Eyes That Are Humble – A Meditation on the Humbling Thorn of St. Paul

042715The story of St. Paul’s conversion is well known and we read it last week in daily Mass. But there is a detail that I have often pondered which, though speculative, ought not be overlooked. Indeed, even my choice of the words “speculative” and “overlooked” (both of which refer to the eyes) indicate that we ought to give an eye (i.e., a look) to St. Paul’s eyes.

As you probably recall, St. Paul was not just struck down on the road to Damascus, he was blinded as well. The text of Acts 9 says,

Saul got up from the ground,
but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing;
so they led him by the hand and brought him to Damascus.
For three days he was unable to see, and he neither ate nor drank.

Having persecuted the Lord, Paul must now confront the darkness of sin and unbelief. It is as though the Lord wanted nothing to distract him as he pondered his experience, neither the delights of food and drink, nor the delights of the eye. It was a kind of dying and being with Christ for three days in the tomb before he would rise. And like the dead, Paul was unable to eat and was enveloped in the deep darkness of blindness. He could do little during that time but think and pray.

And pray he did, for the Lord said to a mysterious but chosen figure named Ananias,

“Get up and go to the street called Straight
and ask at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul.
He is there praying,
and in a vision he has seen a man named Ananias
come in and lay his hands on him,
that he may regain his sight.”

… Ananias went and entered the house;
laying his hands on him, he said,
“Saul, my brother, the Lord has sent me,
Jesus who appeared to you on the way by which you came,
that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
Immediately things like scales fell from his eyes
and he regained his sight.
He got up and was baptized,
and when he had eaten, he recovered his strength.

Through Word and Sacrament, Paul’s eyes were healed. Or were they? Surely they were, for in the years that would follow, Paul saw well enough to travel the world speaking of Christ!

But I’m convinced that some vestige of blindness, some physical memory remained in Paul’s eyes for his whole life, something to remind him of his need for mercy and to keep him humbly mindful of how that mercy was extended.

As background, we do well to recall the story of Jacob, who wrestled with God one night. Jacob was strong with God in that great contest, so much so that God would give him a new name, Israel, meaning “he who wrestles or strives with God.” But God also left Jacob with a permanent memory of that nighttime battle.  Scripture says that God knocked out his sciatic muscle (Genesis 32:32), such that Jacob would walk with a limp for the rest of his life, leaning on a staff.  It was a kind of reminder that Jacob was always to lean on the Lord (Heb 11:21).

And so too, perhaps, for St. Paul. For though he prevailed through the three dark days with God, and his eyesight was restored, it would seem there was a weakness in his eyes that remained. Later, St. Paul would speak of an ailment, a mysterious thorn in his flesh (2 Cor 12:7). Three times he begged God to remove it, but the Lord told him to endure it for the sake of humility.

What was it? What was the mysterious physical affliction? I’m convinced it had something to do with his eyes. Paul told the Galatians,

As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you, and even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself. Where, then, is your blessing of me now? I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me (Gal 4:13-15).

While some speculation is necessary, it seems that Paul had something to akin to conjunctivitis, also called “pink eye.” It is an affliction that make the eyes fill with pus and become red. It is often contagious, humiliating, and repulsive to others. Indeed it was quite difficult to endure in the era before modern medicine.

But whatever his actual affliction, it seems (if the Galatians text is acknowledged as descriptive) to have involved the eyes. Yes, Paul’s eyes, those eyes that had been healed but perhaps with a reminder left in them of the need for humility and for remembrance of how God saved him.

What is your thorn? What is your limp? What is your conjunctivitis? All of us have things that keep us humble and remind us of our need to lean on God, and to look to Him, not with haughty eyes, but with eyes that are humble, respectful, and grateful.

This song says, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen … Nobody knows but Jesus”

9 Replies to “Eyes That Are Humble – A Meditation on the Humbling Thorn of St. Paul”

  1. Thank you for this Monsignor. I did not know that St. Paul had trouble with his eyes at a later date. If it was conjunctivitis I do know what that is like because I once had it and and can indeed vouch for it being very unpleasant. The thorn I have now is arthritis in my knees and I am glad that you have pointed out that this is something that I can take as my trial. I will indeed bear that in mind as I now descend stairs at a snail’s pace whereas at one time I could run down without any fear of tripping and falling.

  2. I have the same theory that Paul suffered from poor eyesight even after his sight was restored. Another indication is in Gal 6:11: “Here is some bold lettering for you, written in my own hand.[2]” Someone with poor eyesight would write with bold or large lettering. I think that the thorn he speaks of has more to do with Gal 6:17: “Spare me, all of you, any further anxieties; already I bear the scars of the Lord Jesus printed on my body.” What a guy that St. Paul.

