July 7, 2009

Jacob Wrestles

I know I have written similar posts before, but every time Jacob's wrestling with the Presence of God (Genesis 32: 23-33) comes around in the readings, I am just overwhelmed by the intensity of the passage as a model of prayer.

The incident happens at night, signifying the obscurity of the experience of prayer. Our intellect before the Divine Light is like the physical eye staring into the sun; it is blinded and becomes nearly useless; nothing can be made out in the intensity of the light. Divine Illumination is so bright that we only experience it as an interior darkness.

Jacob asks two things from the Presence with Whom he wrestles. He asks for a blessing, and this he receives in the form of his new name, Israel. Within his new name is his vocation, his calling and privileged role within the history of salvation and the economy of grace.

He then asks to know the name of the One with whom he is contending, and this he does not receive. "Why should you want to know my name?"

So it is with us in prayer; we receive one thing but not the other. Through prayer we receive the blessing of our vocation. Perhaps we will know only the very next step, but this is how it is with God. God is in eternity, and exists in an eternal Now, the nunc stans of the scholastic theologians. But this too is part of God's mercy; if our whole journey were revealed to us ahead of time, many of us would leave the path in dread. Nevertheless; this is the primary grace of prayer: to hear the quiet but insistent voice of God within.

But the Presence itself remains mysterious; indeed, He will seem ever more mysterious and alien over time. Our minds yearn to understand the experience of God, and this is nothing to be ashamed of, because it is the nature of the mind to want to know. But the understanding of the Presence retreats from us, and many times we leave our prayer blessed, but feeling as if we know less about who God is than when we started. "Why should you want to know my name?"

Finally, Jacob leaves the experience injured. Having been struck in his hip socket, he goes through the world with a limp from then on. So it is with all who set themselves earnestly on the path of prayer; the experience of God opens up a new wound in our being, and we are pierced with the knowledge that the world in which we have lived thus far is not the last word. We have lost the innocence of those who go through this life knowing only the visible world. As Ben Kenobi put it so well, "You have taken your first step into a larger world." After we become true practioners of prayer, we will always limp a little bit in this world, because from then on we will a always be alien and stranger.

3 comments:

LM said...

That is one of my favorite Old Testament readings. As many times as I have read it, I have never pondered on it. I will now have new insights on a story that enjoyed that will make it even better.

And you weaved in a Jedi quote. Huh. Pretty good

ben in denver said...

Thank you for this beautiful reflection.

I'm reminded of the first bishop of Denver, Rt. Rev. Joseph Projectus Machebuef. While still the Apostolic Vicar of Colorado, he was visiting his flock in Central City when his wagon fell off the mountainside. His traveling companions thought the task of looking for his body would be too arduous, and there was no though at all that he might have survived the fall. Several hours later he crawaled out of the canyon and back up to the road badly bruised and with a broken leg.

It never did heal correctly, and he walked with a pronounced limp for the rest of his days.

In many many ways Joseph Machebuef is the father of the church here in Colorado. At his death one prominent Denver priest called him our St. Patrick. His mark on this place is indelible. He is like a Jacob to us, a father in faith to our little piece of the people of God.

pennyante said...

A couple of things struck me. Nothing is said about where or when the man arrived. Simply that he wrestled with Jacob. Nothing led up to his arrival except that Jacob was alone. If Jacob had gone with his family, this encounter would not have happened.

I had to read some of the previous chapter to understand what Jacob's mental state was. He was very much afraid of Esau, who was out to destroy Jacob's wives and children so that God's promise made to Jacob could not be fulfilled. By winning over the divine "man", Jacob's probably also recognized that Esau could not hurt him - surely his fear left him.

Finally, the man had to leave before daybreak. Not like a vampire who would perish when the sun struck him, but because Jacob would be blinded by the Divine Presence's brilliance in the light of day...

Thank you for that reflection.