The Wound and the Blessing

print by Jack Baumgartner

print by Jack Baumgartner

When I began writing this meditation on Jacob wrestling with God and its implications for the spiritual life, I did not intend it to be another essay on suffering. Yet the theme came of its own accord, and has some continuity with thoughts posted here, here, and here.

The story, found in Genesis 32, should be familiar. Jacob, traveling to meet his estranged brother Esau, camps alone at the ford of Jabbok.

And Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and Jacob’s thigh was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Tell me, I pray, your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his thigh.

The stranger is usually seen in the Christian tradition as Christ himself. Perhaps the most conventional moral interpretation emphasizes Jacob’s persistence. In refusing to let God go, he receives a blessing; so also must we be persistent in prayer and struggle in faith. Another, almost opposite interpretation sees the struggle as God destroying our willfulness, teaching us to submit and “let God.” But these readings in themselves make little sense of the most striking aspects of the text.

My own exegesis of this passage focuses on the wound, which I first began to contemplate after reading a passage in Scott Cairns’s memoir Short Trip to the Edge. Here, an ordinary Athonite monk uses the story of Jacob and the stranger to illustrate for Cairns a mystery of the life of prayer.

[Father Iakovos] placed a hand on his chest, just above his abdomen. “You have to hold on to Him,” he said, “with all your strength…. You have to plead with Him to meet you here…. And when He arrives, you must hold on to Him and not let go. Like Jacob,” he said, “you must hold on to Him…. And like Jacob,” he met my eyes with new intensity, “you will be wounded. Like Jacob, you must say, ‘I will not let You go unless you bless me,’ and then the wound, the tender hip thereafter, the blessing…. He is everything,” Father Iakovos continued, “and ever-present. He is never not here,” he said, touching his upper abdomen, “but when you plead to know He’s here, and when He answers you, and helps you to meet Him here, you will be wounded by that meeting. The wound will help you know, and that is the blessing.” (136-137)

Continue reading

Dominus Historiae: Conclusion

The younger Daniélou

Continuing my review of Jean Daniélou’s The Lord of History from here.

Before I get into the meat of this conclusion, comparing Daniélou’s views of history to those of other recent Christian thinkers, I would like to contrast him with someone whose views were opposite in just about every respect: his brother.

The spiritual trajectory of Jean Daniélou’s younger brother, Alain, was a great influence on Jean. The Daniélou family was, to put it mildly, religiously conflicted. Whereas Jean took the faith of his devout mother (while rejecting her harsh moral vision—she was considered a fanatic even among Catholics), Alain was closer to his radically anticlerical father, and in his teens repudiated Christianity altogether. Jean joined the Jesuit order at the age of twenty-four, with numerous academic honors behind and before him, but Alain was more interested in the arts, especially dance, photography, and music.

Alain was a homosexual, and identified as such from a young age. His first sexual experiences at university also marked a religious awakening; thereafter, he regarded his sexuality and spirituality as inextricable. Accompanied by a gay lover, Alain studied music and philosophy in India and eventually converted to Shaivite Hinduism. He believed that Shaivism represented a primitive, erotic, Dionysian spirituality that organized religions have by and large destroyed. He wrote prolifically, both as a polemical opponent of monotheism and a scholar of Indian history and religion.

Despite their deep differences, the famous brothers remained affectionate throughout their lives. They were, indeed, very different; Alain characterized Jean as “nervous, frail, and agitated,” whereas he regarded himself as “virile,” adventurous, and supremely confident. Alain further believed that the Catholic Church to which Jean was devoted had viciously suppressed the pure, original faith of Jesus; he seems to have regarded Catholicism as the most antihuman and masochistic institution on earth, despite his respect for certain Catholic mystics, not to mention his own brother, a cardinal.

When Jean died in a house of ill repute and the press was full of the scandal, Alain wrote a defense of his older brother, insisting that Jean’s character was saintly and humble and incapable of hypocrisy, and that Jean’s life was dedicated to the service of social outcasts (though Alain could not resist adding that he would have been very happy had his brother experienced the joys of sex before his death). Alain Daniélou continued to publish until his death in 1994 and remains esteemed in his field.

