The New Testament contains 21 letters, most of them written by St. Paul. It's interesting that today's Gospel mentions two other letter writers: James and Jude who are part of Jesus' extended families - "brothers" which in this context refers to male cousins: what Hispanics call "primos hermanos" - brother cousins.
The letters of James and Jude are well worth reading but today we have Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians. Of all the New Testament letters it is the most personal. Paul spent 18 months in Corinth where he formed deep attachments - and also fought some fierce battles. In this letter he bears his soul.
To defend himself against false prophets who were claiming special revelations Paul mentions his own intimate experiences of the Lord. But then he immediately adds that God sent him a "thorn in the flesh" - an angel to Satan to beat him so that he wouldn't get elated or puffed up.
We don't know the exact nature of the thorn in the flesh: Maybe a bodily affliction, some constant jabbing pain, an ailment of the eyes or some other bodily organ. Others think the thorn may have been a recurring temptation like anger, lust or gluttony. Perhaps he experienced bouts of depression; we know he carried a burden of shame. In his letters he refers to his guilt for having hunted down men, women and children who belonged to the Christian way. The movie Paul Apostle of Christ powerfully depicts the elderly man coming to grips with his past misdeeds.
OK, the thorn could have been some bodily ailment, a persistent temptation, depression brought on by a burden of shame - or something else. Whatever it was, God does not remove it but says, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore Paul is at peace with insults, hardships and daily frustrations.
In the spiritual battle St Paul provides a great model - especially for us men. It's easy to avoid present duties by fantasizing about a time when we can kick back and relax. I a little bit thought that when the archbishop assigned me to St. Mary of the Valley. My former parish - Holy Family in Seattle - had a Mass count of 2,800 for our 7 weekend services. Besides Hispanics and Anglos we had significant Vietnamese and Filipino groups, each with particular needs - and gifts. Holy Family has a parish school which is a huge responsibility. And we had a debt.
In comparison St. Mary of the Valley seemed like dying and going to heaven. I'm grateful for the assignment here and I have found parishioners extremely supportive. Still, it hasn't been like an unending Caribbean cruise. We've had our challenges and we have been through lots together. Each day God sends some stress, some heartbreak and some satisfaction. He does not, however, call me - or you - to simply take it easy. I am grateful to men and women my age and older who say, "God isn't finished with me yet."
I saw that in Sister Barbara. For me she was a beautiful companion and prayer partner. As I've told people she was my sister, my mother, my daughter. Since her death I know how widowers feel - only when she died did I start to realize just how much she did and how our lives were interwoven. I'm going to take 5 days at the end of the month to make a pilgrimage to Sister Barbara's grave. We have two cars and I hope others will join us - at least for the first leg which will be the Portland Grotto for noon Mass.
Sister Barbara's symbol is the turtle. As she would say, "You can't move forward unless you stick your neck out." This theme of moving forward is something we will see next week as we begin Paul's letter to the Ephesians. In that letter he shows how God calls and predestines us. Whatever we suffer is part of God's mysterious design. We'll go behind the scenes to see what's really happening in our world. That begins next week. Don't miss it.
For today, like St. Paul - and like Sister Barbara - we want to keep pressing forward. "My grace is sufficient for you," says Jesus, "for power is made perfect in weakness." Amen