written by Stephanie Shockley
Included in our daily office readings today is the passage from Genesis where Jacob travels to meet his brother Esau. Jacob fears the outcome of this meeting – he fears that it could result in his injury or death, and, even if the worst does not occur, Jacob fears that moment when he must stand before his brother and finally face up to the past.
Jacob sends the rest of his household across the Jabbok River (a tributary of the Jordan), and spends the night alone on the riverbank. During the night he is attacked by someone, with whom he wrestles until dawn. Scholars have suggested multiple interpretations about who this “someone” is. Nobody knows for certain – is it another person, a water demon, an angel, God, or, perhaps, just Jacob wrestling with himself – with his own thoughts, feelings, conscience, or anxieties?
This passage resonates deeply with me, just as it has for so many others over the centuries. I’ve always seen it as recognition, as validation, of our human struggles, and the complexity of our lives. We struggle in our relationships with each other, we struggle in our relationship with God, and we struggle within our own hearts and minds, seeking the meaning of our pasts, our heartbreaks, our dreams.
I’ve just come back from two weeks on pilgrimage in the Holy Land. Even now, as I settle back into the rhythms of daily life, I am, at least internally, wrestling. I am wrestling with how to integrate new information, and a changed point of view, into my understanding of the world. I am wrestling with how to describe to others those pilgrimage experiences which feel beyond description. I am wrestling with how to discuss what I observed first hand about one of the most complicated places in the world – how to make sense of awe, anger, wonder, sadness, and inspiration all tied to a brief visit to a place the size of New Jersey, a place so fraught that even choosing one place name over another is seen as taking sides.
I am by no means the first person, and I will not be the last person, to struggle with complex emotions in the aftermath of a pilgrimage.
A pilgrimage, of course, is only one of many events over a lifetime that might cause us to wrestle with some of our most basic, our most essential, questions about life, faith, and our place in the world. Good news, bad news, a cross country move, a death in the family, a new baby, a sudden accident or illness, a change of identity from student to worker, from employed to unemployed, from single to married or vice versa – any one of these things, and so many more – can leave us feeling like Jacob, caught in a profound and unexpected struggle through the long, quiet hours of the night.
Sometimes, there’s no one thing that prompts us to reassess everything – no flash of insight, no major life event. Sometimes we just need to step out of our busyness and re-evaluate what’s going on in our lives. Maybe we’re prompted by hearing about someone else’s struggle. Maybe we take advantage of a particular time or season, such as Lent, which is just around the corner, to spend more time in prayer and introspection.
Whatever the cause of our inner search for meaning and solid ground, we are, just like Jacob, forever changed, and, in all honesty, sometimes scarred, by that with which we wrestle. We will not be exactly the same person we were before. Sometimes life picks us up and spins us around until we have lost all sense of balance. No matter how much we might wish for things to be the way they once were, that is almost never an option. Time marches on; life keeps going. And usually the only thing for us to do is to keep moving forward, bringing our struggles and our pain and our hard won wisdom with us.
The thing I find most comforting about this story, aside from the acknowledgement that it’s normal, and human, to struggle with God, with each other, and with ourselves, is the fact that in the end, Jacob received recognition that he had become somehow different, transformed. He received a new name, an outward sign that something about him was fundamentally different. Along with the new name, he received a blessing. Somehow at the end of his struggle, after the sweat, pain, and tears of the night, there was a blessing at daybreak.
This does not mean that we deserve to suffer in order to receive blessings, or that we must be punished to receive something good. Instead, it’s a simple statement that we are going to struggle with life’s ups and downs anyway, with mistakes and troubles and changes, just as Jacob did. That’s guaranteed. The hope in all of that is that somewhere on the other side of struggle we’ll find new blessings – that through the work of the Holy Spirit we’ll eventually feel reconnected to God and the world around us, in all its beauty and brokenness, and that we’ll see our lives, and the world, anew.
Image: Author at Wadi Qelt (in the West Bank); photo by Dan Shockley
The Rev. Stephanie Shockley is the Priest-in-Charge of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Cross in North Plainfield, NJ. She has also worked as a hospital chaplain as well as a volunteer chaplain to New York City’s activist community.