    1. Here is another theory about St. Paul: God used Paul to offer credibility to the historicity of the story of Jonah and the story of Sampson. How so? What St. Paul went through on the ship, along with suffering no ill effect from the bite by the poisonous snake, equals or exceeds the story of Jonah. Also, Paul’s litany of sufferings equals or exceeds in incredibility the heroic deeds of Sampson. The fact that St. Paul, in the Letter to the Hebrews, mentions Sampson by name among the heroes of old further supports this theory. And I have never heard anyone question the historicity of the shipwreck story or of his sufferings.

      Also, that Sampson is mentioned by name as one of the heroes of old in the New Testament, to my mind, makes Sampson (or Samson) an acceptable confirmation name. Or an acceptable name for someone entering into religious life.

  3. The world is the thorn in my flesh where blindness is pandemic. Confessing my faults in contemplative prayer, going to mass, receiving communion and engaging spiritual dialogue is how I lean on the Lord to find relief, patience, and guidance. The outcome is humbling and I am respectfully grateful.

  4. When the esophagectomy was done to me because of non-functioning sphincter, I laid on the hospital bed crying in pain and loneliness, at that very moment The Passion of The CHRIST movie was playing on the CHRISTian television channel. I came to realize the tremendous pain My LORD suffered for the sins of the world, then and there, I offered my pains for salvation of disintegrating families. I realized the Saving Grace of suffering, suffering of which that can turn hearts of men to GOD. The side effects are still there but I offer them for others and truly the discomforts make me humble. GOD be praised for this thorn that makes me love HIM more. YHWH ROPHE!

  5. I have often noted that in those who fell away from the Church (often in their youth) and engaged in mortal sin, and then repented and came back, that even though forgiven, they carry a sort of impediment, sometimes psychological, that is like a scar from the sin. In some way they are forever “damaged” in a sense, not in a way that impedes their full and heartfelt participation in the Church or ability to respond to God and others and grow in holiness, but like Jacob’s limp, or maybe St. Paul’s eyes, some scar of that past remains with them. Is it to remind them to never become presumptuous? Is it a lifelong penance ever inducing humility?
    Whatever it is, I am convinced, if accepted as permitted by God, it will bring us even more merit in heaven than we could have gained without it.

  6. Thanks for this reflection, Msgr. I once had someone tell me definitively that Paul’s “thorn” was an indication that he was the very first stigmatist. Nevertheless, I like your interpretation better and as someone who suffered from serious retinal problems as an 11-year-old child (likely due to a connective tissue disorder) and almost went completely blind as a result, I can relate to St. Paul now much better than ever. Like Paul, my sight was saved, but I too was left with imperfect vision and partial blindness in one eye that has affected me for most of my life. We’re all taught to pray to St. Lucy for help with eye problems, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone suggest praying to St. Paul as well. And every time I look at my eyes in the mirror, I am reminded of the fact that they look much different than they once did. And like Paul, I too used to pray for a cure of my eyes and a restoration of perfect vision. Today, I accept it as the cross and gift from God that it is and realize that it keeps me humble as well. It’s also a powerful reminder of just how great a gift sight is and how easy it is to take it for granted.

  7. Reverend Monsignor,
    As always, thank you for your very inSIGHTful musings in your blog. As a retired ophthalmologist, whom the Lord has now led into the priesthood almost one year ago, I give Him thanks for giving me the opportunity for 40 years to help people with their sight — literally — and now to make the effort to help people with INSIGHT into how they are to lead their lives, I hope by helping them to see how they are to follow the will of God. Your observation that Paul might have suffered with conjunctivitis is interesting, and technically, maybe not likely because by far most instances of conjunctivitis are self-limited, caused mostly by virus or bacterial infection. But…there are chronic forms of inflammatory conjunctivitis that can make one miserable and can adversely affect vision. There is also a particularly nasty ocular inflammatory disease that is endemic to the Middle East and equatorial regions, trachoma, which is caused by Chlamydia trachomatis, that results in chronic scarring of the inner surfaces of the eyelids and the membranes of the ocular surface, and, untreated, can lead to blindness. Whatever Paul suffered from, we can all take the lesson from him to keep in our sights the value of redemptive suffering, uniting our aches and pains and worse afflictions with the horrible suffering endured by our Lord in His Passion and Death for the good of others in the Church Suffering and the Church Militant.

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