It’s one of my favourites: Jacob wrestles with an angel and is blessed and wounded as a result (Genesis 32:24-32).
The angel pulls a move that puts Jacob’s hip out of joint but Jacob still won’t submit. Jacob is an awkward customer. I love the bit where the angel pleads with him: ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’
So, the angel does exactly that, by conferring a new identity on the tricky, devious Jacob; he becomes Israel, the one who strives with God and prevails.
Everything I’ve said above is dwarfed by the way Rainer Maria Rilke puts in in the poem below. It was sent to me yesterday, by a friend I haven’t seen for a while.
I can see that the storms are coming
by the trees, which out of stale lukewarm days
beat against my anxious windows,
and I can hear the distances say things
one can’t bear without a friend,
can’t love without a sister.
Then the storm swirls, a rearranger,
swirls through the woods and through time,
and everything is as if without age:
the landscape, like a verse in the psalter,
is weight and ardor and eternity.
How small that is, with which we wrestle,
what wrestles with us, how immense;
were we to let ourselves, the way things do,
be conquered thus by the great storm,—
we would become far-reaching and nameless.
What we triumph over is the Small,
and the success itself makes us petty.
The Eternal and Unexampled
will not be bent by us.
Think of the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when his opponent’s sinews
in that contest stretch like steel,
he feels them under his fingers
as strings making deep melodies.
“The Man Watching” by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Edward Snow.
Whoever was overcome by this Angel
(who so often declined the fight),
he strides erect and justified
and great out of that hard hand
which, as if sculpting, nestled round him.
Winning does not tempt him.
His growth is: to be the deeply defeated
by ever greater things.