As fascinating as it would be to produce an extended comparison between the works of these brothers, I must restrict myself (partly through lack of adequate reading) to the themes raised by Jean in The Lord of History. First, however, it would be best to offer a more complete description of Alain’s position.

Continue reading

Embracing the Leper: On Cosmic Evil

I know very little about evil. I have lived comfortably the past twenty-three years; I am sound in mind and body; I have never been persecuted or slandered; no one has ever beaten or robbed me or threatened anyone I love.

So I am never quite sure how to react to the evil I read about in the world. Lately, four ongoing crises have been often in my mind:

  • The Ebola outbreak in West Africa (~1000 dead)
  • Fighting in east Ukraine (~2500 dead)
  • The latest conflict in Gaza (~1800 dead)
  • The persecution of Christians and Yezidis in ISIS-occupied territories (casualties unknown)


Continue reading

Weekly Miscellany IV: Spiritual Seeking

Weekly Miscellany IV: December 30, 2013–January 5, 2014

 

Readings

John Dewey, Art as Experience (1934)

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (1880) FINISHED

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The American Scholar” (1837) FINISHED

Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge (1972)

Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain (1997)

Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (1961)

Jose Manuel Prieto, Rex: A Novel (2009)

Robert C. Solomon, The Big Questions: A Short Introduction to Philosophy (2002)

Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (2001) FINISHED

Evelyn Waugh, Decline and Fall (1928) FINISHED

Discussion

What do I really want? What am I really seeking?

Over time, the minute complexity of the problems that afflict one’s intellect and spirit begins to break down, and the entire region of the “unsolved” blurs into confusion. In this confusion, the answers grow more complex, but the questions begin to manifest in startling simplicity. If it feels at times that the edges of one’s map have begun to disintegrate, that the borders of ignorance where be only dragons draw ever closer to the heart of one’s philosophy, this contraction of knowledge is followed by a seeming expansion of spirit to incorporate not only those dragon-infested lands but the dragons themselves.

More prosaically, one is drawn from fearful awareness to acceptance. This acceptance is not passive. It does not incline one to stop questioning and seeking, but it is a happy and active embrace of mystery. I have realized the limitations of my intellect, the essential arrogance of ready pronouncements of understanding, and the importance of quiet, receptive contemplation. Macarius wrote, famously, “The heart is but a small vessel; and yet dragons and lions are there…. There also is God.” Rather than merely the best system of doctrine, I seek a living theology, whereby I might descend into the heart, discern Christ, and sanctify it for his purposes. I do not claim to possess the whole map, or claim that the distant mountains are no different from the molehills on either side; I rejoice in the shade of the trees around me, in the shadow of the dim majestic shapes that falls on me every morning, until I am able to ascend to those mountains.

Given the near coextensivity of the sum of truth and my ignorance, it is necessary for me to intellectually reduce my spiritual questing to its essentials. Rather than fracturing my attention on hundreds of questions and conflicts, without knowing what end I have in mind; rather than wandering through the regions of a thousand philosophies, arbitrarily choosing between this table or that at which to sit and eat; it is necessary that I propose a fundamental question to direct my conduct. That question is, “What do I seek?”

My answer to this primal question is “Christ.” All else must be ordered that I may best discern him, follow after him, and become like to him.

Continue reading

Weekly Miscellany II: Nietzsche and Nazism, and More on Worship

Weekly Miscellany II: November 11-17, 2013

Key scriptures under contemplation

Exodus 14-15

These chapters detail the humiliation of Pharaoh at the Red (or Reed) Sea. Again, I am familiar enough with the literal-historical aspects of the story that I am mostly interested in a typological examination. Some aspects of the story have obvious parallels: Moses leads Israel through the waters, by faith, Hebrews 11 states, as though on dry land. Water and the sea often stand for death or Hades in Scriptures and in Hebrew culture. Even so, Christ has opened a way for his people through death. Yet I find interesting as well what comes immediately after the Red Sea hymn, even in the same chapter: the cleansing of the waters of Marah. The thirsty Israelites groaned when the spring they found spewed forth undrinkable bitter water; Moses took a branch from a tree and, throwing it into the spring, made the waters sweet. Moses then preaches a God, so recently shown to be a destroyer of the wicked, who is healer of the righteous.

