Wrestling With a Drunken Goat-Herder or The Sacred

By Paul Dunion | August 27, 2017

It was a Monday morning, the day after I attended a Matthew Fox workshop.  Typically, I would still be carrying the glow of having been in the presence of a man who devoted his life to the pursuit of The Sacred.  However, as I left my office, heading toward the kitchen, I carried an interior tremor that I realized was an after shock from the weekend. Fox has suggested we consider holding one single breath as sacred. My immediate response was that I didn’t know how to attribute The Sacred to such a single, simple act. However, the closer I came to the kitchen, the more I began to wonder if my actual truth was that I did not want to hold such an act as sacred.  That thought, was at the very least, troublesome, as it limped into my mind somewhat veiled.

I poured a glass of lemonade and the second sip resulted in a spasming esophagus. I could not breathe.  I was home alone and immediately realized that I could not depend upon anyone to assist me in interrupting this impediment to breathing. I proceeded to bellow out a series of sounds accompanied by a myriad of bodily gyrations. I became more frantic with the clock ticking and swung the front door of our home open as if I intended to go somewhere. The moment I reached the front steps of our home, my esophagus returned to normal, allowing the passage of air.

I sat there, holding vigil, as if the steps had somehow restored life to my lungs. Of course, I sat profoundly grateful for a single breath. Was this what it takes in order not to dismiss the common as sacred?  Would I be able to hold the sacredness of a single breath the way I was in that moment? Was I learning the way of the Fool who needs to return again and again to some lesson that eludes being obvious? Or had my institutional, religious experience debilitated my ability to long for contact with The Sacred?  Did I need to wrestle with getting a gulp of air in order to allow myself to be touched by The Sacred?  It may be helpful to be reminded of some old meanings of the word, Sacred.


Some Old Meanings

It might be only too easy to think that you have moved beyond using language that includes reference to words like The Sacred.  It doesn’t take much.  Disillusioned by a clergy member who professed that all things lecherous were irreproachable, and is discovered to be acting out sexually in a number of devious ways. Or maybe you became weary of religion not offering any authentic spiritual scaffolding.  Too much fire and brimstone emotionally scorched some of us. It maybe that no matter how disappointed we have been with our religious experience, longing for The Sacred may flow freely through our DNA.  One old definition of the word sacred begins to tell the story of our intimate connection with sacredness.  The definition is “to confirm or ordain what truly matters”.

However, we can ask: “Is it possible to arrive comfortably at some conclusion regarding what truly matters?” Or, maybe, confirming what really matters is not supposed to be easy. Maybe, it reflects one the most profound wrestling matches of the human condition, as fate will surely announce what it believes really matters.  We crate a meaningful relationship, with the hope of it lasting.  Suddenly, we find ourselves feeling betrayed, or maybe we find ourselves betraying either someone we love or betraying ourselves.  A second old definition is “to sacrifice”.  Could it be that when we confirm what truly matters, we as a matter of course will be asked to sacrifice something?


Jacob’s Story

Around the middle of the 8th century BCE we have one of the first written accounts of wrestling with The Sacred.  “That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”

But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

The man asked him, “What is your name?”

“Jacob,” he answered.

“The man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”  (Genesis 32:22-31 New International Version (NIV)

Who Is He?

Let’s look more closely at this portion of Jacob’s story.  He has treated his brother, Esau, deceitfully and with manipulation and now fears Esau’s revenge.  In fact, his name means “the deceiver”. We need not demonize Jacob for these qualities. The story may be informing us that deception will be issued by us and to us. In fact, we will inevitably deceive ourselves.  The story may be suggesting that the ego will invariably refuse to live life on life’s terms, employing deception and cunning whenever possible. We’re told that he prays a fervent prayer, asking the Lord for help. We might say that Jacob’s plea for divine intervention occurs because he fears that defeat by his brother is inevitable. Yet, his prayer results in a nightlong wrestling match. Why does a wrestling match ensue? What’s its purpose?


