Wrestling at Peniel
A reflection on Genesis 32:22-31by Anna Maria Johnson
The story of Jacob wrestling at Peniel has always puzzled me. In my first Bible, the New International Version I read as a third-grader, the subject heading was “Jacob Wrestles with an Angel.” If this stranger is indeed an angel of the Lord, it is not one of the sort pictured on greeting cards or spoken of in sentimental tales of angels in disguise helping people unaware. The wrestler of Genesis is truculent, stubborn and a cheater. “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” (v. 25). What a dirty trick!
I still remember questioning my mother about this story when I was a child. She insisted, despite the translator’s subject heading, that it could not have been the angel of the Lord he wrestled, because everywhere else in Scripture the Lord’s messenger identifies himself, whereas this wrestler simply asks, “Why is it that you ask my name?” Second, she asked rhetorically, “How could Jacob have defeated the Lord in a wrestling match?”
I did note that the New Revised Standard Version I now read has pared its subject heading to simply, “Jacob Wrestles at Peniel.” That image of Jacob wrestling with some sort of divine being has always stuck with me.
Doubt: A few months ago, I was asked to speak in church about a time in my life when I experienced doubt. The words I shared that day were as true as when I first had the experience, but I was also eager to share what happened afterward. The years from 2001 to 2003 had been fraught with pain and difficulty. Several of the people closest to me were hit by everything I most feared—death by cancer, death by suicide, affairs and divorce, sexual assault and, to top it off, I was suffering from severe sleep deprivation (I was a new mother).
It seemed that if God were indeed in control, he was clearly not someone to be trusted. I wondered if it would be possible to extricate myself from my religious upbringing and start over with some new ideas. Yet nearly every waking thought was concerned with the existence of God, the supposed love of God, the meaning of life, my childhood faith in Jesus and the commitments to him I had made as an adolescent. I was Jacob, wrestling alone in darkness. And it was unclear to me whether the being I wrestled was an angel or a demon. I could not let go of the struggle.
In 2004, I was invited to attend a Christian contemplative retreat in Oregon. We lived in New York State at the time, and my husband suggested that our whole family fly out together so that he could care for our tiny children while I contemplated. How could I say no to that?
For one week, my fellow retreatants and I spent our mornings in silence, practicing spiritual disciplines, our afternoons sharing stories with each other, and our evenings in Taize-style worship services. During the breaks I nursed my baby. The following weekend a few of us from the retreat went camping together and saw the Giant Redwood Forest in California, 2,000-year-old trees, an experience that helped me understand what the Buddhists mean when they speak of being “shocked into enlightenment” by beauty in nature.
The retreat was compost for my soul. It would be hard to explain what microorganisms were at work, devouring the painful life experiences of the previous years, chewing and reformulating them into something that would eventually be life-giving. Bacteria work in mysterious ways. Retreat does not always feel peaceful. At times it is more like a stalemated wrestling match or like stinking compost. I still felt like Jacob in the wrestling match, but could see the dawn breaking and knew the wrestling would not go on forever. I had a sense of hope that something good could eventually grow out of my hurtful experiences.
Two things were revealed to me that week: the awareness that I did not trust God anymore and that without trust in God I would die.
Trust: I knew I needed to work on trust in an ongoing way. Upon arriving home, I sought out the only spiritual director to be found within a 60-mile radius. When she told me her name was Mary Abraham, I knew she would be just fine. After a year’s discernment process, my husband and I both sensed that it would be right to move to Harrisonburg, Va., so that he could take a job as a professor at Eastern Mennonite University and I could pursue seminary coursework and spiritual direction.
According to Ronald Rollheiser, a Catholic writer whose work I encountered in one of my seminary classes, our painful life experiences have the power to hurt us but also can bring us a blessing. In choosing to embark on a spiritual retreat, I made a choice against despair and resignation and instead said, as Jacob had said, “I will not let go until you bless me.” I reflect on the most difficult segment of my life and see how I was wounded, but with the gift of time I also see that good has grown out of it. There was painful dislocation, but the spiritual wrestling match ultimately resulted in blessing, naming and a clearer sense of vocation.
Patience: Since moving to the Harrisonburg area, I have discovered that balancing jobs, studies, family life and other interests has not gone as smoothly as I imagined. Three years later, I have managed to earn only eight credits. But I have found a vibrant spiritual community here at Community Mennonite Church and with some women in our town.
Unexpectedly, I have been given opportunities to weave together my undergraduate training as an artist with my spiritual life. Seedlings have sprouted in my soul, thanks to all that compost, and I am curious to see what sort of plants they will grow into. I am learning patience. After all, the Redwood forest did not spring to life in three years.
Last fall my youngest child started kindergarten. This signified the end of seven years’ full-time child care and the beginning of something new. I’m thinking of this school year as a sabbatical—or an ongoing spiritual retreat in the midst of daily life—and have some writing and art projects to attend to. Ideas long dormant will have ample room to stretch and grow and be named. I can reach my face up to the warm sun, even while I limp along. I have more trusting to do—and probably more wrestling.
There is rich visual imagery in this passage of the Bible, and it encapsulates what happens in retreat, whether a weekend retreat or an ongoing one:
here is wrestling with a stranger in darkness,
here is wounding and dislocation,
here is naming,
here is tenaciously begging for a blessing,
here is the sun rising,
here is the face of God,
and here am I, limping.
Anna Maria Johnson is a member of Community Mennonite Church, Harrisonburg, Va.
- Wrestling at Peniel
- At once
- Learning to pray without words
- Prayer changes things
- New life in the present and hope for the future
News stories, digests and Meno Acontecer
- WEB EXCLUSIVE: Homecoming
- Book tells of stained glass at Hopewell Mennonite
- Executive Board addresses antiracism, plans for transition
- What to expect of Millennial pastors
- Mennos in the News: Alpha Mennonite Church faces removal from membership
- Mennonite churches discern if and how to minister to convicted sex offenders
- WEB EXCLUSIVE: Here comes the argument
- What would your church do?
- Integration pioneer dies Easter evening
- Mennonite pastor presides at mass worship
- CPTer faces prison, Israeli settlers attack women and children
- CLC proposes new Leaders Forum event
- Bethel to reduce budget by $1 million
- Mission Network must reduce spending
- ¡Bienvenidos al Meno Acontecer de mayo, 2009!
- La Educación Superior, una inversión que da excelentes retornos
- Reflexiones Pastorales
- De nuestros lectores y colaboradores ...
- ¿Material de estudio anabautista??
- Giving and receiving
- April film and book reviews
- Sex offenders in the church
- A step toward greater justice
- John Updike: a good neighbor
- Articles perpetuate stereotypes
- Abortion is always wrong
- Response to open letter
- Magazines should get postage free
- Don't judge president's faith