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SYNOPSIS OF THE CHAPTER
i. That the Corinthians may esteem him above the false apostles, he describes his being carried up into the third heaven.
ii. He goes on to say (ver. 7) that to prevent his being puffed up a thorn in the flesh was given him; for strength is made perfect in weakness.
iii. He clears himself (ver. 11) from any charge of self-love, by pointing out that it was they who had compelled him to praise himself, instead of commending him, as they ought to have done, for his long-suffering, miracles, preaching without charge, charity, and care for them.
iv. He refutes the calumny (ver. 17) brought against him, that he collected money from them craftily, not personally, but by means of Titus.
v. He expresses a fear (ver. 21) lest, when he should come to them, he might find some of them involved in dissensions and other sins; and thus he tacitly warns them that he may with grief be compelled to castigate them. Ver. 2. I knew a man in Christ. A Christian. He thus describes him, says Theophylact, that it may be clear that Paul was taken up by the grace of Christ, and not, like Simon Magus, by the power of the devil.
Above fourteen years ago. Hence we conclude that this rapture of S. Paul took place about nine years after his conversion, which took place A.D. 36; Paul, therefore, was taken up A.D. 44, which was the ninth year from his conversion. It was in this year that, by the direction of the Holy Spirit, he was ordained, with Barnabas, Apostle and Doctor of the Gentiles ( Act 13:2 ), that is to say, a little before he began this apostleship. This is evident, because, as I said at the beginning of this Epistle, S. Paul wrote this A.D. 58, in the second year of Nero. This rapture of S. Paul did not take place, therefore, in the year of his conversion ( Act 9:12 ), i.e ., A.D. 36, though some join S. Thomas in assigning it to that year.
Theophylact remarks on the modesty of the Apostle in having kept this silent for fourteen years. Secondly, he points out that Paul, fourteen years before, was privileged to contemplate such deep things, how much more did he merit it now, after the labours of so many years?
Whether in the body I cannot tell. Although the Apostle says that he knows nothing for certain about this rapture, yet S. Thomas (ii. ii. qu. 175, art. 5), and others think it probable that his soul remained united to his body as its form, otherwise Paul would have died and then risen again. Moreover, it does not beseem God, when He throws men into an ecstasy, to kill them; nay, such a process would not be one of rapture and ecstasy, but a putting to death. This, too, would involve the multiplication of many miracles. But it is a principle that we should not multiply miracles; therefore it is easier and more natural to suppose that, like other Saints, Paul was carried up while remaining in the body.
Caught up. " To be caught up is ," says S. Thomas, " to be raised from what is natural to what is supernatural by the power of the higher nature ." Hence angels and the Blessed are not caught up when they see God. Although they are raised above nature, yet they are not cut off from nature, i.e ., from the power man has of naturally having consciousness of objects by means of his bodily senses and his representative powers. But when "caught up," the soul is deprived of the use of its senses and imagination, and Paul, therefore, was so deprived, or he would have known that he was in the body. Moreover, such abstraction, as S. Thomas says, may take place under the influence of disease, as when a man is delirious, or even by the power of devils, as when they carry off a man. It is not, however, called rapture or ecstasy, unless wrought by Divine power, which withdraws the mind from the senses, and lifts it up to the contemplation of things supernatural.
To the third heaven. What is this heaven? 1. S. Basil ( Hom. i. in Hexem .) infers from this that there is not merely one heaven, as Chrysostom thought, nor two, as Theophylact held, but at least three. Some add that there are three only, and that the third is the highest. But all the astronomers of olden times will dispute this, for they reckoned eight at least, as will moderns, who count at least eleven.
2. S. Thomas says (ii. ii. qu. 175, art. 3, ad. 4): " By the third heaven may be understood any supernatural vision, and in three ways it may be called the third heaven. First, with relation to man's cognitive powers. Then the first heaven will be any supernatural, corporal vision, seen by the bodily eye, such as that of the handwriting on the wall, described in Daniel v. The second heaven will be any vision presented to the imagination, such as that of Isaiah, and of S. John in the Apocalypse. The third heaven will be any intellectual vision, such as is explained by S. Augustine ( super Gen. ad Litt. 12).
" Secondly, the distinction may be made according to the different orders of the objects of consciousness. Then the first heaven will be the knowledge of celestial bodies; the second, the knowledge of celestial spirits; the third, the knowledge of God Himself .
" Thirdly, the three heavens may be the different steps of the knowledge by which God is seen. The first will then belong to the angels of the lowest hierarchy; the second to the angels of the middle hierarchy; the third to the angels of the highest ." According to this test, S. Paul would have been caught up to the third and highest hierarchy of angels, and standing there with the seraphim, have seen most clearly the essence of God, and from thence have been enkindled with that burning fire of charity with which he afterwards set on fire the whole world.
But I should say that the third heaven is the highest, or the empyrean, where the Blessed dwell. Hence, in ver. 4, it is called Paradise. It is called the third by a Hebraism. The number three denotes completion, being the first number to which the word all may be applied. We do not speak of "all two," but we may and do say "all three." Hence the poet says: "Oh, thrice and four times blessed they," &c., i.e ., completely blessed. Again (in Amos i. 3) we read, "for three transgressions of Damascus," meaning, for all . In ver. 8 of this chapter again, we have, "I besought the Lord thrice," or, very often, till I could ask no more, until the answer came. "My grace is sufficient for thee."
