ONE AND DONE CONVERSIONS are a dime a dozen. There’s a kind of change and an emotional rush and then things go on as they never did before. Or at least so we are told in fairy tales end conversion movies. The Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day. Scrooge kept Christmas the best of any man in London. A kiss from Prince Charming wakes the princess and they live happily ever after. Electing this one politician will solve all your problems. Conversions in the Bible, however, are often more problematic. David stumbles all through his reign, Peter denies Christ, Abraham struggles with God’s promises (what was that bit about Hagar if not a loss of faith?), the Jonah runs away, Moses says “Just kill me now”. These stories are more real – because we know that as human beings “one and done” is not a thing. Today’s feast of the Conversion of St Paul is no different.
Today, St Paul realizes his mistake, but it takes years for him to apply the realization. Certainly, he takes it seriously but he doesn’t quite realize the fullness of the implications. He goes away to learn, to pray, and to meditate. Yet even when he comes back he is still struggling. Biblical Scholars who attempt to put the letters of the Apostle into what they believe is a chronological order can discern theological development on several topics. This is not a bad thing for there is no change there is only evolution. Paul struggles with his brothers and sisters in Christ – even fighting with Peter. And famously there is The Thorn in the Flesh.
Lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (AV)
This thorn has been interpreted in many ways: from a hot temper to an annoying physical or even Satanic opponent, from a medical malady to a spiritual anguish, and – which interests me most – temptation to impiety. Not only is this my favorite because it seems to be preferred by many Roman Catholic writers (at least according to the reference linked above) but also it parallels well with other Saints who note that they struggle with doubt and Atheism until their death. The general temptation is just to throw up your hands and walk away. What makes it all worth this? This, of course, can differ from person to person.
I suspect that this – whatever this may be – might well be based on one’s past. This Thorn in the Flesh with which each of us struggle is some part of the old man (pre-conversion life) that God leaves in us for his own purposes: the addict with her addiction, the dissolute with the ease of such a life, the Scholar with the knowledge of his discipline and pride, the rich their skills in the service of Mammon, the magus with her desire for control. Yet all things are for our good – the salvation of our souls and of the world. Our individual thorns then serve a purpose.
One purpose seems to me very personal: if everything from my old life were to suddenly vanish would I even know who I am? Much of my old life was used to craft a (fake) image of who I am; an understanding of my very being and person. Yes, I must depend upon God for my identity and my life but it seems it would a special act of grace, indeed, to take away everything from the past and leave me healthy and whole. I don’t see much record of this happening in the lives of the Saints or in the scriptures. Psychologically, it seems we must build the new man in the shell of the old. Parts of the old go away instantly but other parts take a whole lifetime to dissolve or repurpose: they are the scaffolding for this new construction, the crane towering over the building site that becomes the elevator shaft.
There is something else as well. The struggle is not just a struggle for virtue. It is a struggle for the enrichment of the faith. Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh is not just something he has to struggle with: it’s something that God uses to make the fullness of his power known not only to Saint Paul but also to us. We are surrounded with a “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1): not just the Saints and Angels but also those who see our life and our struggle. As someone once said, “Your life may be the only gospel that someone ever reads.” What will they read there? Will they see there a one-and-done conversion moment or will they see struggles for sainthood to which they can relate? When you tell the story of your conversion will it be one of dropping your baggage off and running forward or one of an ongoing journey that was filled with hope and loss?
In a recent movie about his life, Paul struggles not with specific sins but rather with the memory of his early life killing Christians. He wakes up from nightmares wherein he’s ripping children out of their mothers arms. At the end of the movie, after his death, Paul is standing in heaven alone. Over the hill comes a crowd of people, the first line of whom he recognizes as people he has slain. They rush to him and you can – momentarily – feel the fear from the Apostle. They embrace him as their brother in Christ and it is perhaps the most moving moment in the film as fear becomes joy. Your host realizes this is entirely speculation on the filmmaker’s part but this is what happens to our thorns in the end. God does not take them from us: but rather reveals what they have done for us and others. As St. Catherine of Siena prayed, “Do not take this temptation away from me but give me victory over it.” The Victory, though, will be more grace.
This is the Christian hope: that our dry lives become deep wells for others, and that God can take our old and mouldy grain, grind it up, and make of it bread for the Body of Christ.
Only asking hearts our Lord comes
Mine I would freely give
But made of stone and mortar’d sin
too heavy for me to raise
Take this rock and shatter it
Give me a heart of flesh like yours
On fire with love for those
You send to me
To find the damaged icons
To seek the lost and serve
Then burning with your passion’d love
From shards of stone and pride
An altar builded whereupon
At last my heart can rest.