Wrestling with God

dhammakaya-pagoda-more-than-million-budhas-47315.jpegwritten by Father Ronald Rolheiser

In his memoir, Report to Greco, Nikos Kazantzakis shares this story: As a young man, he spent a summer in a monastery during which he had a series of conversations with an old monk. One day he asked the old monk: “Father, do you still do battle with the devil?” The old monk replied: “No, I used to, when I was younger, but now I have grown old and tired and the devil has grown old and tired with me. I leave him alone and he leaves me alone.” “So your life is easy then?” remarked Kazantzakis. “Oh no,” replied the monk, “it’s much worse, now I wrestle with God!”

There’s a lot contained in that remark – “I wrestle with God.” Among other things, it suggests that the struggles in later life can be very different than what we struggle with earlier on. In the normal pattern of things, we spend the first-half of our lives struggling with sensuality, greed, and sexuality, and spend the last half of our lives struggling with anger and forgiveness – and that anger is often, however unconsciously, focused on God. In the end, our real struggle is with God.

But wrestling with God has another aspect. It invites us to a certain kind of prayer. Prayer isn’t meant to be a simple acquiescence to God’s will. It’s meant to be an acquiescence, yes, but a mature acquiescence, come to at the end of a long struggle.

We see this in the prayer of the great figures in scripture: Abraham, Moses, Jesus, the apostles. Abraham argues with God and initially talks him out of destroying Sodom; Moses at first resists his call, protesting that his brother is better suited for the job; the apostles excuse themselves for a long time before finally putting their lives on the line; and Jesus gives himself over in the Garden of Gethsemane only after first begging his Father for a reprieve. As Rabbi Heschel puts it, from Abraham through Jesus we see how the great figures of our faith are not in the habit of easily saying: “Thy will be done!” but often, for a while at least, counter God’s invitation with: “Thy will be changed!”

Struggling with God’s will and offering resistance to what it calls us to can be a bad thing, but it can also be a mature form of prayer. The Book of Genesis describes an incident where Jacob wrestled with a spirit for a whole night and in the morning that spirit turned out to be God. What a perfect icon for prayer! A human being and God, wrestling in the dust of this earth! Doesn’t that accurately describe the human struggle?

We would do well to integrate this, the concept of wrestling with God, into our understanding of faith and prayer. We honor neither ourselves nor the scriptures when we make things too simple. Human will doesn’t bend easily, nor should it, and the heart has complexities that need to be respected, even as we try to rein in its more possessive longings. God, who built us, understands this and is up to the task of wrestling with us and our resistance.

The classical mystics speak of something they call “being bold with God”. This “boldness”, they suggest, comes not at the beginning of the spiritual journey, but more towards the end of it, when, after a long period of fidelity, we are intimate enough with God to precisely be “bold”, as friends who have known each other for a long time have a right to be. That’s a valuable insight: After you have been friends with someone for a long time, you can be comfortable with expressing your needs to him or her and in the context of a long, sustained relationship unquestioning reverence is not necessarily a sign of mature intimacy. Old friends, precisely because they know and trust each other, can risk a boldness in their friendship that younger, less mature, friendship cannot.

That is also true in our relationship with God. God expects that, at some point, we will kick against his will and offer some resistance. But we should lay out our hearts in honesty. Jesus did.

God expects some resistance. As Nikos Kazantzakis puts it:

The struggle between God and humans breaks out in everyone, together with the longing for reconciliation. Most often this struggle is unconscious and short-lived. A weak soul does not have the endurance to resist the flesh for very long. It grows heavy, becomes flesh itself, and the contest ends. But among responsible persons who keep their eyes riveted day and night upon the supreme duty, the conflict between flesh and spirit breaks out mercilessly and may last until death. The stronger the soul and the flesh, the more fruitful the struggle and the richer the final harmony. The spirit wants to have to wrestle with flesh which is strong and full of resistance. It is a carnivorous bird which is incessantly hungry; it eats flesh and, by assimilating it, makes it disappear.

“Surely, this is the man who did such damage in Jerusalem…”

Today the Anglican, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic Churches celebrate the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle. The same St. Paul, then called Saul, of whom it was said “Surely, this is the man who did such damage in Jerusalem…” The story of Saul’s conversion, found in Acts 9, is a remarkable story, a model of redemption. It gives me hope. It has shown me a path, a simple – and now familiar – path to recovery.

Simple, that is, once I got knocked off my high horse!

