Paul the Apostle - El Grecco
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Of all the Apostles, Saint Paul seems to have had about the most exciting set of missionary activities. Today he fills in some of the details between the time he was struck down by God on the road to Damascus and the time of his martyrdom by the sword in the year 64 A.D. Paul, who we know to have been a most active persecutor of Christians, became the most active of the Apostles in the conversion of non-Jews to the Catholic Faith.
And, certainly, we see in today's epistle that he would allow no obstacle to get in his way. He mentions all of the difficulties caused by the enemies of the Faith; the times he was beaten with a whip for the Faith, or put in prison, or plots made against his life; the time that he “escaped in a basket through a window in the wall.” He mentions the difficulties posed by nature; the heat of the sun and the cold of the night, the occasional lack of food or water, the shipwrecks and floods he endured. He mentions having to labor to support himself while going about his ministry, the anxiety and the sleepless nights he had to suffer over his concern for all of the converts he made and the welfare of the various churches he established. To all of these, he mentions adding voluntary fasting.
And Paul seems to have had a physical problem as well; what he calls “a thorn for the flesh … to buffet him.” Some have speculated that Paul was the first to bear the stigmata, wounds in his hands and feet like those of the crucified Christ, placed there by divine intervention. More likely, his ailment was a more normal one; perhaps a lack of clear sight, a condition left over from the blindness that he experienced at the time of his conversion.
Yet for all of his difficulties, Paul is willing to “glory in his infirmities,” and to allow the strength of God to be “made perfect in Paul's weakness.” Paul is able to bear with all of these obstacles because he lives a life that is always close to God. His boast is not in wealth or material possessions; he isn't really even boasting about his abilities to put up with so many of life's troubles. Instead his boast is of being caught up into heaven and hearing the very words of God Himself; of being caught up in ecstasy as we say.
The inner strength that enabled Paul to deal with all of the tribulations of his mission came to him by the indwelling of the Holy Ghost; by his continual attempt to live his life in the presence of God, never taking his mind off the divine realities. Because of his willingness to make sacrifices of everything valuable in his life, God gave him the strength to persevere. Or, perhaps more accurately, we might say that because of God's grace Paul was willing to sacrifice.
It is not surprising that the Church has us read this epistle just as we are preparing for Lent. The whole purpose of Lent is to strengthen us in our relationship with God; to give us some practice in meditating on the divine realities, and in responding to the graces God offers to us.
We are surely no stronger than Saint Paul was. Most of us would give up after enduring far less. But God's strength is perfected as well in our weakness as it was in that of Saint Paul.
Yet, do not forget that God will fill us with His grace, strengthen, and perfect us only on the same terms as He did these things for Paul. We too must be willing to sacrifice; both voluntarily and involuntarily. That is to say that we must accept the hardships that come to us in opposition to our will, whether they be from the circumstances of our lives, or from nature, or from difficulties caused by other people. And we must also be prepared to go out of our way, making a positive effort to gain God's graces.
The voluntary sacrifices are, after all, the most difficult ones. We can't do much about the forces of nature or the difficult people and circumstances with which we will have to deal—we tend to just “muddle through” when we encounter those sort of obstacles. But it is a bit harder when we have control over things. It takes some resolve, for example, to get out of bed in the morning early enough to get to Mass a few times during the week, or to give up enough time every day to say the Rosary, or to give up some of your social life in order to attend the Stations of the Cross during Lent, or to give up some food or drink that is readily available to you.
The Church, then, is giving us Saint Paul as a sort of patron for the observance of a good Lent. Whenever you feel turned from God because of the circumstances around you, or whenever you have difficulty making the extra effort to improve your spiritual life, think of Saint Paul. Get ready to make a good and a holy Lent—chances are that you will suffer no shipwrecks, no time in prison, and will not have to be lowered in a basket through a window—but do accept your circumstances in life and make those sacrifices that will bring you closer to God and His grace. Do those things, and by the end of Lent you will be able to say with Saint Paul: “Gladly will I glory in my difficulties, that the strength of Christ may dwell in me.”
 Epistle: 2 Corinthians xi:19 - xii:9. http://www.drbo.org/x/d?b=drl&bk=54&ch=11&l=19-#x