Enlightenment: Alone and An Idiot On the Far Shore
Are you serious about your spiritual journey?
Do you really want to have a meaningful life?
What are you willing to go through in order to really be transformed? To learn to love?
“Who doesn’t want a meaningful life?” we might ask.
But even Jesus cautions us to think twice.
“For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?,” Jesus asks in the Gospel of Luke. “Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’”
Honestly, I think it’s probably better that we don’t really know how demanding and challenging the spiritual life is when we first start out, or else we might really think twice about pursuing it!
Do you remember the first time you started to think seriously about deeper things?
If you were raised in a faith tradition, it might have been in adolescence when you first started to say, “Wait a minute: how can Moses have written the first five books of the Bible if they tell how he dies?”
Or, “How could they have gotten two of literally every kind of creature on the ark? Did they get two gnats? Two mosquitos? Two flesh-eating bacteria? And what about the fish? The flood wouldn’t have bothered them at all, so are there a bunch of descendants of sinful, unredeemed fish and clams and stuff from Noah’s time who didn’t perish in the flood?”
These were the surface questions that started to trigger more meaningful ones, like “Who are these people we’re supposed to be emulating? What am I supposed to do with my life? And will the faith I’ve been taught really help me find out?”
If you were not raised in a faith tradition, it was probably one of two things that triggered your first existential crisis: a bad break-up or your first philosophy class in college. (The two have more in common than you’d think.)
You were either badly jilted and mourned your suddenly meaningless existence, or started reading Kant and Hegel in class and thought for a heady half-hour at a coffee shop with your friends that you were the first person to seriously consider moral relativism.
And then enjoyed looking down your nose at your poor, deluded, stodgy parents who just believed a bunch of out-of-date boring stuff. (Insert nostalgic sigh here.)
What I’m getting at is that a meaningful life requires some engagement of your spiritual self, and any spiritual path you take, if pursued with integrity and energy, will eventually take you some really tough places.
It’s ironic that many of us start to go into deeper spiritual waters because we’re longing for refuge from painful life circumstances.
We face illness, death, job loss, broken relationships, and long for consolation from God.
As John of the Cross and others have observed, that’s a fine and worthy place to start, and God often does bless us with comfort and peace amid the storm.
But spirituality is not an analgesic drug.
We don’t turn to God for a simple fix, an escape from life and a guaranteed soul-high that dims the pain for a few hours.
Incidentally, and this is a broad generalization, I think this is exactly how many of the mega-churches and televangelist ministries function, as a simple spiritual opiate.
And when people figure out that the high doesn’t last, and doesn’t really solve any problems, they leave.
Their promised “victory” is a temporary psychological shield of denial, and when it cracks they are left alone and blamed for not having enough “faith.”
Eventually there will no longer be enough unjaded seekers for these ministries, and there needs to be someone to help pick up the pieces and offer the true resources of the deeper search.
I hope the Episcopal Church is ready to care for and serve those folks.
We have in Genesis today a map of the whole spiritual journey, and it cuts directly across our hoped-for narrative of peace, easy moral perfection, and endless spiritual fulfillment that we might once have naively expected.
We see Jacob cross the whole arc from innocence to transformation, and it is a fascinating voyage.
The question we have to ask is whether we’re ready to undergo it ourselves, so let’s examine it a little more closely.
“The same night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.”
This is often how we start out. We bring ourselves before God with all our best stuff, all our virtues, all our accomplishments, all our shiny attempts to be a good person.
And we send it out in front of ourselves like an envoy.
“Look, God! I’ve really made an effort here! Aren’t you impressed with me? Please?” And we launch our stuff across the river at God.
And “Jacob was left alone.”
Eventually we realize that all the complicated concepts that make up our masks and identities before God and other people are actually incredibly flimsy.
This is the first terrifying crisis of the spiritual life, and it frightens some people so badly that they shy away from it forever.
They learn the words and the doctrine and the rules of some system that makes them feel safe, and live there for the rest of their lives.
God still cares for them and nurtures them, of course, but the danger of ferrying all their stuff back and forth across the river over and over is that it makes them feel self-sufficient and correct.
They use that system of rules and doctrine they’ve bought into to beat other people down and call them wrong.
It’s a very satisfying spirituality, and it has been the purview of almost all major religious institutions throughout history.
It’s a comfortable and safe-feeling default, but it results in terrible abuses of power and never comes close to creating true transformation of the soul.
But lest we get too smug about the poor unenlightened souls who never face the river alone and stay small and rigid, I have a feeling that this space is actually a cyclical pattern in the spiritual life.
God knows every time I think I’ve gotten through it or past it, I find myself looking down at someone else, and instantly find myself a purveyor of the Emperor’s New Spirituality.
I’m naked in front of the world with my fancy spiritual thoughts concealing nothing of my craven superior attitude.
I’m sending my goods across the river to God again, trying to impress God or myself or other people.
