Sitting on the couch this morning, Skye the Schnauzer snoozing in my lap, I’m reading James Finley’s Christian Meditation and understanding some of it. His fine book carefully explores the practice of contemplative prayer.
After a couple of pages, I think it’s time to try my hand at the practice again:
Sitting up straight. Eyes closed. Hands resting in my lap, palms up. Muscles relaxing. Breathing deeply. Repeating my default breath prayer. . . .
Then I notice a pain in my hip; it’s my IT band, which is often unhappy and needing a stretch. The problem, though, is much worse these days, as I’ve developed an autoimmune disease that makes muscles overly painful at the least bit of exercise. (Fortunately, with good medical care the disease is under control — in no way life-threatening, but in several ways life-annoying.)
Back to the practice:
Breathing. . . Repeating the prayer words. . . Relaxing into God’s presence. . . .
But my thoughts soon wander off (as usual). This time to another case of a hurting hip: Jacob, who wrestled with God at the Jabbok River.1 The old patriarch was facing his biggest crisis — returning home with his wives and children after many years, which meant that he’d have to face brother Esau the next morning. Jacob remembered Esau’s parting words so long ago: “Little brother, when our daddy is in his grave, you’ll be in yours, too.”2 That anger was the inconvenient consequence of Jacob’s betrayal; the younger boy had stolen his brother’s patriarchal blessing.
So there was Jacob, a tormented soul, the night before an inevitable confrontation with Esau, wrestling a midnight opponent who turned out to be Divine. But poor Jacob was handicapped in the contest: his hip hurt, just like mine. (Well, maybe not like mine because Jacob’s hip was dislocated in the wrestling story, and mine is just aching a bit from too much walking yesterday — but close enough a parallel to play with the metaphor.)
Jacob’s dreamlike contest is so rich with nuance and mystery that readers have found multiple meanings. As I think about the tale today, I imagine that Jacob, wrestling with God, was actually struggling with his history of deception, a bad habit that now haunted him. Perhaps he was wrestling with shame, with the long-standing ego need always to win, to get his way, to outsmart every opponent.
Trouble was that this time his opponent was The Almighty. Hard to win that contest. And in the story God turns out to be a canny wrestler, and, frankly, a cheater. Early in the struggle The Almighty threw Jacob’s hip out of joint. But in spite of the throbbing pain the old patriarch refused to give up, still pinning his Divine opponent to the ground.
And I wonder about that. How can a man in a wrestling match, with a dislocated hip, hold his heavier opponent to the ground? Not possible. Yet dislocated Jacob is able to keep God pinned down? I remember the fine British scholar John Goldingay suggesting that God was allowing Jacob to hold God down, allowing him to think he was winning. God even gave in as he pronounced a blessing over Jacob, as demanded. Because that was Jacob’s psychosis: seeing himself as the little brother who thinks he is unloved, who believes the only way to get a blessing is to steal it. So God lets Jacob think he has won — clutching again a stolen blessing as he gets up from the mat, having persevered. But Jacob’s hip is in agony. He limps from the scene. Wounded. With a wound that is both pain and grace, a perennial reminder that you wind up hurting yourself whenever you think yourself unloved.
So, as snoozing SkyeDog shifts and sighs, I wonder what my wound wants to teach me.
1 See Gen 32:22-32.
2 A paraphrase of Gen 27:41.