3. It is simplest of all to say with S. Thomas, in the passage above quoted, that " the first heaven is the sidereal, the second the crystalline, the third the empyrean ;" or, rather, that " the first is the aerial, the second the sidereal, the third the empyrean ," as Theophylact gives them. With him agree Julian Pomerius, and Damascene ( de Fide, lib. ii. c. 6), and many others. "The air" in Scripture is commonly called "the heaven;" hence we get "the birds of heaven." The air, therefore, is the first heaven, and is called the aerial one. All the heavenly orbs are the second heaven, or the etherial, and the third is the empyrean. Hence Cajetan is wrong in rejecting the empyrean, in which the Blessed dwell, and supposing that the third is the crystalline. In this latter are the waters which, in Gen. i. and elsewhere, are said to be above the firmament.
Mystically, S. Bernard says that the three heavens are the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity, and also the three virtues and gifts by which we ascend to them and to the highest pinnacle of grace and glory, viz., humility, charity, and perfect union. He says ( Tract. de Grad. Humil .): " Those whom, by His word and example the Son has first taught humility, on whom the Holy Spirit has then poured the gift of charity, these the Father at length receives in glory. The Son makes them disciples, the Paraclete comforts them as friends, the Father exalts them as sons. Firstly, He instructs them as a Master; secondly, He comforts them as a Friend or a Brother; thirdly, He embraces them as sons. From the first union of the Word and reason is born humility; from the second union of the Spirit of God with the will of man comes charity; then at last the Father unites to Himself His glorious bride. And thus reason is not suffered to think of itself or of the will of its neighbour, but the beatified soul delights to say this alone: 'The King hath brought me into His chamber.' These steps were not surpassed by S. Paul, who declares that he was caught up to the third heaven ."
A second question arises: Was Paul truly and really caught up into the empyrean, so as to be in it as in a place, or was he there only by way of imagination or of understanding, so that he seemed to himself in his imagination to be in heaven, and saw what was being done there, while his body and soul remained on earth? Some think with probability that he was not caught up actually and truly, but only imaginarily, because he includes this rapture in vers. 1 and 7, under the head of visions and revelations of the Lord. God can bring it to pass that I in Belgium can see what is going on in India, and even what is passing in heaven. This may be brought about either through the imagination or the understanding, or even by the eyes of the body; for God can so raise these above themselves, so co-operate with them above nature, so strengthen and extend the visual powers as to make them reach even to heaven. If that power may be increased beyond what is natural by spectacles or medicaments, why may not God extend this power yet further and further? Thus it happened to S. Anselm, that he was able to see through a wall what was going on on the other side, by God imprinting the proper images on his retina. So Bede says that S. Diethelmus and others saw in imagination the pains of purgatory. Why, then, should not Paul have seen in the same way the empyrean, and what was passing in it?
Others, with perhaps greater probability on their side, think that he was actually and truly caught up into the empyrean. They give as their reasons: (1.) That the Greek verb used is not the technical term for casting into an ecstasy, but a word which denotes an actual rapture. (2.) That Paul is doubtful whether his soul was caught up with his body or without his body; therefore he presupposes that his soul was truly and really caught up; for in a vision that is merely imaginary there is no doubt that the soul alone and not the body is caught up by the imagination. (3.) That there be actually heard mysterious words, so that, as the destined teacher of the world, he seemed to go forth from heaven, and to communicate to men what he had there seen and heard as God willed him, and so brought to men as from heaven heavenly wisdom. Cf. ver. 4, note.
Now if the soul was really caught up, and yet remained united to the body (as I said in the opening note on this verse), then the body of Paul seems to have been caught tip into paradise; and indeed this is as easy with God as taking up the soul only. This would be fitting to S. Paul's office, who was to be the teacher and Apostle, not, like Moses, of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles, and so should wholly come forth, like another Moses, from intercourse with God in heaven. Ver. 3. Whether in the body or out of the body I cannot tell. S. Athanasius ( Serm. 4 contra Arian .) thinks that Paul knew the mode in which he was caught up, yet says: "I do not know," or, "I cannot tell;" because he could not reveal it to others, in the same way that Christ, in S. Mark 13:32 , says that He did not know the day of judgment. For though in himself he knew, yet as far as others were concerned he did not know, for he could not explain it. But others do better in understanding him simply to mean. "I do not know," and his simple recital of the event seems to require this. Ver. 4. In paradise. Ambrose, Œcumenius, Haymo, Anselm, and Theophylact think that Paul was twice caught up: (1.) into the third heaven, and (2.) then higher still into paradise. If so, the third heaven would be the heaven of sun, moon, and stars; but what would Paul have done there? Hence others hold that the events are one and the same, and that the third heaven and paradise are identical.
It may be asked. Why, after saying that he was caught up into the third heaven, does Paul say that he was caught up into paradise, as though it were a place higher still? I reply that of the vast empyrean paradise is one particular part where the Blessed are, and a more glorious part than the rest. S. Paul would imply that not only did he see deepest mysteries by his understanding, but also in his will drank in ineffable happiness. He signifies this by the term paradise, which, both in Greek and Latin, denotes a place of happiness.
Paradise is not a Greek word meaning, as Suidas thinks, a well-watered garden, nor yet a herb-garden, as others suppose, but, as Pollux says, it is a Persian word, or rather Hebrew, denoting a garden planted with pleasant trees and fruits. Cf. Ecclesiastes 2:5 ; Nehemiah 2:8 ; Song of Solomon 4:11 . It is derived from two Hebrew words, denoting to bring forth myrtles. Then, because myrtle is of a pleasant smell, and does best in gardens, the name has been transferred to pleasure-gardens, plantations, and glades, and then again to any pleasant place. Here the third heaven is called paradise.
