Ampleforth Abbey

25 February 2018

“Wrestling with Angels” – Long-haul discipleship

Supplementary Talk given by Fr Oswald McBride at the 2017 Triduum Retreat

If we look back over Christian history, I think we find ourselves – at least in Europe and the UK – in a somewhat peculiar situation as Christians. In our continent, at least, although not world-wide, we are shrinking as a part of the population rather than growing or stable, not only amongst those who are active church-goers but also those who consider themselves as Christians for things like the census and so forth. And I think that is the first time that this has happened.

But there is a second thing which is peculiar. We are all aware, I am sure, that in the developed world, life-span is increasing. The most recent UK figures, published for 2013-2015, suggest that a new-born boy can expect to live 79 years and a new-born girl nearly 83 years if mortality rates do not change during their lifetimes. However, since those mortality rates are indeed changing, the commonest age of death for men in the UK is 85 and for women is 89 years. The rate at which such changes are happening is quite extraordinary: since 1982, life expectancy for males has increased by 13 weeks each year – a gain of 6 years in the past 25 – and for females (who already lived longer) an increase of 9½ weeks per year – a gain of 4½ years in the past 25. That is a marked change. A very unsystematic trawl of life expectancy data suggests that average life expectancy at birth in Classical Rome was between 20-30 years (although if a child survived until 10 years of age, the average age of death was in the late 40s). In mediaeval England, overall life expectancy for the nobility was around 30 years (although again, if an aristocratic boy survived until he was 21 he might well live to his mid-60s). But even as late as the 20th century, world average life expectancy was around 31 years in 1900 and 48 years in 1950.

Now obviously, the purpose of this talk is not to discuss the minutiae of world demographic change. Nor is it to consider the financial or ethical implications of what we know only too well is an “ageing population” in the developed world. Rather, what I would like to begin to consider in this talk is the implications these developments, and especially the phenomenon of demographic change, might have for our own path of Christian discipleship.

You might ask why this question is important. Well, one of the joys I have in my work at St Benet’s in Oxford is to see just how vibrant and enthusiastic many of our young Catholics – and indeed, other young Christians – are. I spend quite a lot of time not only in the Hall but in the Chaplaincy, and there are a huge number of activities going on – help for the homeless, discussion groups and seminars, Lectio groups, Samuel groups, groups preparing for baptism and reception and for marriage – even groups who just want to come and share Compline with us. And that’s not confined to Oxford. Over the past few years as Vocations Co-ordinator, I have visited a number of university Catholic chaplaincies, and they are all vibrant, busy places – places full of joy and prayer and energy – whether it’s Durham or Cambridge or Newcastle or Keele or Essex or Bristol. But there is another side. Sometimes I’m asked to help with confessions in the Chaplaincy, and amongst older Catholics there is something of a different sense. What I detect is not a lack of faith, far from it, but rather a sense in which they themselves feel their faith has “gone cold” or “gone stale” in some way. They want to keep praying, but prayer doesn’t always feel nourishing. They faithfully come to Mass, but spend the whole time distracted by the busy-ness of life. They want to be good disciples, good Catholics, but find that sickness, ageing, tiredness can leave them feeling just more and more selfish.

Little by little, then, I have wondered about this question: How can we sustain our discipleship for the “long haul”? How do we face the challenge of sustaining our relationship with God over the course of lives which will be much longer than those of our forebears? How can we keep our faith fresh and alive? After all, so many of the great saints we honour actually lived fairly short lives; even leaving aside the child-saints, Therese of Lisieux died at 24 and Bernadette at 35. Thomas Aquinas was only 49 at the end of his life. Even some of the great founders were youngish – Francis was 44 and Dominic 51, although Ignatius and Benedict made it into their mid 60s. And of course, it’s not just a question of age – all of us run the risk of letting things become over-familiar, too routine, perhaps a bit stale, at whatever age we are – and believe me, I’m talking to myself here more than anybody else!

