According to a recent Pew Research study entitled, “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey,” less than half of Catholic parishioners believe that they can have a personal relationship with God and approximately one-third of them struggle to believe in a personal God at all. This is most unfortunate because Catholicism, especially gathering around the altar on Sundays, is unintelligible without an active, ongoing and personal relationship with Christ. Moreover, people who have an arms-length relationship with God not only miss out in terms of a meaningful participation in their own religion, but they miss out in the greatest struggle and conquest any human being could ever enjoy. As Fr. Ailbe J. Luddy said, author of the book, Holy Abandonment, “In heaven we shall enjoy perfect repose, the peace resulting from victory. But our time on earth is a time of conflict: of conflict against ourselves to repair our faults, to overcome our defects, and to grow in virtue and merit.”
The relationship between the soul and its Creator is not merely a peaceful co-existence. Far from it! When the Holy Spirit seeks to make a dwelling place in the soul, the work to conform that soul into the image of Christ can involve a mighty struggle. Indeed, the way to heaven is not only counter-cultural; it is one that runs upstream, contrary to the current of our fallen human nature. As Fulton Sheen said, "It is very easy to flow with the current. Dead bodies flow downstream. It takes live people to resist the current."
Jacob, our Old Testament patriarch, would come to learn this lesson with a wholly unique and personal struggle with God in Genesis chapter 32. And that struggle just happens to be a fine illustration of the kind of conflict each soul must enter if it is to make spiritual progress.
Certainly, it is one of the more intriguing stories in the bible; intriguing, because the meaning of the event is not readily apparent. But if one peers beneath the surface, one could see a template of how every soul works out his or her salvation with God.
The story in Genesis involves Jacob wrestling with God in human form. The curious thing is that the Lord not only allows himself to be engaged in a match, he allows Jacob to prevail upon him…but only during the night. But as The New Interpreter’s Bible (N.I.B) commentary points out, “Jacob cannot struggle with God if God does not want to be engaged.” The scrimmage is wholly voluntary on the Lord’s part.
The biblical commentator goes on to detail the event: “God and Jacob struggle for a considerable period of time. When God sees that daybreak is near and that he has not been able to prevail in straightforward wrestling, God strikes Jacob in the hollow of his thigh (the exact spot is uncertain).”
Indeed, such a victory is not without a price. The patriarch, son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham, is struck by the Lord in the hip or thigh, thus causing him to limp for the rest of his life. According to N.I.B., “Jacob is forever marked by the struggle, as he limps away towards the Promised Land. His mark attests to success and to defeat.” The wound that Jacob receives seems to dimly foreshadow the wounds our Lord received before ascending to heaven. It also seems to suggest that, to use the words of Christ, the kingdom of heaven is taken by violence.
But in his struggle with God, Jacob manages to secure a blessing from him. And this blessing would serve as the foundation for Jacob’s House, that is, the Twelve Tribes of Israel. This would be the great nation that God promised to Abraham. Judaism, the immediate heir of the blessing, and the Catholic Church, the eventually heir, learned from Jacob that to receive and pass the blessing on requires a struggle – not just with the outside world – but with the God Himself, the giver of that blessing. To be sure, saving souls is a costly mission. As our Lord said, the kingdom of heaven can be likened to a merchant finding a pearl of great price. It can only be bought by selling everything.
As for Jacob, this struggle with God would prepare him for many a battle. In one of his homilies on the book of Genesis, St. John Chrysostom, Father of the Church, argued that because Jacob fought with God, he would become powerful in dealing with men. That’s right! It prepared him for the trials that lay ahead.
The same applies to those who wish to serve the Lord. As the book of Sirach says, “My son, when you come to serve the LORD, prepare yourself for trials.” (2:1) In putting us to the test by delaying his answer to our prayers, by allowing us to feel a sense of abandonment and by stretching us beyond our limit, the Lord trains us to endure disapproval and opposition from mortals. I would go so far as to say that compared to the interior trials the Lord may test the soul with, exterior hardships (i.e. persecution, rejection and disapproval from others) will seem as child’s play.
It is worth repeating that Jacob’s conflict was at night. The timing of the conflict is very telling. More often than not, it is when we suffer that our Lord invites us to engage him. When we ask “why me?” but then resolve to trust and love him nonetheless- even without having all the answers – there is a battle to be won.
Through the story of Jacob wrestling the Lord, we are taught that blessings are to be had by embracing our cross. And the cross for each and every one of us is allowing God to do with us what he wills. As Fr. Luddy said, “We must not merely allow God to strike us, we must allow Him to strike us where He pleases.” That is to say, even though he may send us difficult and seemingly impossible circumstances, we are called to trust that the Lord will bring it all to a good and noble end. Despite what seems to be senseless suffering, the one who prevails over God stubbornly persists in loving and praising Him. As St. Padre Pio would pray, “I kiss the hands that smite me.” This is when faith in God and our love for him does its finest work.
Jacob’s wrestling match with God traces out for every believer what it takes to seize the kingdom of heaven from God. To be sure, with a personal relationship Christ there are battles to won. But such a venture demands a sacrifice from each soul. Again, to quote Fr. Luddy in his book Holy Abandonment: “Certain people imagine that they are specially beloved by God when everything goes well with them and they have nothing to suffer. Such persons labor under an illusion: for it is by adversity, not prosperity, that God proves the fidelity of His servants, and separates the wheat from the chaff.”