A Thorn in the Flesh

By Bayo Akomolafe, originally posted to Facebook (November 13, 2021)

I learned this morning about what some news outlets – referring to the stubborn persistence of the coronavirus despite the exertions of the global nation-state order, the pharmaceutical complex, and our increasingly medicalized lives – are haltingly calling “the fifth wave.” Time Magazine asks, “Is the Fifth Wave Coming?” (https://time.com/6117006/covid-19-fifth-wave/). USA Today, through its interviewed experts, writes – as if in response: Yes, and “we may simply come to call it winter.” From France to Pakistan, numbers are creeping up, new mutations are on the horizon, and worried officials with wrinkled foreheads are declaring that the virus is here to stay – no matter what we do.

Reading these reports, I was reminded of those biblical passages I was hunched over as an obsessed teenager – the letters of Paul, undulating prose cross-textured with a messianic lilt and soft humble whispers of self-deprecating awareness. I once delighted in reading the nomadic evangelist’s notes – often under warm candlelight, and was struck by the similar undertones of pathos and lamentation that entangles his letters to the Corinthians with this morning’s pandemic news. In particular, Paul’s passage about the “thorn in the flesh” came to mind:

“And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.'”

The theological jury is still out on what he was referring to by a “thorn in the flesh.” Was it a sickness? A daemon that whispered in his ears day and night? A human adversary? A literal thorn? A political nuisance of some kind? A conceptual villain?

Whatever the “thorn” was, it is significant that Paul characterizes this annoying interlocutor in the narrative of his life as a sacred gift, something resisting solutions, an opening in his armor whence an amazing grace – sufficient and abundant – might be found.

As I travelled through Europe two weeks ago, wandering past more-than-life-sized lithic homages to imperial geniuses sprinkled across Lisboa, strolling over the city’s cobblestoned streets manufactured with “pedra portuguesa” – the traditional-style pavement stones made for pedestrian areas that distinctly reminded me of my many visits to Brazil – on my way to get a PCR test, I was powerfully struck with a fuller weight of the words I had only written about up till then: “normal isn’t coming back.”

At some level, most of us suspect this: there is no “post-pandemic.” We may not have words for it yet, but in 2020 the virus exploded with the brilliance of a thousand and one suns, and a little bit of its shimmering fury was deposited in our common flesh, piercing through colonizer and colonized, haunting the gears of unbothered continuity, glitching the rituals of the everyday. A thorn in the flesh.

Now, people around the world are reportedly resigning from their jobs (some call it a “pandemic epiphany”); teenagers and “millenials” in China, much to the chagrin of the country’s officials and gatekeepers of labour, are rediscovering the gift of lethargy (“lying flat…is justice”, declare leaders of this rejuvenated movement, in words that must resonate with my sister, founder of the Nap Ministry and acclaimed nap bishop, Tricia Hersey); business leaders are asking questions about the ontology of work; and, in a plot twist for the eternally ironic, 1.6 billion discarded masks are swimming in the ocean, threatening to outpace their less intelligent aquatic cousins, jellyfish (https://www.theguardian.com/…/more-masks-than-jellyfish…).

What makes thinking Paul’s metaphor alongside contemporary epidemiological inflections generative is that it drags our attention to notice that there are often material arrangements that resist resolution, and that we are swimming in (and exposed to) ecologies of desire that move us into strange territories. For me, a thorn in the flesh is a matter of becoming-animal, becoming-fugitive, descending into the amniotic site of the slave ship – the lodestar of the Human Project – and meeting this awkward grace that exists for the crippled, for the civilizationally disabled, for the undone.

Paul certainly didn’t intend his sermons and intimate confessions of vulnerability to be uncritically stretched to apply to our contemporary impasses, but I suspect – perhaps as haltingly as today’s experts and their warnings about impending “waves” – that we cannot save ourselves. That our solutions are pebblestones rolling off Goliath’s back. And that there is a way to gather, a ‘place’ to gather, an “mbari”, a knock on the door, a pedagogical carnival, a site of the otherwise – where we might re/member prayer, where we might learn how to be defeated. To find that place, one must run one’s fingers across the tender topography of our fleshly commonwealth until you get to the riven crack, stinging and painful, heralded by a prickly thorn, anointed by a strange grace.

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