Did Paul see there the Divine Essence? S. Augustine ( Ep . 112, c. 13), Clement ( Stromata , c. 5), Anselm, and S. Thomas (ii. ii. qu. 175, art. 5) say that he did, and their opinion is probable; for he was for this purpose caught up into paradise, or the place where the Blessed see God. Again, he heard secret things of which it is not lawful for man to speak: but men may speak of everything except the Divine Essence.
It may be objected that in that case he ought to have said that he saw things, not heard words. I reply that, by a common Hebraism, "to hear words" means "to see things" (Theodoret); as, e.g ., with the prophets vision and hearing are the same, so is it in the minds of the Blessed.
But the contrary seems more probable (1.) For even with a separated soul, to hear does not mean to behold a thing clearly, but to take in the words of God, or of an angel, or of man; otherwise he would have said without ambiguity, I saw ineffable things, even God Himself. (2.) S. Paul says, in 1 Tim. vi. 16, speaking of God, "Whom no man hath seen." (3.) If he saw God he must have seen also his own state, whether he was in the body or not. But he says that he did not. (4.) But he gives a scanty account of his visions here, and says that, out of humility, he passes over greater things. Cf. Gregory ( Morals , lib. xviii. c. 5), Jerome, Cyril, Chrysostom, and the Fathers and Schoolmen in general, and also Lud. Molina (pt. i. qu. xii. art. 11, dips 2). (5.) Scripture says more plainly of Moses that he saw the Essence of God, and yet I have shown clearly enough, in the notes to Exo 33., that Moses did not seek to see the Essence of God, and would not have obtained such a request if he had made it. In Exo 33:20 the Lord distinctly replies to him in the negative: "Thou canst not see My face, for no man shall see Me and live." It was only conceded to him that he should see the back parts of God, that is, the back of the body assumed by the Angel who represented God. Moses, however, sought that God, or the angel, who behind a cloud stood in the place of God, and spoke with him from the cloud, should unfold Himself, that he might see Him clearly and converse with Him face to face. The angel answered him that the eyes of man cannot see His face, but only His back; because the face assumed by the angel was so shining and so gloriously bright and majestic that it shone to a certain extent with the glory of God. It surpassed, therefore, the splendour of the sun, which man cannot look on directly with unveiled eyes, nay, rather man is blinded by the splendour. If follows from this that much less could this far more splendid face of the angel be seen by Moses; nay, he would have been blinded by it. But in the back of the body that the angel had assumed the light was so toned down that Moses could look upon it. Moses looking upon this was so covered as it were with light that his face shone, and seemed to emit two horns of rays of light. This vision of Moses was a bodily vision, for with the eyes of his body he saw the back of the angel's body. He was, therefore, far from seeing the Divine Essence; and if he did not see it, much less did S. Paul, who speaks more obscurely and more humbly of his vision.
And heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. What were these mysteries that Paul heard or saw in paradise? They are related indeed in the book which is styled "the Apocalypse of S. Paul," but this book is not genuine, and is full of mythical stories, and is scouted by S. Augustine ( Tract. 98 in Johan .), Bede, Theophylact. Epiphanius attributes it to the sect of Cainites. I should reply that no certain answer can be given where Paul kept silence. Still it is natural to suppose that Paul saw and heard wonderful things of the nature, gifts, grace, glory, and orders of the angels, as S. Gregory says ( in Ezech., Hom. 4). Hence S. Dionysius, in his "Celestial Hierarchy," so describes the orders of the angels from what he heard from S. Paul, that you might think he saw them with his eyes. Again, he may have heard wondrous things about some Divine attributes not known to us here; he may have seen too the glory of Christ, for he was taught the Gospel by Christ ( Gal 1:12 ). He was caught up that he might receive authority, and not be inferior to the other Apostles, who had seen Christ in the flesh and been taught thoroughly by Him (Chrysostom). Theodoret adds that he saw the beauty of paradise, the choirs and joys of the Saints, and heard the tuneful harmony of the heavenly hymns. This caused his exclamation of admiration: "Eye hath not seen nor ear heard, neither have entered into heart of man the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him."
Secondly, it is better to suppose that he heard the mysteries of the reason, mode, and order of the Divine reprobation and predestination, and the call of men, especially of the heathen provinces to be converted by himself. Of this mystery Paul frequently expresses his admiration, as in Romans 11:33 , and it had special reference to his mission (Baronius).
Thirdly, he may have heard mysteries concerning the Gospel of our redemption by Christ; for he says ( Gal 1:12 ) that he had received this Gospel by revelation, viz., when he was caught up. Lastly, he heard, as it might seem, mysteries of the government and progress of the Church in his time and afterwards. This, too, would affect his office, as he had already been singled out as the Church's teacher and guide. He calls them "unspeakable words," both because he was forbidden to utter them, and also because we are unable either to speak of them or to understand them. Ver. 4. Of such an one will I glory; yet of myself I will not glory. He speaks of himself when caught up and in his ordinary state as two different persons, so as not to be thought vain-glorious (Œcumenius).
