Elation. The word St. Paul uses in the epistle today is one we use rarely and, when we do, it usually has a positive sense. But there’s also another meaning, which the Merriam Webster online dictionary defines as “pathological euphoria.” This definition refers to an experience that is more like a buzz than real happiness or joy. It will be familiar to the sufferer of cyclothymia or bipolar disorder as part of the so-called manic phases. The root of the word has to do with someone being raised up, or high–it can therefore be associated with the high places of the Old Testament; the height suggested by the classical word for pride, superbia; and perhaps even the madness spoken of when we say someone is “high” on drugs. Elation in this sense is not a good thing. But it may be evoked by good things.
I think we’ve maybe all had the experience of such negative elation now and again when something unbelievably welcome happens to us. The reason for the excitement may indeed be legitimate–indeed, in the case of today’s passage from 2 Corinthians, St. Paul has experienced nothing less than heaven itself. Still, his body and soul do not respond appropriately, and the saint has started feeling the initial beginnings of elation. Therefore, he says, God has given him a rather hard gift–an angel of Satan sent to humiliate him, to expose his weakness. Now Paul never tells us whether this angel of Satan is literal or metaphorical–nor does he tell us what his weakness is, a curious thing when claiming to boast about it.
Nonetheless, whatever the case, we see an important spiritual principle at work. When beset by the wrong kind of elation, the best thing we can do is turn our attention to something practical that lies at hand, but something we are not good at. It is by inhabiting such weaknesses that we can steady ourselves against the petulant winds of elation, much as St. Paul does when he boasts of his weakness here.
However, it is important to understand that what Paul is describing is not a fetish for suffering, an unhealthy masochism that boasts even more of one’s own suffering than of the Christ in whose service it is allegedly undertaken. Rather, it is something that embarrasses Paul, some lack or inability that seems incongruent with being the man who has seen heaven. Surely such a man after such an experience could never be weak–yet here is Paul in all his weakness!
But to bring the matter home a little more, here is a bit of my own story for what it’s worth. No, I haven’t seen heaven the way St. Paul has. But I have experienced success to a degree. I have a talent for writing, and I have a doctorate in English literature. There are ways that this could lead me to elation.
Yet I also suffer from anxiety and depression, and this can be flat out humiliating. How is it possible to be able to do advanced graduate degrees over a number of years and yet still find some very basic tasks impeded in my day-to-day life because I am afraid of them, or too blank to do them? Getting out of bed, or cleaning the house–after a PhD, one might think these tasks would be easy. But they aren’t. Indeed, at some of the worst times, I haven’t been able to bring myself to read. In such moments, the only thing I can do is try to convince myself to do the next small thing, the thing Servant of God Catherine Doherty of Madonna House calls “the duty of the moment.” It’s not heroic. And it doesn’t fulfill the wilder hopes and dreams I have when I feel elated. But if I can coax my spirit to approach it with the right attitude, an attitude of humble thanksgiving, it can ground me. Like the boy in the crowd who offered his lunch in the hope that Christ could use it to feed multitudes, I must offer to Christ the only thing I have, the thing that lies immediately before me.
To be clear, such weakness related to depression and anxiety is not something I actively desire or seek to maintain–it’s right to seek healing for such things, even as St. Paul does for his “thorn in the flesh” in today’s passage. To be very clear, it is right for me to seek medical treatment, as indeed I do. But when the object of our search for healing is not granted, we have to do the best we can with what we have, and pray that our source of weakness can become a boast that somehow reveals Christ to others.
This is all the more important given the state of our churches. We live during a time when Christian triumphalism abounds, and what is triumphalism if not institutionalized elation? Rather than practicing both faith and life in their full complexity, we want formulae that guarantee our success, often defined in a spiritually-thin way. But what if we have to let go of these dreams of success? What if we have to look at ourselves and our ecclesial communities in all their weaknesses and boast about those? What if this is somehow paradoxically the only way to be witnesses to Christ’s life in us? What if true apologetics is not a matter of vaunting our strengths, but rather of admitting our weaknesses?
None of us can boast of as much sight into heaven as St. Paul. And if even he felt called to boast about his weakness rather than that, is it not right for us with less experience to follow his lead and rest in the particular weaknesses God has blessed us with? Our hearts are forever seeking glory at the wrong times and in the wrong places; but Christ’s gift to us still is the cross. Let us receive it with gratitude.
Karl Persson is Assistant Professor of Literature at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom College in Barry’s Bay, Ontario. His interests include mentoring students, doing research on premodern wisdom literature, and encouraging discussion of mental illness in Christian communities.