Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Wrestling Angels or Battling Demons?

I love the story in Genesis 32 about Jacob wrestling with the angel. Here is the man who is to become the patriarch of Israel, the father of the twelve tribes, and the night before he is to meet his estranged brother Esau, he wrestles until dawn with a man who ultimately wrenches his hip out of the socket and won't tell him his name. He blesses Jacob and renames him Israel, telling him that he has "striven with beings divine and human, and [has] prevailed" (Gen 32:28).

I can imagine Jacob's fear of meeting his brother. He earlier had stolen Esau's birthright, and he has every reason to presume Esau would hate him. At this point in the story, Jacob has gathered all kinds of gifts for his brother, hoping against hope to be forgiven. Perhaps on this night, he wrestles both physically and figuratively with God, wanting to do the right thing and yet being terrified that things might go completely wrong. He wrestles, and manages to do the right thing. He survives, both the angel and his brother.

I think we wrestle with God, too. Like Jacob, we want to make peace with those who ought to be closest to us. We want to set things right. We want to do the right thing. And yet the unknown possibilities can be so frightening. We don't always know how people will receive us. And yet we take the plunge. Like Jacob, sometimes we come out of these experiences with God wounded but blessed, perhaps even given a new name, marked by our encounter with the holy.

Spiritual battle also can be with more deadly forces. In the Gospels, Jesus casts out demons right and left, freeing people who have been bound. While we may not see people being "possessed" by evil in the Hollywood sense of things, battling demons is still something we have to deal with, too. In the Eastern monastic tradition, Evagrius Ponticus writes of the eight thoughts, which are the precursor to what we now know as the seven deadly sins. Actions begin with thoughts in our mind, and so the devil first works to get into our head. Thus we have to deal with temptations to lust, greed, anger, vainglory, pride, sloth, acedia (a listless sense of boredom with life), envy, gluttony, and the rest. The challenge is to nip the bad thoughts in the bud. Do we nurture thoughts that will lead us down a road to bad actions and ultimately the death of our soul, or do we dash bad thoughts against Christ, as St. Benedict suggests, and nurture more life-giving thoughts, which give rise to virtue and good actions?

This kind of battle can be as simple as choosing the moderation of one cookie instead of two, or it can be as frought with danger as choosing to be faithful to a life commitment in the face of real problems and painful difficulties. Whether what we face be a small matter or large, the feelings of weakness and powerlessness sometimes can be overwhelming. Yet the message of the Gospel is that Christ has defeated evil. With Christ, we can overcome temptation. Even if we fail sometimes, the mercy and love of God outweigh our sins. Ultimately, we never are alone. God is with us, Emmanuel, and if we allow God to take the lead, everything will be okay.

1 comment:

  1. Well said. "Actions begin with thought in our mind.." And thoughts lead to belief systems. Do we believe the truth, God's truth, or a lie which leads to sin. That's why its so important to know God's truth, His promises - and "write them over the door ways of our homes" and speak them daily. We should also know our own capacity for good and for sin. That we would recognize our actions as symptoms of our heart. Accountability has been such a help for me in this area. Our thought life is a secret place. Satan likes to keep things in the dark where he has control. We need to bring our thoughts into the light - daily. Thank you sister, for this reminder.