This is the second post written by our guest blogger Kylan Rice. His essay explores the idea of wrestling with God as found in Genesis chapter 32. To read his first post click here.
THE DAY BREAKETH
by Kylan Rice
It’s not often that God’s finger reaches through the cosmic ether into a recognizable dimension, beckoned, perhaps, by prayer to light a stone or two―a handful of lithic lamps designed to illuminate a crossing of “great waters in darkness” (Ether 2:22). Unlike the brother of Jared, we are more often than not required to operate based on stirrings of the veil, rather than rents and tears in the fabric of space and time through which divine parts pass. The universe shimmers as a shroud before the face of God, and we find ourselves kneeling by light rather than by lifted finger. In an essay found in the November 2006 issue of Poetry magazine that neatly links theology and poetry, Matthew Fitzgerald notes that “both [poetry and Christianity] recognize a basic elusiveness; both testify to the fact that we see and don’t see, seize and don’t seize; both acknowledge a greater reality pulsing just beyond the boundary” (132). Each of us interface with God in separate fashion. For some, God roars through life with all the tonnage of a waterfall. For others, he is on the tip of a tongue, the edge of a hem. For others still, he is light seen from the corner of the eye, sparking out of a gram of darkness. For these latter, faith is an act of groping, scraping, kicking against the pricks. A feat of wrestling, pinning, begging for keeps. For some, God is elusive―but it is in these variations and aberrations that personal, intimate faithfulness can materialize. In the act of wrestling with God, we sweat against sweat, rake tendon against tendon, lock arm and neck through the night “until the breaking of the day” (Gen. 32: 24).
I first came across the story of Jacob and the angel in a poem entitled “Art” by Herman Melville. In this cryptic lyric, Melville examines the conflict that exists in an act of creation. He writes, “Instinct and study; love and hate;/ Audacity―reverence. These must mate,/ And fuse with Jacob’s mystic heart/ To wrestle with the angel―Art”. For me, it’s this notion of dichotomies and dynamic opposition that drives both the poem and the original story. I read the section found in Genesis 32: 24-30 as an allegory on struggles with faith―visceral contests with God and heaven. Access to God is ever a conflict between “instinct and study”, as faith oscillates between the tangs of divinity inherent within us and the hard, intellectual labor involved in attaining transcendence. These problems are more real (and more integral to faith) than the typical believer might acknowledge, as Dr. Phillip Barlow asserts on a Mormon Matters podcast (Episode 73) when he notes that “doubt is not the opposite of faith, but absolute, antiseptic certainty is”. No good thing comes without conflict and opposition. In a metaphorical sense, we may often feel as though we are wrestling with an angel, alternately crying out “let me go, for the day breaketh” (the angel’s line, I concede) or “I will not let thee go, except thou bless me”. Our relationships with God are not static. They stretch, bend, contract and dilate, rarefy and compress―as is true of any relationship, earthly or divine, that has a chance of lasting. Wrestling, then, is a form of communion―a word implying a reconciliation of sorts. For those entangled with angels, such a communion functions as an exchange, an ebb and flow, a transaction of sorrows and joys.
The emphasis on names in this passage demonstrates an assertion of identity, but also a reassignment of identity. How do we go about the business of transcending a name―evolving, as Jacob, past the title of our birth to an alias given us by God? According to this scripture, how we are called dictates blessings, curses, privileges and responsibilities. I think that Romeo sorely underestimating the power and impact of naming when he soliloquized “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Does a name hold reality? Or is it a mere symbol―a marker denoting, in this case, an evolution? A name, like any word, conglomerates, gathers together. By compressing a thing through a name, we are better able to understand and carry it. Jacob inquires after the name of the angel. In this fashion, he attempts to grasp the angel as an ideal, a concept. Jacob seeks to know the angel and all its parts, just as we wrestle to know God. To me, Jacob’s query sounds like a plea.
God, stay with me―I would know you by your name.
What we often overlook in the notion of being “born again” is the utter violence involved in giving birth. We fixate on the beauty, the aftermath, the innocence, bypassing the blood and bone that brought us into our new skins. Rebirth is no different, and even pulls at old scars. It’s problematic when we equate a moment of baptism or vocally claimed salvation with the moment of rebirth, without any of the gory trappings acknowledged. We also tend to forget birth involves two parties and two sets of howls. Newton’s third law of motion suggests that the earth itself experiences a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction to that which it exerts gravitationally on a falling object. That means that when a ball bounces against the floor, the earth and the ball both move to arrive at each other. The movement of the earth is, of course, infinitesimal compared to the movement of the ball, but this phenomenon provides interesting insight into the real, tangible effect that the seemingly insignificant has on the genuinely massive. Indeed, in a similar way, it makes good sense that our struggles to be reborn affect God in kind. We cannot be reborn alone. Salvation is a struggle, a gravitation, a intractable act of wrestling. It is remarkable to note that the angel was not prevailing over Jacob. But how is it possible that a mortal could give an immortal being such difficulty? I don’t think that this was necessarily a competition of strength, but an unavoidable meeting, an inexorable acceleration of two bodies toward each other―not because they sought to destroy one another, but because their very natures called for entanglement.
Rather than interpreting this skirmish as an act of aggression motivated by opposing wills, the contest between Jacob and the angel is one of intimacy. President Brigham Young wrote that we must “struggle, wrestle and strive until the Lord bursts the veil and suffers us to behold his glory, or a portion of it.” Indeed, once the angel has departed, Jacob names the place of conflict “Peniel” or “the face of God”, and explains, “I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved” (Gen. 32:30). The wrestling match operated as a instant of apprehension, where Jacob was able to know God through struggle, intimately enough to burst the veil for a moment and learn the contours of his face, much as the brother of Jared saw God’s finger―and later, his entire body. We are encouraged often to submit ourselves―to fate, the will of heaven, our enemies―to pass through God as lightness and joy. But is there not good also in collision? In the manic acrobatics for a blessing? A struggle with God affirms the existence of both he and us. Do we not know a thing by pushing against it?
Communion with God is less an act of worship as it is an act of interchange. You’ve wrestled with your brother and shouted at your mother. I suspect that we unfairly idealize standards for our relationships with God. Being eternal, God can encompass the supremest joys as well as the most trenchant sorrows. Above all, until we seek to know the travails and sinews, too, of the one through whom we are being reborn, God will necessarily remain unknowable. After quoting Karl Barth as having said “God veils himself precisely when he unveils, announces and reveals himself”, Matthew Fitzgerald writes, “who wants to read a poem that is too easily understood? Such poems are like easily grasped gods, capable of carrying a message, perhaps, but not capable of pointing toward the truth” (133). Fitzgerald’s argument extends to our relationship with God, who is not easily graspable, who exists behind a veil that thins and thickens, tears and mends itself at various stages of life. But in grasping after him, he points us to the truth, blesses us, christens us, and fills the morning with daylight, unnamed and unnamable.