But in mine infirmities. My calamities, my sufferings. By a common Hebrew metonymy "infirmity" is here put for "grief." They are related as cause and effect or effect and cause. Cf. ver. 9; Micah 4:10 . In Isaiah 53:3 , we read of Christ that He should be "a Man of sorrows and acquainted with infirmity" (Vulg.). Cf. also Psalms 16:4 (Vulg.). Ver. 6. But now I forbear lest any man should think of me above that which he seeth me to be. Lest he should think me an angel or some god, as the Lycaonians did ( Act 14:10 ). He could have related more wonderful things about himself, but modesty and humility cause him to conceal them. "All the Saints," says Anselm, "not only do not seek at all for glory above their measure, but they even shrink from that which they have merited." S. Bernard says beautifully ( Ep. 18 ad Pet. ): " We praise others hypocritically, and delight in vanity ourselves; and thus they who are praised are vain, and those who praise are false. Some flatter and are crafty; others praise as they think and are false; others glory in the words of both and are vain. He alone is wise who says with the Apostle, 'I forbear, lest any man should think of me above that which he seeth me to be, or that he heareth of me .'" Ver. 7. And lest I should be exalted above measure. From this it appears that Paul, as the heavenly teacher of the world, had many great revelations, and was accustomed to them, and, as it were, at home among them. Some of these are narrated by S. Luke. Cf. Acts 9:3 ; Acts 18:9 ; Acts 22:17 ; Acts 27:23 . S. Augustine ( Enarr. in Ps. lxxviii. 69, Vulg.), on the words, "Benjamin in the excess of his mind," understands S. Paul to be referred to as being of the tribe of Benjamin.
There was given me a thorn in the flesh. Not by the devil, but by God. Not that God is the author of temptation, but He allowed the devil, who was ready beforehand, to tempt Paul, and that only in appearance, and in the matter of lust to humble him. Cf. Augustine ( de Nat. et Grat. c. 21). " This monitor ," says Jerome ( Ep . 25 ad Paulam , on the death of Blesilla), " was given to Paul to repress pride, just as in the car of the victor, as he enjoys his triumph, there stands a monitor whispering to him, 'Recollect that you are a man .'" So, too, at the installation of a Pontiff, tow is lighted and extinguished, while the words are sung: "Holy Father, thus passes the glory of the world." Hence the best preservative against the temptations of the flesh is humility. If you are rooted and grounded so deeply in that as God exalts you by His gifts and graces, there will be no need for Him to apply this thorn to keep you humble. Cf. Rom. i. 24, note.
What was this thorn, and how did it buffet S. Paul? How was it a messenger of Satan? Augustine ( de Nat. et Grat . c.16) replies that he does not know what it was. But two things are certain: (1.) that he was vexed by Satan, and (2.) that this vexation was like a thorn fixed in his flesh, and continually paining him.
But it is not certain what its particular nature was. Anselm, Bede, Sedulius, and Jerome (in Gal. iv. 13) think it was bodily illness, as constant headache (S. Jerome), or colic (S. Thomas), or costiveness, or gout (Nicetas, commenting on Orat. 30 of S. Gregory Nazianzen), or some internal disorder. S. Basil ( in Reg. cap. ult .) and S. Augustine (in Ps. cxxxi.) think that this goad was some disease sent upon Paul, just as on job, by the devil. The Apostle, however, nowhere else complains of any diseases. Moreover, they would have been a great hindrance to him in the preaching of the Gospel.
Secondly, Chrysostom, Theophylact, Theodoret, Œcumenius, Ambrose, Erasmus think that this thorn refers to the persecutions Paul endured from his adversaries, and of which he speaks in ver. 10. But these were external goads, not thorns in the flesh, and of these he is wont to boast, not complain.
Thirdly, others, with more probability, think that this thorn in the flesh consisted in blows and beatings, often given to Paul by Satan, as to Antony and others, so that pain remained in his body, as a thorn, from the blows he had received. This is the literal meaning of the words used no doubt; but if this be so, Paul would surely have said more plainly: "There was given me the messenger of Satan to buffet me." Nor would the generous mind of S. Paul have complained of this: he was but raised higher by the attacks of devils and men, and found in them matter for glorying.
Fourthly, others think, therefore, that this thorn in the flesh was the motions of concupiscence and the temptations of lust. This concupiscence, like a thorn or a dart, is so deeply fixed in the flesh that while life lasts it cannot be taken out. Hence it is called in Greek, σκόλοψ , a stake, a sharpened stick, a thorn, a javelin, or sting.
It may be asked: "Why, then, does he call this thorn 'the messenger of Satan,' or the minister of Lucifer?" I reply that he means by the messenger of Satan, Satan himself, as the exciting cause of this thorn of concupiscence; or even he calls the thorn sent by Satan, the adversary of his chastity, by the name of Satan. This would be a metonymy, where the cause is put for the effect, the agent for his work. For the devil, by stirring up the humours, by kindling the blood, by inflaming the feelings that subserve generation, by putting foul images before S. Paul's mind, gave life to that concupiscence which had been as it were put to sleep, and mortified by his numerous labours, fastings, and troubles. Thus he stirred up S. Paul to obey the foul motions of lust.
Secondly, it is proved, from Rom. vii., that this concupiscence was in S. Paul, for there he bewails it more than he does here. Hence, too, as he said ( 1Co 9:27 ), he was in the habit of castigating his body.
Thirdly, had it been anything else he would have said so clearly; but as it is, modesty and shame bid him conceal it, and call it metaphorically a thorn.
