”My grace is sufficient for thee, for strength is perfected in weakness.”
For a long time, I have liked today’s Epistle above all the others in the Sunday sequence. I like to think of it as “Saint Paul’s adventure story.” His escape through a window in the wall of Damascus reminds me that when I was a boy, my grandmother used to live on the third floor of a walk-up apartment house. They had a basket that they could lower through the window on a rope to the street, to pull a few groceries up without someone having to climb the flights of stairs. Every once in a while they would tell a story about someone being in trouble and escaping via the fire escape—a series of metal porches and ladders on the front side of the building, if you have never seen one. The fire escape was interesting in itself, as most families crowded the wrought iron porches with flower pots in which they raised vegetables, often blocking any change of a rapid escape.
But life on Mott Street in New York City was nowhere near as wild as the journeys of Saint Paul. We have a map posted on the bulletin board in the back, but to do justice to his efforts you have to remember that travel was far more difficult in his time than in ours—mostly by sail boats that were very much at the mercy of the seasons and the tides. Even on land, there was no central heating, no air conditioning, no running water (hot or cold). Laundry was done on a rock at the river—and Paul and Barnabas seem to have been unique among the Apostles in looking after their own needs, having no women in their entourage. For the sick there was no medicine beyond herbal remedies. Paul wasn’t getting any funds from the Society for the Propagation of the Faith—he relied on the wages he could make with the work of his own hands as a tentmaker, rarely if ever accepting donations from his churches for his own use. In addition to the natural difficulties, he faced occasional persecution by Jews, Romans, and other pagans—his last journey was to Rome where he was put on trial and eventually beheaded. (His one advantage in life was Roman citizenship, which kept him from the more brutal death by crucifixion.)
What makes Saint Paul rather unique is his combination of the active and the contemplative lives. All too often people get the idea that the two modes of life are mutually exclusive—that I can pray or I can work, but not both. They go back to the Gospel passage where Jesus had been invited to dinner in the home of Martha and Mary. While Martha worked to prepare the dinner, Mary sat at our Lord’s feet, listening to Him speak. Martha asked Jesus to send Mary into the kitchen to help, but Jesus replied that: “Mary has chosen the best part, which shall not be taken away from her.” Since then it has been customary to refer to those who devote most of their time to prayer as “Marys,” and to those who work with their hands as “Marthas.” But, in Saint Paul’s example we see that the distinction need not be all that absolute. Saint Paul not only worked, but he traveled around meeting all sorts of men and women who might have distracted him from his prayer life—but, at the same time, he had “visions and revelations of the Lord” such as many cloistered contemplative monks and nuns never experience in their lifetimes—being “caught up into paradise and hearing secret words that man cannot repeat.”
What makes Paul’s example so wonderful is that it suggests to us the possibility that we too can live holy lives, even if we are unable to go off to a monastery or convent to live a life devoted to prayer. Though, in fact, we may have to go off and earn a living, or that we may have to do the chores of cooking and washing and keeping the house, we still can have a vital spiritual life.
Two aspects of Saint Paul’s life immediately come to mind, and bear imitation. The first is that, even though he had to spend many hours in work, God and the things of God were always on his mind. His labors were the means to the end of making Jesus Christ known to the people he encountered in his travels. One might say that he traveled with Jesus, or that he was someone who had thrown in his lot as Jesus’ junior partner in a shared enterprise. We can participate in that enterprise of making Jesus known to the world by our words and our deeds. Not everyone can be a preacher, but there is need for teachers of the young and old, and there is need for those who witness to Jesus Christ simply by their Christian behavior—in the words of Cardinal Suhard of Paris, “by living a life that would not make sense if God did not exist.” There are any number of ways in which one can be active in the work of the parish, or in volunteer work in the community. One can “pray and work—ora et labora” as Saint Benedict urges, either inside or outside of the monastery.
A second aspect of Saint Paul’s life—something which apparently took him some time to develop—was his willingness to recognize his own limitations, and to allow God to decide when and where to give him strength in his weakness. Three times he asked God to take away his physical infirmities, before he realized that it was enough for him to do his level best, and then let God display God’s strength, perfecting it in Paul’s weakness.
So, while very few, if any, of us can spend a long hours in prayer, we must recognize that we are still called to be partners with Christ, spreading His word in a way that is appropriate to our opportunities and talents. And, just like Saint Paul, we too will have limitations that God will not take away from us. And if we do a decent job of imitating Paul in our efforts, we too can be sure that God will perfect His strength in our weaknesses.
 Epistle: 2 Corinthians xi: 19 – xii: 9
 1 Corinthians ix: 5 "άδελφήν γυναϊχα" the translation is ambiguous, “female relative” seems best.
 Acts xviii: 3; 1 Thessalonians ii: 7-9.
 Luke x: 42.
 Epistle, ibid.
 Emmanuel Cardinal Suhard, Priests Among Men,” Integrity reprint, undated. “to be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda, nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one's life would not make sense if God did not exist.”