Luckily I’ve done this enough times that finding myself alone and an idiot on the far shore yet again has gotten less scary. (I’ll take what progress I can get.)
“Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.”
This is where we really get into it. This is where we know we are encountering our call to go deeper.
It’s important that Genesis never specifies who the man wrestling with Jacob is.
It’s often assumed to be an angel, or God. But we don’t know that for sure.
And for each of us on our spiritual journey, our wrestling partner is probably different.
For some people it will be God.
For some people it will be a messenger of God, a preacher, teacher, prophet, author, thinker, sibling, friend, parent, enemy, co-worker—it could be anyone.
For some people it will be their own selves.
Actually it might be all of the above as we return to this place over and over throughout our lives.
We observe the pattern and yet somehow are still shocked that we have been wrestled to the ground again by how God is trying to wake us up and get our attention.
We have to go all in, like Jacob. We have to engage the struggle honestly.
Sticking it out when we’d rather give up and take the easier route is a temptation, but it prevents us from the transformation we seek.
“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. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’”
Jacob actually spent most of his life looking for and taking the easy way out, but for once he hung on and persevered through great pain.
And that is because in some deep place within himself, he knew there would be a blessing as a result of that pain.
This is where we could easily sheer off into trite “everything happens for a reason” theology, but we’re not going to do that.
If anyone has ever told you while you were in crisis, “God only gives us what we’re strong enough to bear,” or “You’ll look back on this one day and see all the blessings that come out of it,” you know how alienating this type of talk is.
At some point if we truly engage with the pain not just of our own lives, but the pain of oppression and violence and poverty suffered by countless people around the world, we will have to abandon this type of pop-spirituality band-aid.
And at that moment, we find our hip wrenched out of joint.
We have, by wrestling truthfully and with our shields down, suddenly been rendered unable to run away and escape.
It’s another terrifying crisis. Now we’re trapped.
But when we’re trapped and stop papering over pain with clichés, we’re called to summon a new level of courage.
And that call to courage is to help us abandon the assumption that every bit of pain in our lives and in the world will lead inevitably to blessing and knowledge and consolation if we only wait long enough.
Can we engage with pain without knowing if it will ever be fixed?
Dear God, what an awful prospect. That will put your hip out of joint if nothing else will.
But this is exactly the kind of naked courage Jesus had when he walked through Jerusalem carrying his Cross.
That is the kind of unimaginable bravery and sense of purpose Jesus summoned when he cried out on the Cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and received no answer.
That’s where wrestling with an angel will get you.
It’s a lonely and ugly place, and if you say yes to it, you won’t be able to walk away.
This is the sacred wounding of God.
This is the deliberate acceptance of Good Friday in our lives.
And this is the truth we’re probably better off not having known when we decided to pursue the spiritual life in the first place.
But for all the promises in our lives that we find are hollow, that fall to pieces beneath us, we are given a great gift.
We are given a track and a path to follow.
We have been left the stories of all the people who wrestled with the Truth, took their wounding, and then received a new name.
Jacob and David and Ruth and Peter and Mary Magdalene and Paul.
The Teresas—Avila, Liseux, Calcutta.
The Johns—the Baptist and of Patmos and of the Cross.
And Jesus himself.
We risk, and we fight, and we are wounded, and at the end we are changed, “for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”
It’s rough. The spiritual life is not for the faint of heart.
And even when we are renamed, not all of our questions are answered.
“Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him.”
But I actually don’t think the blessing as a refusal to answer Jacob’s question is a non sequitur.
I think it is a very pointed and purposeful answer.
God says, “I’m not going to explain everything to you and give you fullness of knowledge. That would end your spiritual journey right here and now and that would be a tragedy. I want to you keep searching, keep discovering, keep risking wounding and keep being transformed.”
“So Jacob called 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 hip.”
Jacob recognizes how close he came to destruction for having dared to look God in the face, and so too do we in our reckless quest for understanding and knowledge and encounter with God.
But how worth it the risk is! It is what gives life that very meaning we have been searching for!
And the sun rises on Jacob and he walks on with his new name and his new limp.
This is how the spiritual journey continues.
We bear the scars of our earlier spiritual struggles, but the sun rises to warm us once again with simple joy in the holy beauty we loved in our first innocence.
Flowers and laughter and hymns and sacraments—we return to them with fresh eyes, feeling them nurture us and sustain us and fill us with joy and the certainty of God’s love and goodness.
We should cherish those plateaus of peace.
They as are important to our spiritual journey as the riverside wrestling matches, and in fact build us up so we’re ready for the next time we are called to spiritual crisis.
How many new names await us before we cross that final river and enter God’s eternal embrace? There’s no way to know.
But I take some wry joy every time I realize my limp is fading and I’m feeling pretty good about where I am spiritually.
I know it’s time to look for an ambush.
I know any minute I’m going to realize I’m once again alone and an idiot on the river’s far shore, and it won’t be long after that before I’m tackled by an angel.
And I have faith that one day I’ll even learn to look forward to it.
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