Fourthly, this thorn was given him to humiliate him. But nothing so humiliates those who are chaste and lovers of virtue, as this temptation of the flesh, and nothing is so great a check on them, and makes them so work out their own salvation with fear and trembling. Through the frailty of their flesh they are always in fear of lapsing in the midst of temptations so dangerous and well calculated to make them yield consent. And, therefore, they rather glory in illness, blows, persecutions, and other evils, especially if, like S. Paul, they suffer for Christ and His faith.
Fifthly, these temptations of the flesh, properly speaking, do not hurt the Saints, but buffet them, that is strike them with shame and sorrow. A man, when struck by his friend, is suffused with shame rather than overcome with pain.
Sixthly, Paul prays repeatedly and earnestly to be set free from this thorn; in other things he would have sought not liberation, but fortitude and constancy. But concupiscence is overcome, not so much by courageous endurance as by instant flight. He asks, therefore, to be set free from it, and hears, "My grace is sufficient for thee." It is this grace which in this case is especially necessary, and should be always sought for by those that are tempted, that they may resist and overcome this civil foe lurking within and always striving to stir up war.
Lastly, this is the opinion of S. Augustine ( Enarr. 2 in Ps. lix.), S. Jerome ( ad Eustoch. de Custod. Virgin .), Salvianus ( Serm. de Circumcis ., wrongly attributed to Cyprian), Haymo, Theophylact, Anselm, Bede, S. Thomas, Lyranus, and others. It seems, too, the common belief of the faithful, who from this passage speak of the temptation of lust as a thorn in the flesh. The voice of the people is the voice of God.
But, what Cardinal Hugo adds, viz., that this temptation found a place in Paul, owing to his familiar converse with a beautiful virgin, S. Thecla, whom he had baptized, and afterwards kept with him in his journeyings, is false, and merely conjecture. Paul took no woman about with him, as he says in 1 Corinthians 9:5 . And even if he had, he would have been bound, under penalty of incurring guilt, to send her away if he found her to be an occasion of so much troublous temptation. Moreover, what need would there have been for S. Paul to pray to God so instantly that this thorn might be taken from him, when he might easily have got rid of it himself? Add to this that this story is taken from a book entitled, "The journeys of Paul and Thecla," which is rejected as apocryphal by S. Jerome, Tertullian, and Gelasius.
Erasmus and Faber object to this, firstly, that the thorn of lust was unbecoming and unworthy of so great an Apostle, and he now an old man. I answer that in our lapsed state it is not only not unworthy, but is also beneficial. See S. Gregory ( Moral. lib. xix., c. 5 and 6) and Anselm, who point out how useful it is to the Elect to be now caught up into ecstasy, and now depressed by weakness, so that they may never be puffed up with pride or cast down into despair, but may always keep the narrow way that lies midway between the two, and which leads to heaven. Rom 7:23 shows that this concupiscence existed in S. Paul, and experience tells us that it has been, and now is, in the Saints, even when they are old men. S. Gregory Nazianzen, for instance, often complains of the evils of his flesh, as in Ep. 96, and in his hymn on his flesh and the burden of his soul. Moreover, Paul was not an old man, for he was a young man when converted perhaps twenty-five or twenty-seven ( Act 7:58 ). This Epistle was written twenty-two years after his conversion, when he would, therefore, be about fifty years old.
Secondly, the objection is raised that the Apostle immediately adds. "Most gladly, therefore, will I rather glory in my infirmities." But we may not glory in concupiscence, and therefore he must mean some other infirmity and thorn. To this I reply that the Apostle is not referring in these words to the thorn in the flesh that he had just mentioned, but also, and more properly, to all the sufferings that he had borne for the faith, and which he had recounted in the last chapter. In them, he says, he glories always. He uses the word infirmity in its widest meaning, and plays on it, as I will point out at ver. 10. Moreover, it is lawful to glory in this temptation of the flesh, not in itself, so far as it excites to evil, but as it is an affliction put upon us by the devil, and as in it the strength of Christ is made perfect. In this way Julius Cæsar used to glory, and desire most powerful foes, that he might show against them his power and warlike courage. So, too, many Saints have prayed to God, and asked to have temptations, and have gloried in them. Hence, S. James says (i. 2): "My brethren, count it all joy ,when ye fall into divers temptations." Cf. also S. James 1:12 .
Morally, it should be observed that temptation is not to the righteous a cause of falling, but a spur to virtue. For, as high-spirited horses, when urged by the spur, quicken their pace, and show their spirit more, so are Saints spurred on by temptation to walk more diligently in virtue, lest they give way and perish. Hence, some of the Saints of great earnestness were not saddened, but gladdened, by temptations. In the "Lives of the Fathers" ( lib. iii. c. 8) we read of an aged man who, on seeing one of his disciples grievously tempted to commit fornication, said to him: " If you wish it, my son, I will pray the Lord to remove this attack from you ." The disciple replied: " I see, my father, that I am undergoing a laborious task, yet I feel that it will bring forth in me good fruit; because, through this temptation I fast the more, and spend more time in vigils and prayers. But I beseech you to pray God of His mercy to give me strength, that I may be able to bear it, and fight lawfully ." Then the old man rejoined: " Now I perceive, my son, that you faithfully understand that this spiritual struggle may, through patience, help on your soul towards eternal salvation. For so said the Apostle, 'I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith; henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness .'"
