Results from the Wrestling
Limping and Leaving the Past Behind.
I expect a lot from my times in prayer. Arguably, a bit too much. I love that Pauline image of a peace *"which surpasses all understanding..."* and I desire it often in my spiritual life.
Sometimes I get it, other times I don't. Not often, but on occasion, I tend to get something of the opposite.
I'm given something to contend with. Something that can't be solved instantly, or that takes time to process, something that can't be simply "actioned" away. Maybe you know what I'm getting at.
It reminds me a bit of my namesake, the patriarch Jacob.
Setting the scene.
In the lead up to the thirty-second chapter of Genesis, Jacob had a pretty wild run with things. He's lied to his dying father, stolen from his twin brother, been tricked into working for his uncle for 14 years, got married, twice, and had not an insignificant number of wacky dreams.
And we think our lives are a mess. Perhaps they are given our context, but at least we're not the guy with two feuding wives and a brother who's probably en route to run him through. But I digress.
So Jacob's made some arrangements to keep his family safe, he knows his brother Esau is on the way with four hundred men, and all he can do is wait. Wait and think. Wait and think and wrestle.
A perplexing passage.
Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?”And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
— Genesis 32:24-31
There's a vast amount of commentary upon this passage of Sacred Scripture, and it's one that tends to perplex people a bit on a more spiritual reading. There's many different points to dive into with it.
Nonetheless, I think it contains many deep lessons about prayer.
Faced with the coming climax of his life's actions so far, Jacob has to struggle with all the pride, fear, and whatever else comes with the thought of four-hundred-and-one men marching towards you throughout nightfall. And he struggles with it all night.
But not alone.
He struggles with God, or an angel depending on your interpretative lens. Jacob has to contend with a spiritual reality that could change his approach to what's facing him. But that's jumping past my point a bit.
Struggling at length.
I think it's easy for us to skim over on an initial reading of the passage that Jacob struggles with God "until daybreak." That’s a long time to be exerting yourself against anything, let alone the source of everything.
Pope Francis has recently at times discussed the need to resist the urge to quick-fix problems or questions that face the faithful today, he encourages us at times to "sit in the tensions." There's something of Jacobean aspect to that.
Sometimes we don't have a quick and easy answer, sometimes we don't know how to approach a problem or why our current one is losing it's footing.
But we can't throw in the towel, either. We need the struggle. And we need to struggle at length with what faces us.
Some of the Friars of the Renewal phrase this type of situation as "A moral struggle to have."
Limping toward peace.
And for Jacob, the Patriarch, the wrestling brings two things:
Earlier I said that the wrestling could affect Jacob's approach to his upcoming situation, but that is quite literally what happened. He limped away, as the end of our passage so explicitly marks.
I've never had a hip dislocated, but I am told by people that have it's is quite painful. And we see in the following chapter for the namesake of a future nation, pain that had to have brought about a deep humility.
As he goes to face the brother that should by all means be planning to kill him on the spot, Jacob limps to meet him. Talk about a piece of humble pie.
But maybe there's something in the limp, an outer sign of structural weakness, that speaks to the inner security of a changed man. And perhaps Esau sees that.
Let me be clear, first. The following account of Jacob & Esau's reunion sems to make it abundantly clear that Esau never meant to bring any harm to his brother. But put yourself in his shoes for a second:
You're coming to make peace with a man who robbed you.
Not to mention you haven't seen him in over 14 years, who knows what that guy's going to do? He could feel scared, cornered, or opportunistic and bloodthirsty.
I'd want a few people at my back too given the circumstances.
But then Jacob arrives, mostly alone, limping and bowing, hurting and humbled from the wrestling. It's clearly not the person you knew before in any sense.
Perhaps Esau sees the limps and bows and the knot in his stomach starts to ease a bit. For the first time in a long time, he sees his brother, vulnerable and scared, so he runs to him. Then there's peace, and closure, and reconciliation.
And the struggle begins to ease a bit.
The struggle can hurt, it can leave us limping even, but it might not hurt forever. Maybe a result of our wrestling and prayer can be frustrating and uneasy. But it could also be that result which guides us into the way of peace that we seek in the first place.
Prayer isn't always a walk through the green pastures by a riverbed, trying to force it to be would be performative thinking.
Sometimes prayer is a wrestling, and the result of that wrestling will lead us, uncomfy as we are, in how to face what's before us.