Thursday, February 19, 2009

Thursday in Sexagesima

2 Corinthians 11:19 - 12:9 / Luke 8:4-15

Brethren: You gladly put up with fools, because you are wise yourselves.

It is important to stand up for yourself. Everyone learns at some time in his life — in a spat with a sibling, with a bully on the playground, accused falsely before a teacher — that the world, even those close to us, will step over us and our best interests. Every parent, at some moment in her life, will come face to face with that moment, with the child who fearfully turns to his mother or father, the one who has always had his interests at heart and defended them with outstretched arm and bared teeth. She will come to that moment and know that this time, she cannot come to his aid. This time, if he is going to grow to maturity and strength, if he is to learn the crucial lessons of fortitude, this time he has to make it on his own.

Not always, of course. Yet, there remains this unhappy feature of the world outside Eden, on this side of the flaming swords spinning to and fro, that we will be opposed. We know this is the case even for the friends of the world, for those who are worldly wise. We know to expect it for those of us who live as spiritual guest workers with residency permits, which is to say, to be in the world and not of it.

Then again, we know that sometimes, we need to let someone come to our help. We find ourselves faced with what is, for us, an insuperable challenge — from the child reaching for the apple on the counter too high for her to reach, to the college student whose roommate did not come through with the check and has no way to pay the rent, to the father whose undocumented and illicit presence in the country may tear him away from the family he has taken such pains to raise. It is at these times that, much as we flatter ourselves with tales of self-sufficiency, much as we pride ourselves that we have not been a burden on those whom we love, we need to be brave enough to seek a strength not our own. This, too, is fortitude.

So, this week, we have as our perfect model of fortitude in Paul of Tarsus. On the one hand, we have Paul the fighter, Paul who congratulates the Corinthians in their forbearance, their putting up with the abuse of the arrogant, but nonetheless cannot contain himself from a little sparring on their behalf. This is a man who is not afraid to seem conceited. He knows his credentials, he knows how he has suffered for the Gospel, he knows that he speaks not third-hand, an authority derived by hopes and hearsay, but as one who was caught up into paradise and heard secret words that man may not repeat. If the Corinthians in their holy meekness will not rise against those who would do them ill, then Paul of Tarsus is happy to do so on their behalf, without fear or trembling.

On the other hand, we see the man who knows his limits. In Paul we encounter a man who is confident that, but for one unnamed impediment, a thorn for the flesh, he could do even greater things for his Lord Jesus Christ. So sure is he that this weakness is an obstacle to his mission, that he not once, not twice, but thrice besought the Lord that it might leave him. Paul, the great Apostle, the fighter with no fear of men, turned to the Lord in his weakness, to have his weakness confirmed. My grace, the Lord told him, is sufficient for you, for strength is made perfect in weakness.

This is why the Church, during this week, has placed daily on our lips a prayer to call for help, and not just any help, but the aid of St Paul: O God, who see that we do not trust in anything that we do of ourselves; mercifully grant that by the protection of the Doctor of the Gentiles we may be defended against all adversities. Christian bravery means standing up with a strength not our own, and for that reason a strength we can trust all the more. Like St Paul, we need to be afraid that our witness to Christ is less sure because we have not the power to sustain it of ourselves. Gladly therefore I will glory in my infirmities, that the strength of Christ may dwell in me.

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