S. Dorotheus relates of a certain holy monk that he grieved at being freed from temptation, and exclaimed: "Am I not then worthy, 0 Lord, of suffering, and being a little afflicted for Thy love?" Climacus ( Grad. 29) relates of S. Ephrem, that seeing himself possessed of deep peace and tranquillity, which he himself calls impassibility, and an earthly heaven, he besought God to restore to him his former temptations and struggles, so that he might not lose the material for meriting and adding to his crown. Palladius relates that Abbot Pastor, on some one saying to him, "I have prayed to God, and He has set me free from all temptation," replied "Pray God to restore you your temptations, lest you become slothful and careless." Ver. 8. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice . . . and He said unto me. Three is the number symbolic of multitude and universality. The answer meant that though he was weak in himself, yet in God he might be strong enough to overcome this temptation. It, hence appears that Paul was not heard, and was not freed from his thorn. S. Augustine gives the reason ( Enarr. in Ps. cxxxi.). He says: "As when some disagreeable medicine is brought to one that is sick, and he asks the physician to take it away; whereupon the physician comforts him and urges him to have patience, because he knows that the medicine is good for him, so does God here deal with Paul." As a physician from vipers' flesh makes a conserve against vipers' poison, so does God, out of our weakness, form a medicine against weakness, and makes one lust of the flesh a remedy against another, as, e.g ., this thorn of the flesh was a preservative against pride. Ver. 9. For my strength is made perfect in weakness. This is a general proposition, a moral axiom applying to any weakness, but properly and primarily to that thorn of concupiscence just mentioned. These are the words of God in answer to the prayers of S. Paul. The greater the temptation of the flesh is, the greater is the strength supplied by Christ. This explains the paradox that follows: "When I am weak then am I strong."
The strength is both Paul's and God's Paul's as the receiver, God's as the Giver. Therefore, the Divine power is best manifested in weakness when, (1.) in those that are weak it works fortitude, patience, and other superhuman works. (2.) When he by whom anything is done, conscious of his own weakness, claims nothing for himself, but gives all the praise to God. Observe here the difference between the power of God and the power of the world. One is seen in force and violence, the other in endurance. (3.) Infirmity is the object of patience, fortitude, and temperance, in the same way that those who are infirm are more sober when they are ill. (4.) Infirm people keep the most careful watch over themselves, and prudently refuse whatever is noxious, and so become more self-controlled by habit (S. Thomas). Certainly, virtue feeds on opposition, and, therefore, by temptation, chastity becomes constant, and every virtue more robust, as we see in the lives of Joseph, Susannah, Paul, and others. (5.) S. Augustine says mystically ( de Gratia Christ . c. 12), as does Anselm: "Fortitude is a true knowledge and humble confession of our infirmity." And S. Jerome says, writing, to Ctesiphon: "The one perfection to be found in this life is to recognise our imperfection." By this you learn not to trust to your own strength, but to cast yourself wholly with perfect confidence on the power of God, who strengthens the humble and those that hope in Him, and makes them as it were almighty, as S. Bernard says ( Serm. 85 in Cantic .), able to pass unscathed through all temptations, labours, and dangers.
S. Augustine gives us an instance of this in his own life (cf. lib. viii. c. 11). He says. " When habit that seemed to me irresistible said to me, 'Can you live without them?' " (the concubines that he had been accustomed to have), " there appeared to me in the direction to which I had turned my face, while shrinking from setting out that way, the pure dignity of continence, with dignified mien, inviting me to come without hesitation, holding out, to welcome and embrace me, holy hands filled with hosts of good examples. There were multitudes of boys and girls, and many a youth; all ages were there, sober widows and aged virgins. She smiled encouragingly upon me, as much as to say, 'Can you not do what these men and women have done? They did it not in their own strength, but in the Lord their God. He gave me to them. Why do you stand in yourself and fall? Cast yourself upon Him; fear not. He will not withdraw and cause you to fall. Boldly trust yourself to Him . He will receive you and will heal you .'"
Lastly, virtue is made perfect in weakness, because, as S. Bernard ( Ep . 254) says, in a robust and vigorous body the mind lies effeminate and lukewarm, and again in a weak and sickly body the spirit grows stronger and more vigilant. As one to whom nature has denied strength excels in intellect, so where God withholds health He gives robustness and vigour of mind, so that the mind afflicted with a feeble body sighs after its resurrection and after heaven; spurns whatever is transient, troubled, and exposed to decay; lives for the future life, not the present; thinks with Plato that this life is death's mediator; in short, gives itself wholly to God and heavenly things. "The mind that is allied to disease is close to God," says Nazianzen. Listen to what a famous old man said to one of his disciples who enjoyed bad health ( Vita. Patrum , lib. iii. n. 157). " Be not sad, my son, at your sickness and bodily ills. It is the highest duty of religion to give God thanks in weakness. If you are iron you lose your rust by fire; if you are gold you are tried by the fire and, proceed from great to greater. Be not distressed, then, my brother. If God wishes you to be tormented in the body, who are you that you should be angry with Him? Bear up then, and ask Him to give you what He sees fit ."
S. Theophanes, Abbot of Sigrianum, a man who never had good health, A.D. 816, gave the following answer to the iconoclastic emperor, Leo the Armenian, who threatened him with dreadful tortures if he did not condemn the worship of images: " If you hope to terrify me with your threatenings, a man already worn out with disease and old age, as teachers threaten with a beating boys of no generous spirit, then let the pyre be kindled, let the instruments of torture be got ready, together with every engine of malicious cruelty, that you may know most clearly that the strength of Christ is made perfect in my weaknesses. I, who cannot walk on the ground, shall find my weakness changed into strength, and will leap upon the fire ." And he was as good as his word; for after many temptations he was shut up in prison, and all access to him was forbidden; and so, being gradually weakened by hunger, filth, and disease, he offered up his soul in two years' time to God, as a sweet-smelling sacrifice, and after his death became illustrious for his miracles. The Church commemorates him on March 12th Cf. Baronius ( Annals , A.D. 816). Cf. also S. Thomas and S. Chrysostom ( Hom. 26), on the benefit of infirmities and tribulations.
