Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Jacob Wrestled the Angel

"A man wrestled the angel until the angel wounded him in the sinew of his thigh at his hip. The angel commanded the man to let him go. "Not until you bless me," said the man. Not until you bless me. Now I think I know why and how I got hurt. Not until you bless me, God."

Those were my final official thoughts before sleep last night. If you read them on my social media post, here's an expansion on what I was meditating, or mourning over. 

His Hip Was Wrenched

In the book I was reading the Old Testament account of Jacob wrestling the angel. (TEXT Here)
It struck me, that the injury the angel inflicted upon Jacob, touching the "socket of his hip so that his hip was wrenched" (NIV) felt so much like my own injury. Six weeks ago, on a run that was shorter by my standards, I felt a slight strain. By the end of the run, the strain pulled a bit more and by that night was hot and painful to the touch. I stayed on the couch with a bag of peas under the hollow of hip. I tried to run the next day and gave up a mile or so in. It's been like that for most of the past six weeks. 

I've had this pain before, so I assumed it was the same injury, one with a little glucosomine MSM and ibuprofen, I nursed back between short slow runs and long walks within a few weeks. Not that  I was running good times for months, but at least I was out stretching my legs over the miles. Not this time. Every attempt to run led me to bite my lips to bleeding, days of pain med increases, but less pitiful pleading with God. I would be patient this time. Still I wondered. 

He Was Left Alone

Wondering is a lonesome action, done within. It starts with simple cause/effect questions. What did I do to bring this on myself and why has it taken so much longer to recover? Was it poor eating? Not enough protein? Not enough sleep? Training too hard? The questions become interpretive, and sometimes, they are myopic. Was I putting my appetite before fasting? Was I putting my running before serving God and praying? Every time I took my dose of ibuprofen, I wrestled with myself and tried as hard to avoid pleading with God for healing. I wanted to be patient this time, but deep in the darkness of my soul, I've been wrestling. The funny thing about this kind of spiritual myopia is that it develops out of a lack of wise counsel, out of seeing things only one way, often very close up, and misinterpreting. Yet there are other voices involved.

A Man Wrestled With Him 

When wondering and wrestling, voices of doubt and self-hatred are the first to plague me. The desert monastics called this assaulting or tempting thoughts (logosmoi). What starts as a thought invites in other voices. Sometimes, those come not from God. I can't remember the last time I wasn't in a tangle with myself for improvement, or with God, for release. How do I put into words what it looks like to wrestle one's self? To fight the appetites, whether that is fighting stress by eating and drinking, or by trying to instill another habit in its place, in this case, the running. Evagrius Pontious said these kinds of thoughts follow eight traditional patterns: gluttony, fornication, avarice, sorrow, discouragement, anger, vainglory, and pride. Not that we are jumping right into this sin. There are stages along the way, said Fr. Maximos of the Holy Mountain. It starts with the assault, with which we may choose to interact or engage, or not. If we engage, we often move into the third stage where we consent act upon them, then it becomes sin. From there the grip grows. First, we are defeated by them time and again, and finally, they obsess us. This is spiritual darkness on the flip side is another kind of wrestling, with another voice altogether, the one calling us to repentance. I've always tipped back and forth, between the two. I know it's a cliche, but I see myself in the old-timey depictions of the tempest in a teacup.

Wrestled With Him Until Daybreak

I started this in high school. Anger exploded in me. After the rage, sorrow and self-accusation. It carried on as a became a young mother at twenty. I recall complaining about my body, "cow-heavy" in Sylvia Plath's words, as a new parent, crawling angrily from the covers to change a diaper and nurse the infant. When joy became clatter on my senses I explode, "I could use some quiet!" or "Why can't clean up your messes?" Then it became not white hot anger, but cold. "How many times have I ... [insert griping here]." Always it is followed with shame. Biting words, biting lip. A rapier wit, self-abasing apologies. Shame.

