On a fairly regular basis I find myself on the receiving end of a bit of praise for what I’ve done, or said, or been. It’s very flattering, and undoubtedly very pleasant. Who wouldn’t like to hear nice things about themselves? We all need appreciation; we all want at least to be noticed. The down side to hearing all that flattery is that I can start believing in my uniqueness; that I really am someone special, exceptionally talented, indispensable and – the worst of all – always right. It’s particularly dangerous for me, as I have no spouse to bring me down to earth. I’ve come across such individuals in my life and I know how hard is to put up with them. It seems that God really wants to protect me from becoming such a fool, as every now and again I experience just how imperfect I am. When that happens, it’s not pleasant; but it eventually puts me back in order, and in this way it keeps me sane.
This sort of experience isn’t reserved for me alone. In the second reading today we heard St Paul making quite a similar confession, a confession made after talking about extraordinary spiritual visions and revelations given to him by God. He talks about that in rather vague, although visually quite descriptive, terms: ‘I was given a thorn in the flesh, an angel of Satan to beat me and stop me from getting too proud!’ Today’s gospel too tells us the story of an unsuccessful visit paid by Jesus to the community he grew up in. That is just one among many moments in his mission when he was doubted, mocked, maltreated or downright rejected, not to mention put to death.
Unpleasant happenings, encounters or circumstances are part and parcel of our lives, and are unavoidable. Sometimes they are of our own making: the result of our own ignorance, lack of imagination or downright folly. We can learn from them, and we tend not to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. Unpleasant situations caused by others are more difficult to deal with, as quite often we don’t have much – or, indeed, any – control over them. And because of that, these are much more challenging. Quite often the only things we can control are how we react or how we respond to the challenge. This is the time when we can learn a lot more about ourselves than from any of the other, less unpleasant, occurrences in life. Discovering our own imperfections is not a nice experience; sometimes it can be frustrating, particularly when it repeats itself every now and again. It was St Paul’s experience too; so frustrating that he ‘pleaded with the Lord three times for it to leave’ him. I share such helplessness with him and with many others over the centuries, as well as with those living in the here-and-now.
God’s answer to the plea was contradictory to St Paul’s expectations: ‘My grace is enough for you: my power is at its best in weakness.’ St Paul is neither freed from his imperfection, nor condemned for it. His weakness opens him up to the truth about himself, and eventually it leads him to a well-balanced view of himself. No longer can flattery make him foolishly proud and boastful, nor rejection make him incurably frustrated. He’s become internally liberated, taking control over his responses to situations which lie beyond his personal control. Many years ago I was deeply upset by one of my colleagues who’d told me in a heated argument that I was unfit for a particular job. It wounded my pride and made me very unhappy. But a couple of hours later I admitted that he was absolutely right: due to my irreversible health conditions I really was unfit for that job. That was a life-changing moment: I realised that having personal limitations is not something to be ashamed of; on the contrary, admitting to having any is very liberating.
Well then, what are your limitations, weaknesses, imperfections and so on? Do you have any? If you answer is the affirmative, welcome to the human race. When you acknowledge your own limitations, you can set them to work for you in a positive manner. The only people I really worry about are those who either consider themselves to be perfect, or who are too afraid to admit to imperfection or fallibility. These are in real danger. We have to pray for them.