Some of you may well be wondering by now why I have called this talk “Wrestling with Angels”. Well, as a way of entering this question, I would like to reflect on a slightly strange, but probably familiar passage from the Book of Genesis:

‘Jacob rose, and taking his two wives and his two slave girls and his eleven children he crossed the ford of Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and sent all his possessions over too. And Jacob was left alone. And there was one that wrestled with him until daybreak who, seeing that he could not master him, struck him in the socket of his hip, and Jacob’s hip was dislocated as he wrestled with him. He said, “Let me go, for day is breaking.” But Jacob answered, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” He then asked, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he replied. He said, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; because you have been strong against God, you shall prevail against men.” Jacob then made this request, “I beg you, tell me your name,” but he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” And he blessed him there. Jacob named the place Peniel, “Because I have seen God face to face,” he said, “and I have survived.” The sun rose as he left Peniel, limping because of his hip.’ (Gen. 32: 23-32)

I think we’re all well aware that there is some pretty strange stuff in the OT, but that story of Jacob takes some beating. Jacob, a crook and a cheat, a man who swindled his brother out of his birthright, seems to have a very peculiar relationship with God. Just before this story, at Bethel, Jacob has his famous dream of the ladder ascending to heaven, and receives God’s promise that his descendents will inherit the Promised Land; in response he vows that – if God will go with him – then the Lord shall be his God. And now, he not only sees God face to face, but wrestles with him until morning, until he gives him his blessing. And he not only receives a blessing, but receives a new name – Israel, a name that means either “He who strives with God” or “God strives”. It is all very strange.

Despite its strangeness, though, I have found myself returning time and time again to that story over the past few months. Perhaps it has been because, just at the moment, my vocations work has been much, much more difficult than usual. For me, then, that image of Jacob and the Angel (as it is so often described), of Jacob wrestling with God, has been a very powerful one – though I still could not say what I think it means.

Thinking again over that strange story of Jacob, there are three things which particularly struck me as I was reflecting in preparation for this conference. They had never occurred to me before, although they are not especially novel; nonetheless, I would like to share them with you. The first is that that title “Jacob and the Angel” or “Jacob wrestling with God” is somewhat misleading, and it is misleading because the order of the protagonists is wrong. It is God who comes to wrestle with Jacob, not Jacob who picks a fight with God. It is God himself who takes the initiative in this struggle and striving, it is God who issues the challenge, God who chooses the place and time of combat. And I think that is important. I think it is important, because it takes us right back to the start of our own journey of discipleship, back to the time when we first encountered the Lord who has called us to follow him, back to the time when we ourselves started “wrestling” with God. Speaking personally, that image of “wrestling with God” was right at the heart of my own “vocation experience”, since it was a calling which I desperately sought to avoid. The ten years of struggle which preceded the “knock-out” blow which brought me to the monastery were hard work – looking back, I can see that they were filled with blessings, actually necessary for me to become human enough to be of any use to the Lord – but hard work nonetheless. Equally, that struggle, that wrestling has continued day by day ever since – sometimes more fiercely, sometimes less so. Perhaps something of that rings true also in your own experience. When I was a “baby-monk”, my confessor used often to repeat a line from Ben Sirach: “My Son, if you would serve the Lord, prepare yourself for an ordeal”. For all of us, that “ordeal”, that struggling and testing, is part of our daily life. But above and beyond all that, it is worth remembering that it is God who chose to wrestle with us, God who chose us as his partners in this contest, God who took the initiative – not us picking a fight with him. And perhaps that is a first point for us to remember and to cherish when faith seems difficult. We have been called and chosen, not at random, but because God has chosen to call us, has seen something in us he loves with a love that does not change or grow stale. That is a great mystery, a mystery summed up by Jesus in those words in John 15: You did not choose me. No. I chose you, and appointed you to go out and bear fruit, fruit that will last” (Jn. 15:16).

And that leads to the second thing that struck me. Wrestling is a very unusual form of sport, because it is not only immensely physical, requiring strength, speed and skill, but it is also so very intimate. I cannot think of another form of competitive activity which requires the participants to be in such close and constant contact with each other – unless, perhaps, you count “Strictly Come Dancing”! Perhaps “intimacy” might sound like a rather inappropriate word for an activity which – at least at first sight – can appear so violent and so brutal. Yet wrestling is always “skin on skin”, almost sexual in the level of contact it requires of the contestants.

If, then, we are to continue to compare the mystery of our discipleship to this image of Jacob and the Angel, we are forced to the perhaps startling conclusion that not only is the struggle initiated by God, but that that struggle is deeply intimate – we are called to lay hands on him just as he does on us, called to touch, to cling, to hold with all our strength. Perhaps we do not often think of our Christian life in those terms – I suspect we’re more comfortable seeing it as a spiritual struggle. Yet we are asked to conform our whole lives to Christ – we are to be “skin on skin” with him, just as surely as we are to eat his body and drink his blood. I think we can find this difficult, perhaps especially those of us who are male. It raises issues with us at our deepest level, and I must admit that – as the years go by – I am more and more perplexed whenever I try to find the right words to express the intimacy I have found in my relationship with God. Yet we are called into this intimate struggle, this “whole body encounter” with our God.

