Can you imagine being startled out of sleep in the middle of the deep darkness of a desert night in a full on grappling match with God? In the Old Testament we see the story of Jacob awaking to find himself in that very situation. He woke in the middle of the night—and the middle of the desert—and found he was not alone. Genesis 32:24 tells us that he “wrestled with him until daybreak.” As jujitsu fighters refer to it, he was “rolling” on the desert dirt and being slammed up against car-size rocks. This was the longest mixed martial arts fight in history, with no timeouts and no referee to stop the fight.
Jacob must have been in great shape, because he fought with God all night long and even overcame his pain to cling to his opponent. Jacob refused to let go, demanding to receive a blessing. This is what fighters do when they are overmatched and cannot win or run. They close the distance and hang on for dear life so that their opponent cannot get in the full power of a punch or kick.
There comes a time in our journey toward intimacy with God that he begins to wrestle with us, too. Some cling to their earthly attachments, others to relationships that may be unhealthy. Still others cling to their own agendas and plans. In the dark night, Jesus challenges us to a battle for our very souls. It is almost like a linebacker tackling a running back while at the same time punching at the football to make him let go of it. It is up to us to choose whether we will eventually cling to God and seek his blessing, or succumb to the finite desires for which we initially wrestle.
God is love, and because he loves us, he is willing to challenge us so that our character can be strengthened by trial. He certainly allowed Jesus the dignity of free will in the desert. There, hungry and weak, Jesus faced his own wrestling match—with Satan. Satan tried to defeat Jesus with the jab of riches, the right hook of self-glory, and the uppercut of power. He taunted Jesus with the lust of the eye, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life. Jesus countered every blow because he clung only to his Father for the sake of his Father.
If we desire true intimacy with God, we can expect times when God will drive us into the dark night and will wrestle with us as we try to cling to the world, the flesh, and the devil. He looks at us in the eyes of our heart and says, “Let go.” Our arms grow tired and we can no longer grab onto our wants and desires. Like a boxer in a fight who is up against the ropes, we finally wrap our arms around our opponent, except our opponent is actually our loving God. We cling close so the blows cannot hurt us as much. When the bell sounds, Jesus raises our arms with his high over our head in testimony, making us winners by his grace.
We are in a fight to the death, and we must choose to die to the passions and disordered desires of our old fallen nature. We must learn, like Saint Paul, that “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). It is because God loves us that he fights for us to die to our own will and cling to his, for only in his will is eternal life. In order to cling to God, we have to let go of everyone and everything else. Jesus bluntly tells it like it is:
“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). Jesus gave his all for us so that we would and could give our all to him. The Catechism says it this way: “Charity is the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God” (1822).
God honored Jacob’s refusal to let go of him, and blessed him in two ways. First, he blessed him with a new name: Israel. Receiving a new name is an act of love and reminiscent of a marital union. The lover takes on the new name received from her beloved. Revelation 2:17 tells us that Christ will give each of us “a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it.” We are not to be his servants, nor even just his friend. We are to be called to full communion as the bride of Christ.
God also blessed him by wounding him in the hip. From that day on Israel walked with a bit of hesitation to his gait. The wound he received became an everlasting reminder of just how close God was. It reminded him—as our own wounds remind us—to check in with God as we walk through our life.
Our encounter with God changes the way we walk through life. By living in the virtue of love, we see through God’s eyes. As the Catechism says, we learn to love God and others “for the love of God” (1822). When we see a person in need, our soul hesitates and prompts us to take action. We pray for others; we give them food, shelter, or comfort. We cling close to God. Close enough to hear his heartbeat.
Living in love is active and vibrant. In fact, love is such a dynamic concept that a single word alone cannot contain its meaning. The Greek language has multiple words for love, two of which are eros and agape. Agape is the unconditional love that God has for us like parents have for their children, a love that descends from heaven. Agape is always seeking to do good for another. It is a love that descends from heaven. Eros is the desire for beauty and perfection and the word is also used for sexual passion. Eros inspires us to pursue that deep longing in our souls and to transcend the corporeal world.
The same Jacob who wrestled with God also had a dream of a ladder that ascended to heaven, on which angels were climbing up and down between heaven and earth. I picture it as one of those ladders with two sets of legs that is hinged at the top. As I previously pointed out, the Latin root word for the cardinal virtues is cardes, which means “hinge.” Our spiritual lives hinge on the virtues, like the top of one of these ladders.
As we climb up one side of the ladder, we grow in the cardinal virtues of justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude. As we ascend, we see God more and more clearly, and we gradually learn to cherish him, not for what he does for us, but simply for who he is. The other set of rungs, those descending back to earth, are the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love.
Jacob’s dream helps us understand agape and eros love. We ascend toward God in eros, which is a love that desires to possess. This is eros for God. We want to possess the perfect communion with God. But we climb the ladder carrying a backpack full of the things to which we cling. The spiritual longing for truth propels us to the top of the ladder. At the top of the ladder, we wrestle with God, and must choose to let go of all our attachments that are not of God. Once we have let go, we are ready to descend again, infused with agape for him. God blesses us, like he did Jacob, and we are able to live a love of self-donation for God’s sake. As Luke 17:33 promises, “Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.”
Saint Augustine shows us this progression from eros to union with God in agape when he said, “Yet I love a certain kind of light, and sound, and fragrance, and food, and embracement in loving my God,…where that light shine unto my soul which no place can contain, where that sounds which time snatches not away, where there is fragrance which no breeze disperses.”
The Catechism tells us that the virtue of love (or charity) is “the virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God” (1822). It is agape, which enables us to live in this virtue. We descend the ladder, rung by rung, first by loving God for his own sake, then by loving others, and then by loving ourselves for the love of God. It is eros that gives us the desire to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8). Even a small taste of God makes our longing for him grow. As we continue in grace even through dark nights of wrestling, he faithfully leads us to abandon ourselves that we might be filled with agape for him. As my friend Girard Middleton said at one of our Deep Adventure Quests, “In the end, love is the only thing that makes sense.”