Thorn in the Flesh

FAITHWALK, JULY 2005, by Carl W. Cleveland
“An Ominous but Reassuring Scripture Passage”

Just before my federal court trial was set to begin in 1997, I attended my daughter’s graduation from Franciscan University with a master’s degree in theology. At a post-graduation lunch I was approached by an old and faith-filled friend to pray about my upcoming ordeal.  She said that a relatively obscure bible passage had come to mind, and she felt constrained to share it with me.  The passage was 2 Cor. 12, 1-10.

I was at first mystified about the relevance of this passage to my life.  It spoke passionately of St. Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” that tormented him and caused him to question how a loving and merciful God could let this suffering come to him.  The passage goes on to give Paul’s explanation that he learned through many difficult experiences:  It is in our suffering that God is glorified, and we experience God in palpably real ways.  If we persevere in faith, we eventually triumph, and during our struggles, God is always close at hand.  He showers us with the graces necessary to muddle through and sends his inexplicable peace to us as we struggle.

I have had a similar learning curve to St. Paul’s.  This passage was profoundly prophetic of my personal ordeal.  My thorn in the flesh was to be prosecuted and convicted wrongly of nonexistent federal crimes. My life was totally shattered in every way.  I didn’t know how my wife and children would survive on a day-to-day basis, and I was sentenced to over ten years in prison.

After the passage from Corinthians was first given to me I read and reread it many times searching for reassurance.  I had no clue to its meaning at first, but it kept reappearing.  It was the reading at Mass on the day my trial started. A long-time priest friend sent the passage to me in the first letter I received in prison, when I was in total despair.  Over time, I began to understand that I was called to surrender my life and ambitions totally to God and to accept in faith that my ordeal would serve a greater good.

Instantly upon my surrender, an overwhelming sense of peace enwrapped me and never left during two and a half years of daily hell in prison. Paul’s experience led me to understand that our greatest power as human beings comes during our times of greatest suffering and powerlessness to control our own lives.  But that’s not all.  Eventually, great joy returns to the lives of the faithful.

As you may know, the United States Supreme Court unanimously reversed my conviction in the record short time of 28 days after the hearing, and they ordered my assets restored.  My first public appearance after my release was at a huge Baptist church in Atlanta that had prayed for my release and wrote to me weekly in prison. As I waited to give my witness to a huge crowd, I went to Mass nearby, and the sermon was on the meaning of 2 Cor. 12: 1-10.  Surely, this was no coincidence.  This special passage promises eventual triumph to those who suffer and abundant graces while the ordeal is ongoing.

I have written at length about these extraordinary experiences many times in the past.  Last week my daughter called to say that on Saturday the scripture readings included the now familiar 2 Cor. 12, 1-10.  This news sent a chill up my spine because I had just learned that morning that my bone cancer, which had been in remission for quite some time, has apparently reappeared in lesions in my ribs and spine.  Based on past experience, I am in for a difficult time.

As I brace myself for more rounds of radiation therapy and chemotherapy, I am confident of several things:  Our loving God will be very close to me in the days ahead.  The consolation of his Holy Spirit will bring me inexplicable peace if I can cheerfully surrender to His will without whining or complaint.  No matter what comes, if I can faithfully do my part, this chapter of my life will end in triumph in one way or another.

I have to admit that at first I was disturbed by the bad news. I feel vibrantly healthy, and my life has been so blessed since my return home from prison and unprecedented survival of my original cancer two years ago.  One thought that ran through my consciousness was that it might be time to give up writing this column.  Then I reconsidered because I may be living lessons that can be of help to others who face death and difficulty, if I can candidly share my journey with you as events unfold.  I will give it my best shot, hoping that my experience can be of help to others.

As St. Paul observed, it is in our powerlessness and suffering that our greatest power is achieved.

Note from Kitty:  On Monday, June 20, 2005 we learned that the cancer has also spread to his hip.  The radiologist has given him 18-36 months to live, assuming aggressive radiation and chemotherapy.  Also, if you are interested in the story of his whole ordeal, it is in the book Amazing Grace for Those Who Suffer, edited by Jeff Cavins and Matt Pinto.  My dad’s experience also inspired the song “Surrender” on my first CD.

Follow-up from Kitty: On July 8th, 2006, my dad came home from the hospital to die in Hospice care.  A friend who had just come from the vigil Mass said that the reading made her think of him: 2 Cor. 12: 1-10.  He died 13 days later, July 21, 2006, but only after a couple of amazing miracles.  For the full story, you can order my new CD from Lighthouse Catholic Media, God Will Provide, which includes my 2008 testimony and nine songs. God is so amazing!


  1. Just attended Good Shepard in Colleyville, Texas…incredibly moving!  Thank you for blessing us with your presence, sharing your story and your spirit!  God bless you and your family as you continue your journey!

  2. We heard this Sunday your beautiful story of your walk with Christ on Relavent Radio in Austin, Texas. Thank you for sharing with us such a inspiring and uplifting walk with Jesus.

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