That may seem a little far-fetched when you first hear it, but I don’t think it is, and perhaps it offers a second point for our reflection. Each of us will – I think undoubtedly – have had some sort of experience of God’s closeness, his intimacy with us, during our Christian life. Mercifully, they are often more gentle than either Jacob’s wrestling or Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus, but nonetheless, I think they are real experiences – as real as the feeling of the disciples on the road to Emmaus that first Easter day as they felt their hearts burn with them. If we reflect, probably each one of us can think back to a moment when we knew that God was close, when we knew in our hearts he was present with us, knew in our hearts that he loves us. Such experiences come in very different ways – at prayer, at Mass, in Lectio groups, in the wonder of a sunset, in the rapture of music, in the moment of holding our first child, in the dawning wonder at Christ’s love as we gaze on a crucifix. It doesn’t matter how they come, these “gifted moments” – rare as they are, and they are rare even for the saints, even for Jacob – are a precious token, and perhaps, whenever we reflect on them, we too will find our hearts burning again within us.

But there is a risk here, a risk which again we find outlined in Jacob’s story. If we take it seriously, this intimate struggle has long-term consequences, it will change us. For Jacob, that change comes with the dislocation of his hip, an injury which leaves him with a limp, a permanent – if mild – disability. Yet still, Jacob does not give up, does not let go. There again, I see a challenge for us. This intimate struggle, our wrestling with God may make us too at least feel disabled – if only in comparison with a world which sees value in so many things which we, as Christians, are asked to surrender or at least evaluate in a different way – in money, status, career, sexual licence and the ultimate value of individual freedom of choice. Again and again, the gospel asks us to treat these things with caution, to keep love of God and neighbour as our first priorities, but there is often the temptation to change our minds, to rehabilitate the “disabilities” which discipleship brings by letting go in the struggle.

And that brings me to the last of the three things which struck me in this story, and that is Jacob’s perseverance. Despite the long hours of physical struggle, despite the injury, despite the darkness that surrounds him, Jacob does not let go, does not give up, does not surrender until he has gained his goal – a blessing from the one he has wrestled with all night. And, in the end, he gets that reward – both blessing and a new name. Jacob perseveres, he keeps on wrestling because he wants something from God. I can remember my feelings of utter consternation and confusion when a psychologist friend of mine, who acted as my “mentor” for a while, asked me what seems to be a very simple question: “What do you want from God?” I was utterly confused – indeed, in many ways I still am, for I had never knowingly asked myself that question before. It seemed too impertinent. I had often wondered what God wanted from me, often asked how I could best serve him, often asked how he wanted me to change and grow to be his servant, his disciple. But I had never asked that question of myself. And yet, it is an important question on which to reflect – even if we cannot find an easy answer straightaway. Jacob’s desire throughout that struggle, Jacob’s yearning for the blessing was what motivated him to persevere through the long night, and ultimately earned him the desired reward. Where is our desire? What is it that we truly long for from God which will sustain us in our long-term discipleship, in our intimate wrestling with him?

There is a beautiful passage from St Augustine’s Confessions which sums up this interaction of the experience of intimacy and on-going desire as a guide to our discipleship:

'You are my God; I sigh to you by day and by night. When I first knew you, you lifted me up so that I might see that there was something to see, but that I was not yet the man to see it. And you beat back the weakness of my gaze, blazing upon me too strongly, and I was shaken with love and dread. And I knew that I was far from you, in the region of unlikeness, as if I heard your voice from on high: “I am the food of grown men: grow, and you shall eat me. And you shall not change me into yourself, as bodily food, but into me you shall be changed.”

Late have I loved you, O Beauty so ancient and so new; late have I loved you. You called and cried to me and broke open my deafness; and you sent forth your beams and shone upon me, and chased away my blindness; you breathed fragrance upon me, and I drew in my breath, and do now pant for you; I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst for you; you touched me, and now I burn for your peace.'

