A Thorn In My Side

Over the past three or four weeks, I’ve experienced a fair amount of disappointment. From the trivial (watching a favorite sports team’s season go up in flames; giving up on a failed video project after many hours of work) to the substantial (realizing that major parts of my internship year plan are no longer possible; attending a heart-wrenching funeral), and everything in between (being yelled at by parishioners on separate occasions over the election; having plans to see close friends cancelled because of hurricane Matthew; feeling a few close relationships slip away), it has been a difficult month at times. While there have been some tremendous moments as well, and overall, these moments of disappointment pail in comparison to the tragedies that many have to go through each day around the world, there is no denying that the lows for me lately have been lower than normal. Having been shaken out of the normal routine and forced to deal with unwanted situations instead, there is a strong sense of uneasiness in my life now as I walk on uneven ground.

And yet, in this same time, I have also experienced a sense of confidence and clarity that I haven’t felt in a long time. When many things around me have wavered, my prayer life has flourished.

As many of you know, I am someone with great ambition. I am wired in such a way that I am constantly looking to the future, setting goals, and finding ways to accomplish things that are important to me. As much as I know that the world is absolutely not a meritocracy, there is something deep inside me that believes that I can accomplish anything I want with enough effort, and that, because I’m a “good person” and work hard, my life will ultimately be filled with success and good things. In essence, I can control my fate if I work hard enough.

Ha!

When said like that, such a sentiment is obviously ridiculous. Of course I can’t control my own fate. Of course I need God in my life because God is my all and the reason for everything good in my life. And yet, when things are going well, these things are easy to forget. My faith formation classes are successful because I’m a good teacher. Duh! My relationships are healthy and fruitful because I’m mature and self-giving. Naturally! Things in my life go as planned because I think ahead and work hard. If only others were like me! Even though there’s not a one of us who would say that God is not the most important part of our lives and the ultimate reason for our successes, when things are going well, it’s very easy to see oneself as the impetus of one’s success, and not turn to God with the same longing.

Not in times of trial. Not over the past three to four weeks for me. No, when standing on uneven ground, when the world has been shaken up and we find things well outside of the norm, the focus and intent of prayer changes dramatically. We begin to actually believe what we say, realizing that there is no one greater than our God, no good thing that doesn’t come from Him, and truly nothing else that matters.

I think St. Paul captures this sentiment perfectly in his second letter to the Corinthians in describing his many trials:

“That I might not become too elated, 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.” I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor. 12:7-10)

The beauty of this passage is not that he prayed to God and God gave him what he needed, it’s that he came to realize that faith in God is not dependent on one’s current situation, good or bad. Sometimes God not answering his prayer to remove his suffering sounds harsh, but it was probably the best thing for him: had God simply answered his prayer and took his suffering away, Paul might have continued to judge the sufficiency and meaningfulness of his life on the things around him. My life is good because things are going well. Instead, having to deal with weakness, he came to realize that his life was good because God has given him grace… because the power of Christ dwells in him. It is this, not the external blessings or hardships, that makes one life meaningful. It is in giving up one’s desire to be Lord, that futile attempt to control everything, that he came to realize who was really in control and had the strength he needed.

This has precisely been my experience of late. By no means has my life been worthy of its own Lifetime Original Movie, but there has no doubt been a little turbulence. My plans have not exactly panned out the way I had hoped and I have come to realize (once again) that I am not strong enough to make everything go well in life. And I’m extremely happy because of this. In having to face disappointment and accept that there are things outside of my control that I will just have to deal with, my dependence on God and commitment to this relationship has strengthened considerably. Taking these issues to God in prayer—the trivial, significant and everything in between—I have begun to care less about the issues themselves as a gauge for my life, and begun to gain much more satisfaction in the one who truly matters, our God. I know that I cannot control everything (or anything) in life, but I surely know that God’s grace is enough. It is only with a thorn in one’s side that we can truly know this.

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16 Comments on “A Thorn In My Side

  1. Casey, it does sound like the last period of time has been challenging, stressful and i am assuming some amount of sadness, (loss of dear relationships, a funeral). We are also living in a unique time with this election season. (by the way, being yelled at is not a mature response…it is when people don’t have a civil response to complex issues). I do not have answers for you but i am preparing to give a presentation on Henri Nouwen – the mystic at my church and i just read in “Life of the Beloved” God saying this (I hope it is some comfort) “I have called you by name from the very beginning. You are mine and I am yours. You are my Beloved; on you my favor rests. I look at you with infinite tenderness and care. You belong to me…Nothing will ever separate us. We are one”

  2. As you continue this year of experiences and increased commitment, please know that folks in Delaware are rooting for you! Many blessings on you as your final vows approach. Soak it all in, Brother Casey, and may your own experiences enable you to feel compassion on those whom you meet since we’re all in this together! Please pray for me, too.