To Wrestle or Not To Wrestle

 The raw material of The Sacred comes to us through fate. The word was originally defined as “the will of the gods”. We can see fate as including the will of others (as permitted by the gods) as well as disease and the forces of Nature. Deciding that we’re simply supposed to surrender to fate may be a naïve spiritual axiom.  “No man of himself can succeed in voiding himself of all his desires in order to come to God.”  (St. John of The Cross) St. John reminds us that what we desire will not always line up with fate or the will of the gods. So, we wrestle.  There may well be a spiritual dimension to this wrestling as it vividly reveals who we are.

The word wrestle comes from the word wrest, which is defined as “to twist”. If you have ever wrestled someone or witnessed wrestling, you would have seen various limbs twisting, intertwined and entangled in a variety of ways. Unless the two are engaged in mortal combat, the contact made has a distinctly intimate flavor to it. It is one contorted embrace after another.  The goal is not to conquer, but to explore the contours and edges, the strengths and weaknesses, the beginnings and endings of each combatant. There is neither a victor nor a defeated.  There is a dynamic encounter, revealing more about who we are, as well as uncloaking the face of fate. Is Jacob’s story asking us to remain in a dynamic encounter with fate?

Jacob wrestles with someone throughout the night. How is he to know whether it’s his brother seeking revenge, or one of his brother’s men, or maybe a drunken goat- herder or some manifestation of The Sacred? This is the powerful metaphor of Jacob’s nocturnal brawl. As we raise our curiosities and wonderings about what really matters, we will inescapably get entangled with assumptions and thoughts that are obscure and ineffable. We likely won’t know if we are encountering a drunken goat-herder or The Sacred, so we wrestle. Our spirits, minds and hearts struggle with fate or all that is out of our control, trying to determine what is truly important.

Let’s look at some possible examples of real life wrestling with fate. Do we dare attempt to heal a relationship after being betrayed? Do we choose to abort a fetus in order to preserve a way of life for ourselves?  Do we withhold a secret, not knowing if disclosure will enhance or damage a relationship?  Do we remain in a job that pays well and is a constant source of emotional depletion?  Do we remain stressed by keeping a disabled child at home, knowing that institutionalization will likely result in diminished care?  Is it possible to recover faith in life after the death of one’s own child?  Is it possible to find love after being deeply hurt?  How do Pacifists decide whether or not to employ violence when they deem some political or military force determined to take action that will create immense harm for their children and their children’s children? All of these acts of fate call us to wrestle, hopefully, in the direction of The Sacred.

Most wrestling takes place in a few minutes with combatants rolling over in exhaustion. Jacob’s story includes a skirmish lasting through the night, suggesting that getting clear about what really matters will call for a resiliency and robustness. Time and time again, believing that we have a grip upon what really matters, only to notice it slipping away, moving the altercation to a new level. Each twist and turn in feeling and thought can either move us away or closer to what truly matters.

Jacob’s story may be telling us that we can discover The Sacred only by being willing to wrestle long and hard. Wrestling suggests contact. It suggests a willingness to be intimate. We show up with our desire and engage what others bring to us, as well as what Nature advances.  In the quest to touch and be touched by The Sacred, we neither wish to destroy nor be destroyed.  We intimately allow ourselves to get all twisted up with fate. We lose ourselves tumbling with life. We deepen our intimate connection with fate, as we grow curious about what this twisting and tumbling is all about.  We want to know what fate is asking of us? We are curious about any sacrifices that may need to be made, or any blessing we might seek. We ask about the lessons trying to reach us due to our wrestling with fate. Wrestling with fate remains intimate as long as we bring enough of ourselves to the encounter and enough discernment to know when enough is enough, and move into surrender.


