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Questions and Answers

Recently I went to Confession and told the priest about the difficulty I’m having in trying to stop smoking. The priest told me to think of it like the thorn in the flesh mentioned by Saint Paul. I like this explanation because it gives me permission to keep smoking. What do you think?

Outline of the Answer
• Shirking of Responsibility
• The Practical Meaning of a “Thorn in the Flesh”
• The Psychologial Meaning of a “Thorn in the Flesh”
• Saint Paul’s “Thorn in the Flesh”
• Your “Thorn in the Flesh”

I think the priest might be a smoker himself. It reminds us that no one can guide you any farther than he has gone himself.

Moreover, no priest can give you permission to commit sin. In this case, not only is smoking a defilement of your body and a psychological expression of self-hatred, your looking for a way to avoid spiritual purification is a shirking of responsibility to your baptismal vows; Christ addressed the seriousness of this sort of behavior in His parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30).

What, then, was Saint Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7)? Well, no one really knows. Scholars have speculated that it might refer to a physical disability. Others say it might have been some sort of temptation; liberals, especially, are tempted to snicker that it was a sexual temptation.

All of these speculations miss the point because they miss the psychological meaning of the matter. To get to that psychological meaning, let’s look first at the practical meaning of a “thorn in the flesh.”

The Practical Meaning of a “Thorn in the Flesh”

When you’re out walking on a hike, or working in a garden, and you touch a thorny bush, like a thistle, a small piece of a pricker can break off in your skin. This embedded thorn will cause pain even after the contact with the bush is long past. The only way to heal the pain is to find the pricker and extract it from the wound.

The Psychological Meaning of a “Thorn in the Flesh”

Now, the psychological meaning of a “thorn in the flesh” follows from the idea of an embedded thorn that will cause pain even after the contact with the thorn bush is long past. Psychologically, a “thorn in the flesh” is a memory of something you have done that continues to cause you emotional pain even though the event itself is long past.

Saint Paul’s “Thorn in the Flesh”

In Saint Paul’s case, only one thing (that is, that is publicly known about him) fits this description: his murder of Christians before his conversion. Psychologically, in all of his missionary work, Saint Paul may have struggled with the guilt of having been a far worse sinner than anyone he tried to convert. Despite all the graces he received, he would have known in his heart how thoroughly wretched he was because of his past pride. Compared to those “good” men who were rising to leadership in the Church, he would have carried a deep guilt that made him feel inferior.

His guilt, however, did not cripple him. In fact, it strengthened him. It was the reason that God told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). In other words, Saint Paul’s thorn in the flesh made him humble, and humility, as every saint knows (beginning with the Blessed Virgin herself) is the absolute key to sainthood.

Your “Thorn in the Flesh”

So, what is your thorn in the flesh? It is some emotional trauma from your past. You might even be aware of it, at least intellectually. You might even think that you are over it. But you are self-deceived. Yes, you are self-deceived—and the continued emotional pain from your embedded thorn proves it. Your addiction to smoking is not the thorn; the destructive self-hatred of smoking is a symptom of the thorn’s continued presence within your flesh.

Confession will be of no use to you as long as you fail to confess the real sin. Endeavor, therefore, to scrutinize your life and find the real emotional trauma that you have been hiding from yourself all your life. Most likely you will find that, just like Saint Paul, your self-deception is all a matter of intellectualism and pride—especially the pride of wanting revenge on those who hurt you.

And don’t be deceived. You will tell yourself that because you attend daily Mass, pray your Rosary, and go to Confession regularly, you have progressed spiritually beyond the desire for revenge. But you aren’t as advanced spiritually as you think, and you aren’t past revenge, because even self-destruction is a cunning, unconscious way to hurt those who hurt you. By throwing your disability in their faces, you get the satisfaction of saying, “Look at what you made me do to myself!”

Endeavor, therefore, to find the real sins of pride that you think are not there, and then, like Saint Paul, you will have found the humility that can make you a saint.


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