There is an astonishing parallel to this whole sequence of events in 2 Kings 1-2. The first chapter details how divinely-inspired Elijah rebukes the idolatrous king of Samaria by calling fire down on his armies, which have been sent to fetch the prophet. Two of the evil monarch’s captains perish with their soldiers before the angel of YHWH tells Elijah to spare the third captain, who has bowed down to him in reverent fear, and to go to the king. Elijah goes and informs the king, who is wounded and sick, that he is soon to die in his bed, and he does. Shortly thereafter, in chapter 2, Elijah is taken into Heaven by chariots of fire; divine fire, which a chapter before consumed one hundred men, has become Elijah’s gateway to paradise.

But the parallels are far more explicit in the events that follow, which employ water-imagery heavily. Elijah has been carried into Heaven by the chariots of the Almighty; Elisha, using Elijah’s mantle, parts the waters of the Jordan in a manner reminiscent of the Red Sea miracle. I was startled Tuesday when I noticed for the first time that the next thing Elisha does is cleanse the cursed waters of Jericho. The pattern of events in Exodus is followed exactly, despite the different circumstances. While the “sons of the prophets” at Jericho send out men to search for the raptured Elijah, Elisha demonstrates his true prophetic power by rescinding an ancient curse on Jericho (see Joshua 6:26 and 1 Kings 16:34). He does not use a branch, but he fills a new jar with salt and casts the salt into the waters. This cleanses the waters forever and makes the land fertile.

Continue reading

Weekly Miscellany I

Introduction and disclaimer to the series: Weekly Miscellany

In the spirit of the title of this blog, I intend to use the space afforded me as a kind of sanctuary for unhurried meditations which I will post weekly. These meditations may be short or lengthy depending on the week. They will probably not be very organized, most of the time, and may vacillate between incoherence and simplicity. They will not be driven by argument or trying to prove a point; if anyone would wish to raise questions or disagreements in the comments, I will read and gladly respond, but probably not allow myself to be sucked into debate, because this is intended to embody a slow process of learning and fermenting ideas, and I do not have time or energy for too much debate too often. This is merely an externalization of internal thought processes, as well as an eclectic chronicle of weekly aesthetic and intellectual stimuli. I am hopeful that this will force me to express my thoughts more often by lifting from my conscience the compulsion for everything to be perfectly ordered and lucid, as well as make explicit and preserve to me some of the jumble of connections that form a part of transient life experience. Whether or not anyone chooses to read occasionally or frequently is extraneous, though there might be coincidental benefit through exposing the reader to ideas or associations not previously within his or her scope of experience.

Christ have mercy upon us.

Weekly Miscellany I,

November 4-10, 2013

Key scriptures under contemplation

Exodus 12-14

The basic Christological significance of the Passover lamb is so obvious and so well known that I will not attempt to elaborate on it here. However, I would like to briefly expand this typological scope to other aspects of the story, to the ransom pattern visible. When the Israelites leave, they have plundered the treasures of Egypt, as Christ plundered the treasures of death, and they bring Joseph’s bones, for Christ has redeemed the dead and the living. Moreover, the firstborn, specially redeemed from death by blood, are now consecrated to God; they have not been merely “set free,” but they are bound and made holy. The descent to death has resulted in a glorious arising; the dying of the seed has yielded rich harvest.

Hans Urs von Balthasar equates orthopraxy with “theo-drama,” in which we are each called to play a unique part, but also one that follows the basic typological structure of redemption: “Death turns into life, and this is something that also takes place in our hearts so that, drawn into the action, they can look toward that center in which all things are transformed” (16-17). There is a certain narrative structure of descent and arising that characterizes redemption; it is the arc between creation and deification, between the activity of God and the union of the divine and the created, mediated most fully in the Godman, Christ, and consequently by the God-imaged priesthood of man. The destructive forces unleashed by Adam on the world are themselves destroyed in death, in the death of baptism, in the daily dying to self that takes place in regenerate man, and finally in the physical death that brings renewal.

Continue reading