Lastly, S. Bernard ( Tract. de Grad. Humil. ) says: "' Virtue is made perfect in weakness.' What virtue? Let the Apostle tell us: 'Gladly will I glory in my infirmities, that the virtue of Christ may rest upon me.' But perhaps you do not yet understand what special virtue he meant, since Christ had all virtues. But though all were found in Him, yet one in particular shone above all, viz., humility. This He commended to us in the words, 'Learn of Me, for I am meek and lowly of heart.' Gladly, then, 0 Lord Jesu, will I glory if I can in my infirmity, in my bodies illness, that Thy virtue, humility, may be made perfect in me; for when any virtue fails, Thy grace avails ."
Most gladly, therefore, will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Humility makes him glory not in his strength but in his infirmity; and so he calls upon Christ to give him strength, and tacitly says that he throws himself upon Him. Hence, by infirmity he means every kind of suffering, tribulation, temptation, humiliation, as is explained in the next verse. Infirmity , then, is a generic term, including anything that causes pain to mind or body. Hence (1.) it may embrace sicknesses, which, S. Basil says, formed Paul's thorn in the flesh; (2.) labours, such as are described in the preceding chapter; (3.) temptations of the flesh (ver. 7), or any other temptations; (4.) watchings, fastings, and other acts of mortification of the body, by which the body is weakened and made subject to the spirit; (5.) insults, persecutions, dangers, blows, and all afflictions borne for the sake of the faith of the Gospel.
Let them that are infirm console themselves amidst their infirmities by the thought that the power of Christ tabernacles in them as in its proper home. The power of God shows itself most where there is most need for it, and gives the greatest help when necessity is greatest. "To Thee," says the prophet "the poor is left: Thou wilt be a helper of the fatherless." For although naturally "bodily weakness involves also mental," as S. Jerome says ( Pref. lib. ii. Comment. in Amos ), and "the body which is corrupted weighs down the soul" (Wisd. 9:15), yet supernaturally it is otherwise; for the soul that is strengthened with grace strengthens also the body. S. Francis, for instance, increased in mental vigour as his body grew more feeble, so much so that in giving thanks to God he prayed that his sicknesses might be increased a hundredfold. "To fulfil Thy will, 0 Lord," he said, "is my exceeding comfort." See his Life by S. Bonaventura,
S. Bernard ( Serm. 34 in Cantic .) says: " He does not say that he bears his infirmities patiently, but that he glories in them, and glories in them most gladly, proving that it was good for him to be humbled; for God loveth a cheerful giver. Humility alone which is joyous and unconstrained merits the grace which it receives ." Again, in Sermon 25, he says: " We should wish for infirmity, which is supplemented by the power of Christ. Would that I might be not only weak, but destitute, and wholly wanting in anything of my own, that I might be strengthened by the might of the Lord of might; for strength is made perfect in weakness. And since this is the case, the bride beautifully turns it to her glory that she is held up to scorn by her rivals, and she glories, not only that she is comely but also that she is black. She thinks nothing more glorious than to bear the reproach of Christ. The ignominy of the Cross is pleasing to him who is not unpleasing to the Crucified ." Ver. 10 . Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities. Not because they are desirable in themselves, but in so far as through them the power of Christ is perfected. He then goes on, as I said before, to mention what is included under the generic term infirmity .
For when I am weak then am I strong. When I am afflicted then do I gain strength by the power of God's grace, long-suffering, fortitude, humility, and hope, which virtues are then implanted by God (Chrysostom). Œcumenius thinks, however, that he means that he then becomes strong to work miracles. S. Basil too (in PS. xxxiii.) says, that "great bodily power is an impediment to the salvation of the soul." S. Bernard says beautifully and truly ( Serm. 29 in Cantic .): " Do you see that the weakness of the flesh adds strength to the spirit? so, on the other hand, be assured that the strength of the flesh works spiritual weakness. What wonder is it if you become stronger when the enemy is weakened? unless perchance you are insane enough to suppose that the flesh, which is always lusting against the spirit, is your friend . . . . The saint who prudently keeps his eye fixed on his salvation prays to be shot at and attacked. Pierce my heart with Thy fear. That fear is the best of arrows, for it pierces and slays the lusts of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved. But does not he that castigates his body and brings it into subjection seem to you to himself help the hand of him that fights against him ? Ver. 11. I am become a fool in glorying. I seem to have done foolishly in praising myself, but you, who had of me a lower opinion than you ought, and who gave more credence to the false apostles than to me, have compelled me to recover my influence over you by thus praising myself.
Though I be nothing. That I am an Apostle is not my doing, it is of the grace of Christ (Anselm). Cf. xi. 5, note. Ver. 12. Truly the signs of an apostle. The genuine tokens of an Apostle were: (1.) patience under contempt, poverty, persecutions, dangers (Anselm). (2.) Miracles. He calls these signs of the true faith, of heavenly doctrine, or signs given by God working supernaturally and all-powerfully, and consequently bearing witness to the truth of Paul's doctrine and to his Divine mission. He calls them also wonders, from the effect they were calculated to produce on the mind, and also mighty deeds or works of God's omnipotence, of which he was the instrument.
