begin again. This is why the sacrament of confession is so crucial for perseverance in our journey towards eternal life.
Sir Edmund Hillary was the first man to climb Mount Everest. On May 29, 1953, he scaled the highest mountain then known to man–29,000 feet straight up. However, in 1952 he attempted to climb Mount Everest but failed. A few weeks later an organization in England asked him to address their members. Hillary walked on stage to thunderous applause. The audience in applauding was recognizing his attempt at greatness, but Edmund Hillary saw himself as a failure. He moved away from the microphone and walked to the edge of the platform. He made a fist and pointed at a picture of the mountain. He said in a loud voice, “Mount Everest, you beat me the first time, but I’ll beat you the next time because you’ve grown all you are going to grow… but I’m still growing!”
If I may, I would like to conclude with a personal story that is rather intimate. Migraine headaches are part of my family history. I was afflicted with severe and chronic migraine headaches from around 1985 until 1996. The situation was devastating most of the time because it really slowed me down in my apostolic work. The headaches just would not go away and they were very severe. Thankfully, this situation has been overcome through natural remedies and moving to the warm climate of Texas. I have only taken one sick day since 1996 which is quite a miracle.
However, during the height of this terrible affliction, there was one day when I could not go to work. After a terrible migraine headache subsided, I left the community residence and went for a walk around the block. I walked by the local parish and decided to go in and make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament. I was seeking an answer from God as to what I was supposed to do with this terrible affliction.
As I walked into the church, I saw a small group of women assembled together for a Bible Study. One of the women began to read the following text aloud as I remained in prayer:
“That I, Paul, might not become too elated, because of the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12: 7-9).
The answer to my prayer could not be any clearer. Talk about a telegram from Heaven!
“My grace is sufficient for you…”. With the gift of faith, we will be able to encounter Jesus and understand that his grace is enough to overcome any sin and conquer any personal weakness.