I, like Saul, once walked around with a grand sense of my own importance – big job, beautiful house, beautiful family, travel, clothes, cars…people who loved and admired me. I really was a somebody. There was one big problem, one major disconnection: I stopped working on my relationship with God. I stopped working at it and assumed that we were ok. We must have been ok…right? God had clearly shown me favor – I wanted for nothing.

In a similar way, I’d come to take my work for granted. And most egregiously, I’d taken relationships with close family and friends for granted.

I was living on hi-test ego. And like Saul, I defied subtlety. I heard the messages alright; I heard that voice and didn’t change, wouldn’t change. I was too proud and too full of my self. And that voice was so easy to disregard.

So God knocked me hard, hard enough to thoroughly disorient me, hard enough to knock me to the ground, hard enough to remove all the trappings of my self-importance, my self regard. I lost my sight. I couldn’t see where to go, didn’t know what to do.

Thankfully, I was given a simple message much like the message that Saul heard, “…you will be told what to do.” I found people who held me up and led me to a safe place where I could begin to recover my sight and learn to walk again – but now, as a humble student and servant. I, like Saul, took up residence at a place called Straight Street.

(The street exists today https://www.google.com/maps/place/Medhat+Basha+Souq/@33.507555,36.302731,16.63z/data=!4m5!3m4!1s0x1518e72a5e2d2ab9:0x16c3884e526c1b82!8m2!3d33.5086737!4d36.3051255 as Midhat Pasha Souq at its western end while the eastern end is called Bab Sharqi Street.)

Early on I came to know three things, as Saul (now Paul) had to learn:

  • Hi-test ego can no longer fuel my life; I am powerless and rely on a force greater – much greater than myself. I work to give myself, my will, up to that force every day;
  • Just as Paul needed others to lead him by the hand to a safe place in Damascus, I need and get strength and wisdom from a community of men and women;
  • And just as Saul had Ananias, a man who gave freely of himself in providing direction, I need a guide, a person of wisdom and experience who can and will give me direction.

Today I joyfully celebrate the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle.

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Inscription for the Entrance to a Wood – William Cullen Bryant

Stranger, if thou hast learned a truth which needs
No school of long experience, that the world
Is full of guilt and misery, and hast seen
Enough of all its sorrows, crimes, and cares,
To tire thee of it, enter this wild wood
And view the haunts of Nature. The calm shade
Shall bring a kindred calm, and the sweet breeze
That makes the green leaves dance, shall waft a balm
To thy sick heart. Thou wilt find nothing here
Of all that pained thee in the haunts of men
And made thee loathe thy life. The primal curse
Fell, it is true, upon the unsinning earth,
But not in vengeance. God hath yoked to guilt
Her pale tormentor, misery. Hence, these shades
Are still the abodes of gladness; the thick roof
Of green and stirring branches is alive
And musical with birds, that sing and sport
In wantonness of spirit; while below
The squirrel, with raised paws and form erect,
Chirps merrily. Throngs of insects in the shade
Try their thin wings and dance in the warm beam
That waked them into life. Even the green trees
Partake the deep contentment; as they bend
To the soft winds, the sun from the blue sky
Looks in and sheds a blessing on the scene.
Scarce less the cleft-born wild-flower seems to enjoy
Existence, than the winged plunderer
That sucks its sweets. The massy rocks themselves,
And the old and ponderous trunks of prostrate trees
That lead from knoll to knoll a causey rude
Or bridge the sunken brook, and their dark roots,
With all their earth upon them, twisting high,
Breathe fixed tranquillity. The rivulet
Sends forth glad sounds, and tripping o’er its bed
Of pebbly sands, or leaping down the rocks,
Seems, with continuous laughter, to rejoice
In its own being. Softly tread the marge,
Lest from her midway perch thou scare the wren
That dips her bill in water. The cool wind,
That stirs the stream in play, shall come to thee,
Like one that loves thee nor will let thee pass
Ungreeted, and shall give its light embrace.

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Thomas Merton entered the monastery Gethsemani on December 10, 1941 and died by accident in Bangkok, Thailand, on December 10, 1968

In October 1968—a few months before his death, Merton gave a talk in Calcutta, in which he said:
The only ultimate reality is God. God lives and dwells in us. We are not justified by any action of our own, but we are called by the voice of God…to pierce through the irrelevance of our own life, while accepting that our life is totally irrelevant in order to find relevance in Him. And this relevance in Him is something that can only be received, not something we grasp or possess. It is something that can only be received as a gift. Consequently, the kind of life that I represent is a life that is openness to gift; a gift from God and a gift from others.

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