In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes words that have both consoled and perplexed Christians of all eras. He says: “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” These words can sometimes sound nice — maybe even holy, in spiritual conversations — but what could they possibly mean in our day-to-day lives that so revolve around strength, racing to the top and staying there, and being number one?
The Holy Cross motto that the cross is our only hope is not mere poetry. Photo by Matt Cashore '94
“For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
We live in a world where people sign off on emails and letters with the word “best.” What does this mean? Best? Best what? Best Buy? Best show on the road? Best in Show at the 4-H Fair? Best chili in Texas? Best show in town? I often wonder what all those people are doing with the time that they are saving by not writing Best Wishes or Best Regards. In reaction to the deluge of “bests,” I often sign off with “Average” or “In the 15th percentile.”
You might think that I’m making something out of nothing. Though I would often like to be God, I’m not — so I’ll leave the making something out of nothing to Him! I think that the use of the word “Best” is a real problem. It gets into our consciousness in a way I think is ultimately unhealthy, and it can encourage us to not be honest about our weaknesses or faults or failings and the very important role that they can play in our lives. After all, we want to be best. That doesn’t leave much room for faults and weaknesses.
Here’s another example from our modern life. Every workshop, every conference, every meeting you go to now eventually deals with “best practices.” When I submit a proposal to talk at a conference, I often note that I am going to talk about “worst practices.” Most of us have learned more from our failures than from our successes. Most of have learned much more from what we have done wrong than from what we have done correctly. And yet there is such an aversion to talking about “worst practices.”
The Church has always taught that there are certain kinds of success that grow best in the soil of failure.
If we did not learn from our failures, from our worst practices, from our sins, then what purpose would the Cross have? Why would we hold the Cross as central to our lives? Why would we say, as we do in the Congregation of Holy Cross, that the Cross is our only hope? To say that the Cross is our only hope is not poetry. The Constitutions of the Congregation of Holy Cross say that “there is no failure that the Lord’s love cannot reverse.” Like our “Ave Crux Spes Unica” motto, this is not a sentimental thought. It’s the truth.
To believe that the Cross is our only hope, to believe that there is no failure that the Lord’s love cannot reverse is to believe and hope with our whole being that “when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Perhaps the sin that people most often confess is that they are judgmental. A close second, and a sibling of the same sin, is pride. “Father, I’m a proud person. Father, I’m prideful.” So many of us struggle with this sin.
Fortunately there is a remedy for being judgmental and prideful. But no one likes it. Depending on your degree of pride, God gives you (as he gave St. Paul) a thorn in your side to, as Paul put it, “keep you from being too elated.” God is faithful to each one of us, so make no mistake, he will give you a thorn — a sin that you cannot conquer, a fault you cannot fix, a weakness you cannot turn a corner on.
You will try. You will struggle with this thorn your entire life. To get past it, you will go forward and backward, backward and forward, up and down, down and up, even sideways! God will give this to you so that you don’t get too taken with your greatness — to keep you from being too elated. Living with this thorn in your side, living with this sin and weakness will make you long for and yearn for and desire the mercy of God.
This fault, this sin, this weakness, whatever it is, will keep you grounded in humility. It will keep you close to the earth, close to others, close to yourself, and even close to God. You can, of course, deny this weakness, pretend that you don’t have it. This will increase your pride and your judgmental tendencies, and make you otherwise impossible to live with and be around.
The key is that you have to acknowledge and accept — even embrace — this weakness, fault, failing, or sin. Don’t take this the wrong say as though I am saying “sin is good.” I am not saying that exactly. What I am saying is that sin can have a purpose in our lives. As we say in Spanish, “Dios se vale de todo.” God makes use of everything.
Do not despair. Do not quit. Do not give in. In the midst of Paul’s struggle with the thorn in his side, while he is begging Jesus to take this thorn from him, Christ tells him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
This passage from the second letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians is so consoling, so hopeful, so reassuring to those who know themselves as sinners. We are sinners whose sins are forgiven by God, sinners who know that God’s mercy can make us strong even in our sinfulness.
God in his mercy is always at work in our lives, always accomplishing his word and his work in us. Denying or running away from your weaknesses, faults, failures and sins might make you miss out on all that God can do in your life and with your life. You might never know what it can mean for his power to be made strong in your weakness. Trusting in God’s relentless and boundless mercy makes it possible for us to embrace our whole self and to allow God’s life and power to shine through our weaknesses — and oh, how much good it can accomplish.
It might even keep you from signing your emails “best.”
Fr. Joe Corpora, C.S.C., is the Director of University-School Partnerships within Notre Dame's Alliance for Catholic Education, the associate director of pastoral care for students in Campus Ministry, and a priest-in-residence in Dillon Hall. He is one of 700 priests whom Pope Francis appointed in February 2016 to serve as Missionaries of Mercy and his book of reflections on this experience, The Relentless Mercy of God, was published last spring by Corby Books.