And that leaves one last question. Why does the Lord choose this way to build his relationship with Jacob? Well perhaps there is at least part of an answer at the end of both the Jacob stories I have mentioned – the dream of the ladder and the wrestling. For in both, with the coming of dawn, there also seems to come a new insight on Jacob’s part. In the first story, he cries out “Truly, the Lord is in this place, and I never knew it!... This is nothing less than the house of God and the gate of heaven!” And he calls the place Bethel – the House of God. In the second story, he gives a similar cry: “I have seen God face to face, and I have survived” – and he calls the place Peniel – the Face of God. You can almost hear the wonder and amazement in his voice in both those cries, for he comes to a new insight, a new recognition. And what is that insight? Well, I think it is that Jacob now knows his life has been touched by God in the most real way possible. This God of his ancestors, of Abraham and of Isaac, is not some distant being to be pacified, not some pagan deity demanding sacrifice in return for crops or water. This God of Jacob is the God who makes covenant, who promises to be with his people. Still more, this God is the one who himself comes to encounter his people, to meet with them, to show his face to them. And Jacob now knows this – not only in his mind as he did in the dream at Bethel, but now in his very flesh, in the scar and disability he bears. Jacob’s life has been touched by God as deeply as it can be, and Jacob knows this and is filled with awe.

So what might we actually do to make all this rather “fancy thinking” about Jacob and wrestling and intimacy and desire a reality in our discipleship, especially when we feel ourselves struggling or becoming stale? Actually, I think there are a few very simple things which might help us, might breathe new life into tired souls. They are pretty obvious, but nonetheless, I would like to share them with you.

The first is our prayer. Even after 25 years in the monastery, I cannot claim to be an expert in prayer – indeed, I feel rather the opposite. I have always found prayer difficult; in many ways, that’s precisely why I joined the monastery. But what I do know is that without it, without prayer, my life falls apart – it’s like being a fish out of water. When I first came here, I assumed that prayer was a complex thing, a bit like Physics at school, where you had to know the “trick”, you had to know the right “technique”, and then the doors would swing right open to perpetual contemplation of the Divine Glory. Looking back, I know that isn’t true, and in many ways I think it is a trap we all fall into, thinking that we don’t get much out of prayer because “we’re not doing it right”! Instead, I think things are much simpler than we expect. Indeed, I think almost the perfect description of prayer is given in the description of Moses in Exodus 33:11 “And the Lord spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend”. That, at base, is the model for our prayer – spending time in conversation with the Lord, knowing that he is our friend – it is nothing to be afraid of, and there are no “tricks”.

And if we do try to keep this conversation of prayer and friendship going, we might find something strange, because the pattern of our prayer grows and changes as we do. Twenty years ago, just before I began studies in Oxford, I found myself in just that situation. Even before I went, I was aware that something was changing. Old patterns of prayer seemed in some way to be “failing”. Prayer itself was becoming more wordless, calmer, but somehow “unrefreshing” in a way it had never been before. For a while, with the advice of others, I tried this and that, hoping to re-kindle the ardour, hoping to be “on fire” again as I had been as a younger man, and a younger monk. But nothing helped. It filled me with fear and panic, especially because I was coming up to Solemn Profession – could it be that I had lived a lie for the previous four years? Then, one night, praying in the cloister after Compline, something “clicked”. It suddenly dawned on me that perhaps the “honeymoon” was over, as in a normal human marriage – that the exciting, indeed exhilarating first days in my “love affair” with God had passed over into a deeper friendship, a friendship which needed fewer words, needed fewer external “signs” of desire or passion. I wondered if perhaps the Lord and I were becoming like an old married couple at breakfast (sorry to use that image) – content in their almost silent service of each other, knowing each other’s routines and needs without having to make a fuss, knowing that only the most important things needed to be voiced out loud.

That may seem a banal insight, but at the time it gave me great courage and strength, a courage that God had not after all forsaken me, a strength to ask to make my Solemn Vows. Yet even that comforting insight of the “old married couple” was only true for a time – only a stepping stone to another phase of desire and prayer. I have often wondered whether we talk enough about such “changes” in the pattern of our prayer and our desire; whether, as Christians, we help each other enough to understand the complex “roadmap” of desire and prayer in our lives. My suspicion is that we don’t, that we assume that prayer will always be the same and that we panic we find that isn’t true, and panicking, are tempted to give up. And actually, that’s the last thing we should do. Like Jacob and the wrestling, we need to carry on until we receive God’s blessing.

