Jacob wrestling the angel until daybreak is surely one of the more mysterious and dramatic episodes of the Bible. Jacob not only prevails, but he is given a new name, a new identity: Israel.
Who we are is often shaped by our struggles: our wrestling and the hardships we endure can define and redefine us. The Hebrew Scriptures as we know them come out of the period following the return of the Israelites from exile in Babylon about 500 years before Christ. What seems to have happened was that after returning post-exile there was a re-grouping, a religious re-grouping and a political re-grouping: over the course of two or three centuries priests and scribes gathered together writings from various sources and traditions, old and new. Through some unknown process these priests and scribes defined an official “canon” of scripture. This process was part of Israel’s re-definition following the trauma of exile. These scriptures were an attempt to answer the question: who are we now? What shall we say about ourselves and about the God we worship? I believe it was in this post-exilic period that the people of Israel began to refer to themselves as the Jews. A new period in the history of a people, a new name.
One of the stories in the first scroll of the Hebrew Scriptures—it was all on scrolls—one of the stories was the account of Abraham and his colorful family. We call the first scroll Genesis, meaning the beginning. In Hebrew, b’reshith, or in beginning. The beginning of the universe; the beginning of Israel. The story of Jacob wrestling with the angel was remembered as a way to explain how Israel came to be called Israel. “‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.’” Jacob’s striving with God and with humans (his brother Esau) gives Jacob a new identity, a new beginning as Israel.
Which is a universal human experience. Some kind of struggle or striving leads us to a new sense of personal identity. Or it could be some dramatic or traumatic event. Or, suddenly realizing one day that we’ve changed in some noticeable way. We might even take a new name. I’ve done it myself. At a certain point in my own life of faith I realized that my identity had changed, following a long season of struggle; so I began using my middle name: Mark. People who’ve known me a long time sometimes still call me Roger. It’s traditional in some monastic communities to take a new name, or be given a new name when joining a community. And, of course, many people change names when they get married. New identities, new names. Often connected with some dramatic change, often involving “wrestling with an angel.” Sometimes after returning from exile.
Whether we actually change our names or not, our sense of identity does shift over time; sometimes dramatically so. It may be, or seem to be, all of a sudden. Jacob becomes Israel; Saul becomes Paul. Simon becomes Peter.
But there’s also the common, everyday, garden-variety of incremental change that is difficult to see. Like the hour hand of a clock, we don’t see the movement—but it is moving, it is changing. We live in a world that is in constant flux: some things change very rapidly, some things very slowly. Some changes we see happening before very our eyes; sometimes we only notice after the little changes have added up to something big. “The slow work of God,” as Teilhard de Chardin put it.
We ourselves are in constant flux, physically, mentally, along with the world around us. Our identities are in constant flux, often imperceptibly so, occasionally suddenly or dramatically.
The problem is that we often either don’t see or we refuse to see the changes in ourselves and in one another. One of the benefits of a good old fashioned wedding with lots of friends and family is that it really brings home the idea that two people are changed, they have new identities. Of course, even after the wedding, even after seeing that first public kiss, mom may still think of the groom as the 13 year old kid he once was; dad may still think of the bride as the 5 year old she once was. It can take a while for new identities to sink in.
I remember once the Brothers having a conversation about “frozen roles”. I don’t mean the kind you pop into the oven. I mean our natural tendency to cast each other as characters on the stage of our own inner psycho-drama. People around us get cast in a “frozen role”; r-o-l-e. This kind of psychological projection can be partially based on reality, but it often gets stuck, frozen, in one place. Living in community, living in a healthy way in community, requires, first of all, relating to another human being as that human being (and not as a character in our own inner drama). And secondly, it requires the recognition that no one’s actual identity is frozen. We need to see and recognize the fluidity, the flux, the growth in ourselves and in each other. Identities change—this is the slow work of God. We ourselves and those around us can reach new levels of personal integration, new levels of maturity. (We can go in the other direction too—personalities can “dis-integrate” as well.)
Whether in sudden, dramatic shifts or in imperceptibly small increments, we do change. Sometimes the change even calls for a new name. This requires of us a suppleness of mind to see others in a new light. It requires a spirit of generosity, a spirit of honesty, that makes us willing to see others in a new way—and perhaps to stop seeing someone stuck in the role of villain or hero in our own psycho-drama.
A big component of this suppleness is often forgiveness. In the process of forgiving, forgiver and forgiven can both be changed and able to see each other in new ways. A relationship that may have been stuck in the past now has a new future.
People who have been in conflict need especially to be open to seeing each other in new ways. We do well to reflect deeply on our wrestling matches—they’ve had a hand in shaping who we are. We do well to reflect on our conflicts, for in struggling with others, many have wrestled with angels unawares.
One of my favorite sayings from the Desert Fathers: Abba Poemen said about Abba Pior that every single day he made a fresh beginning.
Every single day—a fresh beginning!
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