A modern vaccination often introduces into the body a mild form of a disease, which the body is able to fight off in order to build up an immunity against the disease in general. Apparently, something similar was known in the time of St. Thomas Aquinas: “Very often a wise physician procures and permits a lesser disease to come over a person in order to cure or avoid a greater one. Thus, to cure a spasm he procures a fever”
According to Thomas, in today’s second reading, Paul acknowledges that this is what “the physician of souls, our Lord Jesus Christ” did for him: “For Christ, as the supreme physician of souls, in order to cure greater sins, permits them to fall into lesser, and even mortal sins” (Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Second Letter of Paul to the Corinthians, 472).
Thomas maintains that “Among all the sins the gravest is pride, for just as charity is the root and beginning of the virtues, so pride is the root and beginning of all vices.”
Thomas explains: “Charity is called the root of all the virtues, because it unites one to God, who is the ultimate end. Hence, just as the end is the beginning of all actions to be performed, so charity is the beginning of all the virtues. But pride turns away from God, for pride is an inordinate desire for one’s own excellence” (Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Second Corinthians, 472).
Thomas grants that a person might strive for a moderate achievement, which could be “under God”: “For if a person seeks some excellence under God, if he seeks it moderately and for a good end, it can be endured. But if it is not done with due order, he can even fall into other vices, such as ambition, avarice, vainglory and the like.”
In itself, desiring excellence is not pride unless the excellence is away from God: “It is not, properly speaking, pride, unless a person seeks excellence without ordaining it to God. Therefore pride, properly called, separates from God and is the root of all vices and the worst of them. This is why God resists the proud, ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble’ (James 4:6)” (Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Second Corinthians, 472).
Pride usually exists as an infection in something that is good: “The matter of this vice, that is, pride, is mainly found in things that are good, because its matter is something good.”
As a defense against pride, God allows a person to have some type of disability: “God sometimes permits his elect to be prevented by something on their part, e.g. infirmity or some other defect, and sometimes even mortal sin, from obtaining such a good, in order that they be so humbled on this account that they will not take pride in it, and that being thus humiliated, they may recognize that they cannot stand by their own powers” (Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Second Corinthians, 472).
In support of this idea, Thomas appeals to the Letter to the Romans: “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him” (Rom 8:28). Thomas adds that this is not by reason of their sin, but by God’s providence.”
Paul had good reasons to consider himself superior to others:
- He had been especially called by God, “He is a chosen instrument of Mine” (Ac. 9:15).
- He had “extraordinary revelations, even being taken up to heaven (2 Cor 12:2).
- He endured evils because he had “far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death” (2 Cor. 11:23).
- He preserved his virginal integrity: “I wish that all were as I myself am” (1 Cor. 7:7).
- Paul had reason to consider himself superior “… especially in the outstanding knowledge with which he shone and which especially puffs one up.”
Thomas reflects: “For these reasons the Lord applied a remedy, lest he be lifted up with pride… he says: ‘to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations …’ he says: ‘a thorn was given me,’ i.e., for my benefit and my humiliation” (Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Second Corinthians, 473).
This “thorn” may have been a physical pain: “There was given, I say, to me a thorn tormenting my body with bodily weakness, that the soul might be healed.”
The “thorn” may have been a spiritual problem: “Or a thorn in the flesh, i.e., of concupiscence arising from my flesh, because he was troubled a great deal”
Thomas considers Paul’s words in Romans: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. . . So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. . . So then, I of myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (Rom. 7:19, 21, 25). Augustine thinks this thorn consisted of “movements of concupiscence which God’s grace, nevertheless, restrained”
Paul considers this “thorn” to be a “a messenger of Satan.” Thomas reflects: “It was Satan’s because Satan’s intention is to subvert, but God’s is to humble and to render approved. Let the sinner beware, if the Apostle and vessel of election was not secure” (Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Second Corinthians, 474).
Paul confesses: “Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me.” Thomas notes that a sick person might ask a doctor to discontinue a difficult treatment but the doctor appreciates the value of the treatment. Nevertheless, Paul turned to the Lord. Thomas recalls the words of Second Chronicles: “We do not know what to do but our eyes are upon you” (2 Chr. 20:12).
Thomas assumes that Paul appealed to God many more times than three: “For He wounds, but He binds up” (Job 5:18); “Pray that you may not enter into temptation” (Lk. 22:46).
