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Praying At Night – Br. James Koester

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Genesis 32: 22 – 32
Psalm 17: 1 – 8
Matthew 9: 32 – 38

It was the winter term of Grade 9, and for gym class we were being taught some of the finer points of wrestling. As I am sure you can imagine, even though I had the weight, I didn’t have the strength, the aptitude, the dexterity, or more importantly the interest, to make a wrestler. But none the less, day after day, I would be assigned a partner, and within seconds, I would be flat on the mat with my opponent once again triumphant. I don’t think I ever lasted more than a few seconds, and I am sure that I never once prevailed.

With my dismal wrestling record, I can’t really imagine what it would be like to be so evenly matched, that you could actually wrestle all through the night, before one or other prevailed, yet this is exactly what happened that night with Jacob.

The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 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.[1]

It was only as dawn was breaking, that Jacob’s hip joint was thrown out, and the night time contest came to an end.

I can’t really imagine being involved in an all night wrestling contest, never mind prevailing, or at least not being totally humiliated, except that I can. I have. And like Jacob, by soul bears the wound, the memory.

Sister Rosemary, of the Sisters of the Love of God in Oxford, had come to Emery House one summer to lead our community retreat. She spoke one day of the power and grace of praying in the middle of the night. She encouraged us, at least once during the retreat, to set our alarms for some time during the night, and get out of bed in order to spend an hour in prayer.

One night I did just that. I can’t remember when I got up, it must have been 1 or 2 AM and I had been asleep for several hours. The alarm woke me up. Bleary eyed, I threw my blankets off me, got up, made a mug of hot chocolate, and sat in one of the rockers, and wrapped myself in a blanket. I had no idea what to expect. I guessed that in a short while sleep would overcome me and I would crawl back into bed. But that’s not what happened.

For some reason I decided to pray for victims of violence, and more to the point, people who were victims of violence at that very moment. As I prayed, I prayed for both the victim and the perpetrator. Slowly, over time I began to imagine myself standing between the two, literally, and physically keeping them apart. As I prayed, I felt the strain in my muscles as I struggled to keep the one away from the other, and the other safe.

As I prayed that night, my prayer became, not an activity of the mind, or even of the heart, but my body as well. As I prayed that night, I was not simply thinking of how to keep two people apart, I was physically keeping them apart, although I was the only person in my hermitage.

I sat that way for an hour, struggling with all my might, until at last, exhausted, I crawled back into bed where in moments, I fell into a deep sleep.

I can’t imagine wrestling all through the night with an evenly matched opponent. Except I can. Except I have. In my imagination, Jacob’s all night struggle with his unnamed opponent, is not all that dissimilar from my experience of praying in the middle of the night. And like Jacob, while I do not limp away from the scene of the struggle, I have been changed by it.

Father Benson reminds us that none can come to Christ … and go away as they came… Our coming to Christ changes everything.[2]That is certainly true for Jacob, who wrestled with God, and who was changed because of it, limping on his way to encounter his brother Esau, with a new name to reflect his encounter with the divine.

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.’[3]

This story of Jacob, now Israel, struggling with God is one deeply embedded in our spiritual landscape. We may not think of ourselves as Jacob, but who has not struggled mightily with God, as we attempt to discover God’s will for us? Who has not struggled mightily with God, as we attempt to find our path, our way? Who has not struggled mightily with God, as we attempt to follow God’s call?

Even Jesus wrestled with God.

[Jesus] … went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. When he reached the place, he said to them, ‘Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.’ [[Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.]]When he got up from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief, and he said to them, ‘Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’[4]

But something happens when we wrestle with God. It happened with Jacob. It happened with Jesus, and the promise of God is that it will happen with us.

Then an angel from heaven appeared to [Jesus] and gave him strength.[5]And there he blessed [Jacob].[6]

Unlike my opponents in gym class, God does not wrestle with us in order to crush us, but to bless us, to give us strength. And in blessing and strengthening us, God changes us, for none can come to Christ … and go away as they came… Our coming to Christ changes everything.

That night as I sat wrestling in my prayer with unseen forces, I found myself wrestling with God, not as an opponent, who was trying to crush and defeat me, but as a companion, as Emmanuel, as God with us, who wrestled with, and not against me, and who wanted first and foremost to bless me.

The memory of that night spent in prayer has been a blessing, even after all these years, because that night I discovered God to be a companion who wrestles with, and not against, and who strengthens and blesses, even in the sweat and struggle of wrestling.

It is that same companion who wrestled with, and not against, and who blessed Jacob – Israel, and who strengthened Jesus.

The promise of God, even in the face of struggle, is the promise of divine companionship in the face of adversity, and who will strengthen, and bless us, allowing us at last to prevail. 

Whatever it is that is before us, whatever it is that we wrestle with, whatever is our struggle, it may take our all, but God will strengthen us. God will bless us. God will allow us at least to prevail. And having prevailed we will be changed, for none can come to Christ … and go away as they came… Our coming to Christ changes everything,even our name.

‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’


[1]Genesis 32: 22 – 25

[2]Benson, Richard Meux, Spiritual Readings: Christmas;page 260

[3]Genesis 32: 28

[4]Luke 22: 39 – 46

[5]Luke 22: 43

[6]Genesis 32: 29c

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