I crept into my version of the thicket, akin to the one in which first man and woman hid from God in their nakedness and shame. My version was and is the bathroom, and crawling further in, the cold porcelain of the tub. The cold and left over damp made me shiver. I clawed at myself with kitchen tools, making thorn scrapes, hoping to bleed the sin and sickness out. That too was a sin against myself. Instead I held my breath. I bit my lips. I twisted the skin on my arm, I pinched, bit, bruised. It was a wrestling against demons and impenitent. I wanted to be God's, so I switched tactics. I decided to wrestle Him. 

"Please, God. You made me like this and this is broken. It's not working. Release me. I won't take what you gave me, but I will ask You for reprieve and release." I admit I have asked God to take me from this life. At times, I have bargained for him to take weak me in place of a stronger friend, one with a life sentence of one kind or another. But I am a broken lamb.

Not Until You Bless Me

I think what I meant in those prayers is what Jacob said to angel. "Not until you bless me." I offer this reading to defend this interpretation. Jacob was already physically blessed. Two wives, many sons and daughters, wealthy with animals. The thing was, he had left his father-in-law and was returning to face up to his brother Esau from whom he swiped the birthright. I cannot imagine how he must have quaked, thinking of those sins of his youth. I might be reading into him too much, but I imagine a kind of self-loathing emitting from the corners of his heart, a self-accusation that he had wronged his brother, and must face up. He must accept the consequences to be a man. That often leads to a fight. 

In the prayers before Communion, we say St. John of Damascus' words: "Consume the accusations of my sins" through the Eucharist. Eucharist means "thanksgiving" and it is what we offer back to God when He became the oblation, the sacrifice for us, and we offer it and our very selves back to him. Jacob was there, wrestling all night long, even after the man injured him, he would not give up. The man said, "Let me go, for it is daybreak." "Not until you bless me," replied Jacob. Jacob wrestled in spite of injury. He fought on. Stubborn soul. He would face pain, anything, to get release, to get the blessing, to feel he was accepted and loved and free from the thorns within. 

What Is Your Name?

In Eucharist, we approach the Chalice and the priest says, "Handmaiden of the Lord [name],..." And we open our mouths, in our weakened state and receive and give thanksgiving offered up to God, not empowered by us, but by Him. It is both offering and blessing. It is the mystery of giving and receiving at once. Give God that which is Gods. Receive his body and blood or have no part of Him. And, we get named in it. The angel asked Jacob, "What is your name?" 

"Jacob," he replied and the man answered, Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel,[a] because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”

He got a new name, a blessed name, in his new state. He was made new. Often, Orthodox Christians have another name by which they approach for Eucharist. They are new creatures in Christ, as Jacob was made with that blessing. He had wrestled. He didn't know it was God with whom he had been wrestling, or maybe he knew, perhaps at least in part. He had wrestled for love of his father, for individuation from his mother, for his birthright and identity, having stolen part of it, and for his status as man of his house. His father-in-law had tricked him as he had tricked his own dad, and his brother.  Jacob knew he needed to leave behind trickery to start his life over in the place where he was born, to start right.

The Sun Rose Above Him

I cried myself to sleep, wracked with a new understanding of Jacob's wrestling the angel, and the joy of the angel overcoming. But Jacob got what he needed. He fought the law and the law won, but he was new, free and blessed. He was also injured. It says the Sun rose above Peniel, named by Jacob as the place where he saw God "face-to-face and [his] life was spared". But he left with a limp. 

I wondered in my sobs, would I ever see this hip get better? Will I limp forever? Will I run again? I'm about to admit, I must set aside those questions. For what is the real healing here? I need a new self. I need to revoke the logosmoi that haunts me, that wants me to act on it, and let it become my passion. I need a blessing. That, my friends, is why I approach the Eucharist every week. I didn't earn one bit of what I get in that moment that I am reminded of God's unity with me, with his gift to me, and what really I have to be thankful for- HIM! Glory to God in all things.

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