It was incumbent on the Apostles, as the bearers of a new Gospel to the world, to prove their doctrine and apostleship by miracles, otherwise they would have exacted a credulous assent, and could not have been distinguished from impostors, like the false apostles. This should be observed by Protestants and their new apostles, Calvin and Luther, who are bringing in a reformed doctrine: this, being new, demands to be supported by miracles. Since they do not produce these credentials unless they think it to be a miracle that when they promise to raise a dead man they put to death a living one (but from such miracles and such apostles, good Lord, deliver us) they practically confess that they are no apostles, but impostors.
Ver. 13. For what is it wherein ye were inferior to other churches? I.e ., other churches founded by me and other Apostles. I was no burden to you, but worked day and night to support myself. Then he ironically adds: "Forgive me this wrong." For this notable and generous act of beneficence, the Apostle should have been more highly esteemed and loved, not reckoned as one that had inflicted an injury. Ver. 14 . Behold the third time. The first visit was when he converted them; the second time he was ready to start, but postponed his visit for good reasons; the third occasion was at the time of his writing, and took place actually afterwards (S. Thomas and Lyranus).
For the children ought not to lay up for the parents. A euphemism. Earthly parents lay up treasure for their children; spiritual fathers, on the other hand, should be supported by their children, i.e ., by the catechumens and the faithful. I am to you, says S. Paul, such a spiritual father, that I wish to be also an earthly one, and expend upon you myself and all that I have. He thus gently chides them, that they may see how great an Apostle he is, how high-minded, of how great charity, and be confounded for not returning his love, and for preferring the false apostles, who thought only of themselves and their own gain. Ver. 15. And I will very gladly spend and be spent for you. I will spend all my goods, and then gladly give for you my blood, my spirit, my life (Anselm). Ver. 16. Being crafty, I caught you with guile. S. Thomas (ii. ii. qu. 55, art. 4, ad. 1) thinks that craftiness and guile are here used in a good sense, as much as to say, with cunning, skill, and prudent caution did I convert you from heathenism to Christianity. But I should say that these are words used by his detractors, and appropriated by S. Paul. They carp at me, saying that Paul does not directly ask for anything for his support, but he catches you with guile, by sending Titus and others to drain your purses (Chrysostom). S. Paul then goes on to answer this charge. Ver. 17 . Did I make a gain of you ? Did I defraud you, and extort your money from you? Or with Vatablus, Did I fleece you? Or, with Ambrose, Was I covetous towards you? Ver. 19. Again, think ye that we excuse ourselves unto you ? For again the Latin version has "of old time." There are some among you who have for a long time thought that I have said so much as I have said as an excuse for my avarice and double-dealing, or that I craftily excuse myself and refuse your gifts, to induce you to give more.
We speak before God in Christ. We speak sincerely, truly, and without any reservation, as it is right for one to speak who professes to be in Christ, i.e ., to be His disciple and member. Or "in Christ" may mean, with Christian sincerity, Christ being put for His attributes, the concrete for the abstract. Or, again, the sentence may mean: Before God we sincerely speak the truth, and I call Christ as my witness to my truth. As we say when taking an oath, "By God," or, "By Christ," so do the Hebrews say, "In God," or, "In Christ." So Vatablus takes it. Cf. also Rom. ix. 1. Anselm, however, understands "We speak in Christ" to mean, "According to Christ and His doctrine," which bids us speak with sincerity and truth. Or, "in Christ" may mean "by Christ, who speaks in me and through me;" but the first meaning is the simplest and best. Ver. 20. I fear . . . lest there be wraths . θυμός with the Greeks that part of the mind which is called the irascible faculty, placed by Plato in the heart, and opposed to reason, which has for its seat the brain. Thence the word is applied to angry quarrellings, audacious arrogance, irascible conduct, when a man will not give up his opinion, but clings to it obstinately, and hotly opposes others, to show his spirit. Such actions spring from the irascible faculty when it is unchecked.
Whisperings. Secret and hidden attacks made by the malevolent on those they wish to bring into odium, or when they wish to sever friendships. Such a "whisperer" was Antipater, the son of Herod, who, that he might succeed his father, tried to make his elder brothers suspected by their father, that he might put them to death; but a just Nemesis overtook him, for he was himself put to death by Herod, as Josephus relates at length.
Swellings. Pride and arrogance, which, as it were, puff up those they take possession of. Ver. 21. Lest my God will humble me among you. Lest He sadden me, and cause me to sorrowfully punish many of you, viz., those who persist in their sins. The Apostle's words point to the public penance inflicted on those who were strictly called penitents. Cf. Augustine ( Ep. ad Salvinam, 108).
Just as the Apostle and every preacher rejoice chiefly in the progress of their disciples, and to be able to say, "Ye are my joy and crown," so do they mourn most to see them fall away into sin, and make no return for all their exhortations and labour. Again, such an one is forced to punish against his will and with grief. The words of Nero at the beginning of his rule are well known: when obliged to sign a sentence of capital punishment against some criminals, he exclaimed: "Would that I knew not letters."
And have not repented of the uncleanness. Oftheir effeminacy and other lusts, which make them sin against nature, and subject her to violence. The Apostle draws a distinction between uncleanness and fornication.
Lasciviousness. Wanton delight in lustful kissing and touch.
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Lapide, Cornelius. "Commentary on 2 Corinthians 12". The Great Biblical Commentary of Cornelius a Lapide. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29