  3. We cannot help others who experience hardships without experiencing those hardships. We can’t know what loss is until we have experienced loss. We can’t know what it is to be abused, verbally or physically or emotionally, unless we have been abused. We can’t comfort those who’s lives are changed by sorrow unless our own lives have been changed by sorrow. Perhaps this year has been a way of preparing your life, giving you experiences that will, in the future, enable you to be the rock to which people can cling in their times of trouble and sorrow. You’re a good person and God is making you even more able to back up that goodness with experience and strength in times of hardships. May God bless you, Brother Casey.

  4. Thank you for this sharing Casey. Be assured of my prayers. You will face many disappointments in fraternity and ministry in the years ahead. If you can maintain the attitude expressed in your post, you’ll do just fine. Two things to always remember are Fear Not and God Never Fails.

  5. There is a sentence in Pope Francis’ Prayer for the Jubilee of Mercy that continues to strike me as profoundly important for all of us – especially those of us who serve in the Church:

    “You willed that your ministers would also be clothed in weakness in order that they may feel compassion for those in ignorance and error: let everyone who approaches them feel sought after, loved, and forgiven by God.”

    We pray that we be clothed “in weakness” – not in strength, but in where we fail, where we lack, where we find ourselves sinful an in need of God’s mercy. Thus we can be servants of mercy.

    There’s more to be prayed about here. A quote of St. Therese of Liseux brought this home to me a few months ago: “How happy I am to see myself as imperfect and be in need of God’s mercy.”

  6. As Christians, we know that the call of Christ is not easy and often involves criticism. It is especially difficult when the people we love most, such as friends and family, are the very ones against us. Jesus knew this better than any of us ever will as the people He came to save were the ones who rejected Him. A passage that often gives me hope is 2 Timothy 1:7 which says, “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.” Whenever I become discouraged, I always remember that I have within me the unfathomable power of God to accomplish what He has called us to do.

  7. Dear Casey,

    This reply may seem to be way out in left field (apologies for the baseball metaphor, but my team just lost too, so I feel your pain on that score at least, not to make light of your overall period of struggle).

    I’m replying because your comment on the common notion that hard work is the root of success reminds me of a passage from a book that I’m currently reading: Stokely Carmichael’s and Charles V. Hamilton’s Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America (1967).

    Before I quote the passage, let me be clear: I’m neither black (I’m white) nor American (I’m Canadian). Moreover, my knowledge of the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement is quite distant. But (as a former Catholic, millennial at the older end of the generation, who was once more or less middle class but now living in border-line poverty as a student) I have also been deluded by the belief that hard work inevitably leads to things working out — there are indeed forces beyond our immediate control that often render the best of efforts seemingly Sisyphean. The problem is that what seems Sisyphean from one’s individual perspective is often actually within human control to overcome collectively.

    Carmichael and Hamilton provide an indelible reminder that thwarted efforts are not simply a fact of life, one that faith in God can alone assuage. For black people, they testify, thwarted efforts are a function of systemic, everyday racism. In their words:

    “The black community was told time and time again how other immigrants finally won acceptance: that is, by following the Protestant Ethic of Work and Achievement. They worked hard; therefore, they achieved. . . . We were not told that ‘the American Dream’ wasn’t designed for black people. That while today, to whites, the dream may seem to include black people, it cannot do so by the very nature of this nation’s political and economic system, which imposes institutional racism on the black masses if not upon every individual black. A notable comment on that ‘dream’ was made by Dr. Percy Julian, the black scientist and director of the Julian Research Institute in Chicago, a man for whom the dream seems to have come true. While not subscribing to ‘black power’ as he understood it, Dr. Julian clearly understood the basis for it: ‘The false concept of basic Negro inferiority is one of the curses that still lingers. It is a problem created by the white man. Our children just no longer are going to accept the patience we were taught by our generation. We were taught a pretty little lie – excel and the whole world lies open before you. I obeyed the injunction and found it to be wishful thinking'” (pp. 51-52).

    As the Black Lives Matter Movement reveals, the political economy of the United States (among other countries) continues to exclude black people in systemic ways, perpetuating a social context in which the efforts of black people to sustain their lives are routinely thwarted. While white people like myself can never know directly (except by listening to those who do know directly) what such oppression is really like, I do think that more and more people from various communities are experiencing the pretty little lie for what it is: a way of justifying an unjust social order.

    To conclude, then, I would like to draw on the insight in the Catholic belief that salvation is dependent on good works, not just faith in God. While the latter is no doubt indispensable to many people in their time of trial, the former is a reminder that human trials still entail human solutions. When it comes to the difficulties associated with having one’s efforts thwarted on occasion, one would learn a lot by communicating – not just with “God” (to use your parlance) – but also with people about their “tragedies that many have to go through each day around the world.” Moreover, it can be good to be angry at what is going wrong in the world when the world can and should be changed for the better through collective efforts, including inter-communal efforts. Of course, it is nonetheless essential, as you suggest, to be happy with the insights that personal failure in whatever form offers.

  8. Brother Casey, prayers to you and thanks for sharing your experiences. I’m in the same place too and am blessed to know God is with me.

  9. Sorry I’ m Japanese and began this recently so please fegive my no good repulay. I hope my fransiscan dear brothers all of you become good and holy father like fr.Michel Judge and fr.Flavian Walsh. And of course like Papa Francisco!

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