The second simple path I would like to suggest for “refreshing” our faith is again very obvious, and that is the Sacrament of Reconciliation, Confession. I realise that I am probably preaching to the converted here, but I am always struck by the fact that although we prize the Eucharist – the sacrament of our nourishment, the “waybread” for our journey – so highly, the sacrament of Reconciliation – that sacrament of Christ’s healing, of his binding up our wounds as the Samaritan man did to the one who fell among thieves - is still comparatively undervalued. Perhaps some people think it belongs to the old pre-Conciliar Church – the Church of sin and fear and judgement and hellfire. Perhaps some have had bad experiences in confession, as I once did at a Jesuit church – and it took me a long time to pluck up the courage to go again. Yet in this sacrament, we are offered – as often as we need it – the fullness of Christ’s healing, the fullness of God’s mercy which he purchased for us on that first Good Friday. The sacrament of Reconciliation is not just about the forgiveness of sins, either. When used regularly and well, it is a real tool for spiritual growth, because in that little community of Christ, the Priest and the Penitent which meet together in the confessional, we are unlocked from our self-absorption, unlocked from the aloneness of our struggle against temptation, unlocked from focussing just on our own failure. The very fact that we have to name our sins to another means we have to face them down, call them what in truth they are. The very fact that we have to listen to another’s advice and counsel lets the light of shared and Spirit-inspired Christian experience shine into the darkness of our hearts, and with that light comes the possibility of new growth, illumination and new energy. Only in this great sacrament are we never alone with our sin – for Christ and the Church are there with us. As Jacob discovered, you cannot wrestle alone, but only with another there in that mysterious intimate embrace – and if we are to wrestle with sin, then we need God to be there with us.

Lastly, and to bring this talk towards an ending, I think there is one way above all to keep our faith alive, no matter how many years we live, no matter what trials we have to wrestle with along the way, and that is gratitude, thankfulness. Again and again in the OT, we see what happens when Israel forgets all that God has done for them, forgets to give him praise, because they have become comfortable, prosperous, self-absorbed – even the very Lamentations we sing at Matins during these days show the physical desolation which attends the exile, all because Israel had forgotten the Lord, forgotten to give thanks for his wonders. And the same can be true of us. Sometimes, what we feel as staleness, weariness in our discipleship can be because we, like Israel, have forgotten just how much God has done for us already, forgotten to truly give thanks for the wonders of our salvation in Christ. So when we do feel that weariness, that staleness, perhaps that is the time – just such time as we have in these few days – to sit quietly in front of the Crucifix, gazing on the Lord in his love and his suffering, and remembering that he did all that for each one of us, for each of us by name, and so rekindle a heart of thankfulness.

One last little thought. I was very struck by the one of the psalms on Wednesday as we sang Vespers together in choir. It is not particularly well-known, not one of the all-time favourites. Indeed, because of its very unusual structure, many people find it one of the most boring psalms there is – Psalm 135 (136 in the Hebrew numbering). It is unique in the psalter, for each verse is made up of a short sentence about God’s work and then a repeated refrain: “for his steadfast love endures for ever” – and given that it has 26 verses, it can get a bit mind-numbing. Despite this, and despite the fact that I must have sung at more than 1300 times, it struck me powerfully as a great guide to thankfulness. At first, it gives thanks for the whole of Creation – that great primal gift of God to us. It then moves to give thanks for Israel’s salvation – for the liberation from Egypt and the entry to the Promised Land – God’s new Creation of his people. Lastly, it gives thanks for God’s daily care for us – for his steadfast love endures for ever, for each and every day of our existence, past, present and future. And when God says “for ever”, he means it – so that his steadfast love never grows stale, never gets wearied.

And it was only yesterday (Thursday) morning during our monastic choir practice that I noticed – for the first time in 25 years! – that the verse of the Easter Alleluia is taken from precisely this psalm: O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures for ever (Psalm 135:1)[1]. Perhaps this then, might become our song whenever we are weary, whenever we feel stale, whenever our discipleship seems to have become routine drudgery. Perhaps then, reflecting on those words in the presence of the angels, as Benedict says we do whenever we pray, we might find ourselves – not now wrestling with them, but singing along with them of the marvellous deeds of the Lord. Amen.

© Fr Oswald McBride OSB


[1] Thinking about this, it is possible that actually the verse is from Ps.117, the classic “Easter” psalm. In fact it does not matter very much, since the lines of the psalm are identical!