The Lord told Paul: My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Cor 12:9). Thomas considers that Paul was satisfied with this answer: “As if to say: it is not necessary that this bodily weakness leave you, because it is not dangerous, for you will not be led into impatience, since my grace strengthens you; or that this weakness of concupiscence depart, because it will not lead you to sin, for my grace will protect you:
Paul knew well the power of grace: “Justified by his grace as a gift” (Rom. 3:24). Thomas notes: ‘God’s grace is sufficient for avoiding evil, doing good, and attaining to eternal life: ‘By the grace of God I am what I am’ (1 Cor. 15:10); ‘But the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Rom. 6:25).
Thomas questions why God didn’t answer Paul since Jesus said: “Whatever you ask the Father in My name, He may give it to you” (Jn. 15:16): Did Paul ask indiscreetly?
Thomas responds that something bitter might usually be avoided except in relation to health: “Therefore a thorn in the flesh according to itself is to be avoided as troublesome, but inasmuch as it is a means to virtue and an exercise of virtue, it should be desired. Because that secret of divine providence, namely, that it would turn out to his advantage, had not been revealed to Paul yet, the Apostle considered that in itself it was bad for him. But God who had ordained this to the good of his humility did not oblige him, as far as his wish was concerned (Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Second Corinthians, 478).
Paul came to understand the reason for the “thorn”: “Once he understood its purpose, the Apostle gloried in it, saying, ‘I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon [dwell in] me.’ And although he did not oblige him as to his wish, yet he heard him and does hear his saints to their advantage. Hence, Jerome says in the Letter to Paulinus: ‘The good Lord frequently does not grant what we wish, in order to bestow what we should prefer’” (Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Second Corinthians, 478).
Paul come to understand God’s response: “My power is made perfect in weakness [infirmity]”. Thomas remarks: “This is a remarkable expression: virtue is made perfect in infirmity.”
Thomas explains that “Infirmity is the material on which to exercise virtue; first, humility, secondly, patience: ‘The testing of your faith produces steadfastness’ (Jas. 1:3)” (Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Second Corinthians, 479).
Thomas continues: “Infirmity is the occasion for arriving at perfect virtue, because a man who knows that he is weak is more careful when resisting, and as a result of fighting and resisting more he is better exercised and, therefore, stronger. Hence it says in Jdg. (3:1) that the Lord was not willing to destroy all the inhabitants of the land, but preserved some in order that the children of Israel might be exercised by fighting against them” (Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Second Corinthians, 479).
Paul concludes: “I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Cor 12:9).
Thomas reflects that Paul glories: “Because my virtue is made perfect in infirmity, I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, i.e., given to me for my profit; and this because it joins me closer to Christ: ‘But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Gal. 6:14)” (Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Second Corinthians, 480).
Paul provides his reason: “The reason I will glory gladly is that the power of Christ may rest upon me [dwell in me], i.e., that through infirmity the grace of Christ may dwell and be made perfect in me: ‘He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength’ (Is. 40:29).”
Thomas observes the effect of glorying in Christ: “He says therefore: because the power of Christ dwells in me in all tribulations, I am content, i.e., I am greatly pleased and take joy in the infirmities I mentioned.”
The Letter of James instructs: “Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials” (Jas. 1:2). Paul rejoices abundantly in weaknesses. He rejoices in those infirmities that originate within as they move him “toward grace.”
He rejoices in these from external causes, such as insults, as can be seen when Peter and John were brought before the Sanhedrin: “Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (Ac. 51:4).
Some sufferings come from hardships. Paul asserts: “I have worked with unsparing energy, for many nights without sleep: I have been hungry and thirsty, and often without food or drink. I have been cold and lacked clothing” (2 Cor 11:27). Some sufferings come from persecutions: Jesus declares: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake” (Matt. 5:10).
Paul was also concerned for the Church: “Besides all these external things, there is, day in and day out, the pressure of my anxiety for all the churches” (2 Cor 11:28).
Thomas reflects: “But in all these things the material which makes for joy is that they are for Christ. As if to say: I am pleased because I suffer for Christ.”
Thomas notes: “Paul assigns the reason for this joy, when he says, for when I am weak, then I am strong, i.e., when as a result of what is in me or as a result of persecutions, I fall into any of the aforesaid, God’s help is applied to me to strengthen me” (Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Second Corinthians, 483).
Thomas considers various other passages in the Scriptures affirm Paul’s teaching
- “However great the anxiety of my heart, Your consolations sooth me (Ps. 94:19).
- The prophet Joel announces: “Let the weak say, I am strong” (Jl. 3:10);
- Paul himself asserts: “Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day” (2 Cor. 4:16).
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
References to Thomas Aquinas’ Commentary on the Second Letter of Paul to the Corinthians may be found on the web page of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington DC: http://dhspriory.org/thomas/