The Honoring

The honoring in a relationship is marked by a curious and compassionate involvement. In any relationship, we can ask: Is there too much of me in this relationship? Is there not enough of me? We can only remain mindful and corrective regarding how much of us we bring to our relationships. There will not be a level of perfect participation.  We can do the same with fate. If there is not enough of us in our relationship, then we have restricted our participation, which does not reflect an honoring and a gratitude. Typically, we feel victimized by fate when we restrict our participation.  The feeling of victimization is commonly accompanied by self-pity and cynicism. All of which erode an intimate connection with fate. If we bring an inordinate amount of our wills to bear down upon our experience, then we are negating the power of fate. Fate finds ways to address our arrogance, our cunning and our narcissism, which are ways to allegedly avoid the immensity of fate. Fate appears to remind Jacob of its size by wounding his hip, giving him a lasting memory of their relationship.

Jacob’s fortitude and resiliency are acknowledged as his opponent decides he cannot overpower Jacob.  However, I like the understanding of  “he cannot overpower Jacob” as meaning the divine agent could not bring himself to simply overpower Jacob. Rather, he wished for the engagement to remain intimate, with no excessive use of power. However, he does injure Jacob’s hip. In doing so, Jacob’s gate would be marked by this injury accrued by a very intimate engagement with fate.  Are we being reminded that to be born into the human condition, means we will in someway be injured by fate, and of course, it will eventually kill us? However, Jacob refuses to let go of his adversary until he agrees to bless him.  An old definition of the word blessing is “to make sacred by making some sacrificial offering”.  What can we make of the wrestling, ending with a request for a blessing? Is it possible that the actual request for a blessing makes sacred whatever we have been pulling and pushing against?


 The Blessing

Certainly, Jacob could have ended the wrestling with a fit of accusations and complaints.  However, he ends wrestling with a request for a blessing, a request to deem his life sacred.  Let’s look at what such a request might imply and what we can take away from the story of his request that may benefit our own lives.

*Acknowledging that Fate (will of the gods) is larger than he.  His request for a blessing suggests that he knows that his fellow combatant has the power to ordain the sacredness of his life in a way that he cannot.  Such an acknowledgement allows him to begin deconstructing his arrogance.

*Deconstructing arrogance.  The deconstruction of arrogance offers him information about his limits. Jacob can then have a more honest relationship with himself and what he’s capable of bringing to his relationship with fate.  Intimacy with fate is not possible if we encounter it disingenuously.   

*The blessing is accompanied by a sacrifice.  The image of the injured hip informs us that fate will bless us and ask for some sacrifice.  It’s not to be taken personally. It is simply the way of it and to some degree to be able to declare what really matters depends upon our relationship to what is sacrificed.

*The importance of overcoming. As Jacob receives his blessing, he is told,  “You have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome”.  A superficial understanding of overcome would be an act of triumph over some external force.  A deeper message might be the encouragement to bring as much of ourselves as we can muster to our life experience, overcoming timidity or being excessively yielding.  Also, overcoming the temptation to descend into self-pity when fate brings us to some undesirable place, as well as overcoming the temptation turn against fate.  Another expression of overcoming would be moving beyond a self-preoccupation that would have us forget about gratitude and a request for a blessing from that which is larger than us.  Jacob’s adversary changes the meaning of his name to Israel or “struggles with God and prevails”.  We can understand struggling and prevailing to reflect Jacob’s resiliency, remaining intimate with fate, resulting in contact with The Sacred.

Wrestling with fate is a deeply intimate act, characterized by a rich level of involvement, discerning whether we are engaging a drunken goat-herder or the Sacred. Our entanglement is reflected by the use of verbs in the language we have been exploring.  From confirming what truly matters to sacrificing, wrestling, prevailing and blessing all denote action.  Another action is surrendering to the Sacred when we have exhausted our internal resources. We may not understand why a loved one suffers from a catastrophic illness or why destruction happens as a result of natural disaster. Like any relationship, we continue to develop an ability to avoid turning against ourselves or turning against fate.  Jacob’s story may be suggesting that the request for a blessing needs to accompany both resiliency and surrender. With such a request there is more likelihood of honoring our willingness to be involved as well as honoring what the will of the gods has presented, even when it is cloaked in mystery.  It may be that it is the resiliency that allows us to wrestle and request a blessing that ultimately make fate and our own lives, sacred.

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