When weakness can be a strength

By: By Msgr. Stuart Swetland

Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, July 5

Ezekiel 2:2-5; Psalm 123:1-2,2,3-4; 2 Corinthians 12:7-10; Mark 6:1-6

My studentsknow that I am fond of saying “sleep is for the weak.” This expression was drilled into me while I was in training at the Naval Academy. Sleep seemed like a luxury then and in fact I got very little of it.

However, as a Christian, this slogan has taken on a whole new meaning. Now when I say it, it is with irony and a sense of the paradox that is the good news of Jesus Christ. Indeed, to sleep is a very tangible sign of our weakness, our limitedness. But it is absolutely necessary for physical, mental and spiritual health. To embrace the fact of our limitations (did not that great existentialist hero Clint Eastwood as “Dirty Harry” say, “A man’s just got to know his limitations”?) is to be truly humble.

As St. Teresa of Avila says, humility is truth. Such humility allows the grace of God to work within us. We can begin to fully flourish as human beings.

St. Paul writes of his weaknesses in 2 Corinthians 12. He had been blessed with great and mystical revelations that were beyond description. Paul had experienced in a profound way the wonder and grandeur of God — first in his conversion experience when he encountered the risen Lord (cf. Acts 9:1-22) and then again through mystical union in his prayer (2 Corinthians 12:1-6). But with these revelations came a greater understanding of his weaknesses.

When confronted with our weaknesses we have a choice. We can wallow in self-depreciation, dwelling on all that we cannot do, or we can embrace our weaknesses as opportunities to allow God and his grace to operate in us and through us more and more. This is what Paul and Ezekiel did before him. This is the example that Jesus gives us in his life, death and resurrection.

The amazing thing about the Incarnation (God taking on our human nature) is that Jesus embraces all our humanity, including our weaknesses. Jesus grew hungry and thirsty and tired. He had to sleep and eat. The Gospel writers do not hesitate to depict the weaknesses of Jesus.

The early Christian writers — the “fathers of the church” — made an important theological discovery when they recognized that what Jesus assumed he sanctified. In other words, what he became he made holy. Thus our weaknesses can be (are!) a participation in the holiness of God.

He was rejected. We will be rejected. He was misunderstood. We will be misunderstood. He grew tired and weak, even stumbling and falling on the way of the cross. We will grow tired and weak and we will fall down at times, too. Jesus did this all without sinning. Weakness is not a sign of sin but a possibility for God’s grace — his supernatural life and help — to become more perfect in us. “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

If this is true, and I believe it is, then so-called weaknesses like aging and sleep are not something to fear but to joyfully embrace. Father Basil Pennington, the Trappist disciple of Thomas Merton, notes that as we age we recognize physical and mental diminishments. This is natural and to be expected. The challenge, Father Basil teaches, is to “sanctify our diminishments” by yielding to the transforming power of God’s grace at work in us.

And sleep is also God’s time. Does he not speak to some in dreams and “pour forth his gifts on his beloved while they slumber”? (Psalm 127:2)

To yield to the need to sleep is to recognize that one is not in control — God is. According to the poet Charles Peguy, to despise sleep is a deficiency in hope. In his poem “Sleep,” Peguy has God say:

As if I wasn’t capable, if you please, of looking after your life a little.

Of watching over it.

You might perhaps leave your business in my hands,
maybe I am just as wise as you are.

You might perhaps leave it to me for the space of a night.

While you are asleep. . .

Because between now and tomorrow, maybe I, God will have passed your way.

Human wisdom says: Woe to the one who puts off what he has to do until tomorrow.

Blessed is he who puts it off. That is to say Blessed is he who hopes.

And who sleeps.

Blessed John XXIII understood this very well. Elected pontiff as an old and sick man, he labored greatly on behalf of God and his church. But late one evening, with the work piling up around him, he looked up to heaven and said, “Lord, it’s your church; you run it — I’m going to bed.”

What Ezekiel, Paul, John XXIII, and Teresa knew (and Jesus perfectly embodied) is that God’s grace is always sufficient, for when we are weak then we can be strong in the Lord.

A priest of the Diocese of Peoria, Msgr. Stuart Swetland is The Most Rev. Harry J. Flynn Professor of Christian Ethics at Mount St. Mary University in Emmitsburg, Md.

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