Wrestling with the angel


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An Essay from the book My Grandfather’s Blessings by Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D.

SOMETIMES A WOUND is the place where we encounter life for the first time, where we come to know its power and its ways. Wounded, we may find a wisdom that will enable us to live better than any knowledge and glimpse a view of ourselves and of life thatis both true and unexpected.

Almost the last story that my grandfather told me was about a man called Jacob who had been attacked in the night as he slept alone by the bank of a river. He had been traveling, and when he had stopped to make his meal and settle down to sleep, the place had seemed safe enough. But it was not so. He awakened to find himself gripped by muscular arms and pinned to the ground. It was so dark that he could not see his enemy, but he could feel his power. Gathering all his strength, he began to struggle to be free.

"Was it a nightmare, Grandpa?"I said hopefully. I often suffered from nightmares back then and had to sleep with a nightlight on. I moved closer to my grandfather and took his hand. "No, Neshume-le," he answered, "it was quite real but it happened a long time ago. Jacob could hear his attacker's breath, he could feel the cloth of his garments, he could even smell him. Jacob was a very strong man, but even using all of his strength he could not free him-self and he could not pin his enemy down either. They were evenly matched and they rolled on the ground and struggled fiercely."

"How long did they struggle, Grandpa?"I asked with some anxiety.

"A long, long time, Neshume-le," he replied, "but the darkness does not last forever. Eventually it was dawn and as the light carne, Jacob saw that he had been wrestling with an angel."

I was astonished. "A real angel, Grandpa?"I said. "With wings?"

"I don't know if he had wings, Neshume-le, but he was definitely an angel," he told me.

“With the coming of the light, the angel let go of Jacob and tried to leave, but Jacob held

him fast. ‘Letme go,’ the angel told Jacob, ‘The Light has come.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go until you bless me.’ The angel struggled hard, for he wanted badly to escape, but Jacob held him close. And so the angel gave him his blessing."

I was very relieved. "Did he leave then, Grandpa? Is that the end?"I asked.

"Yes,"my grandfather said, "but Jacob's leg was hurtin the struggle. Before the angel left, he touched him on the place where he was hurt." This was something I could understand; often my mother did this, too. "

“To help it get better, Grandpa?” I asked.

But my grandfather shook his head. "I do not think so, Neshumele. He touched it to remind Jacob of it. Jacob carried-it all the rest of his life. It was his place of remembering."

I was very puzzled by this story. How could it be that one might confuse an angel with an enemy? But Grandfather said this was the sort of thing that happened all the time. "Even so,"he told me, "it is not the most important part of the story. The most important part of the story is that everything has its blessing."

In the year before he died, my grandfather told me this story several times. Eight or nine years afterward, in the middle of the night, the disease I have lived with for more than forty-five years declared itself in the most dramatic way imaginable. I had a massive internal hemorrhage. There was no warning at all. I was in a coma and hospitalized for months. The darkness and the struggle lasted for many years afterward.

Looking back on it, I have wondered if my grandfather, old and close to the time of his death, had not left me with this story as a compass. It is a puzzling story, a story about the nature of blessings and the nature of enemies. How tempting to let the enemy go and flee. To put the struggle behind you as quickly as possible and get on with your life. Life might be easier then but far less genuine. Perhaps the wisdom lies in engaging the life you have been given as fully and courageously as possible and not letting go until you find the unknown blessing that is in everything.

The End


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