The first post in the series ‘Friends’, reflecting on the nature of our friendships.
I am sure that I am not the only one who at times has tried very hard to push away those who care about me most. Usually through frustration about my own short-comings, I have tried to push others away, often successfully, but not always. There have been some remarkable people who were not willing to let me go, not willing to give up on me, no matter how hard I tried. And I have realised, these people are my friends.
It brings to mind the famous story of Jacob wrestling with the angel (Genesis 32.22-30). In the story it seems Jacob who is not willing to let go of the figure who is wrestling with him: “I will not let you go, unless you bless me”, we hear him saying. I wonder, however, who is really holding whom? I suspect Sir Jacob Epstein’s rendition of the story is truthful in the sense that it is ultimately the angel embracing Jacob, who seems rather helpless in this statue.
The encounter between Jacob and the angel illustrates our own struggle with God, our own struggle with ourselves. Jacob is left alone at night. Also for us, it is often when we are alone and the night is dark that we face our demons: when our guards are down, when we have run out of distractions to keep ourselves occupied. And so Jacob wrestles, through the darkest hours of the night. As the day is breaking, the figure tells Jacob to let him go: it is time for him to let go. It is at this point that Jacob makes a maybe rather strange request: I will not let you go, unless you bless me. It may seem an odd thing to say at this point, but on reflection it turns out to be the only right request. Unless we are ready to be blessed by our struggles, we will not be able to see the daybreak and prevail.
It is not the point at which Jacob has conquered the person he is fighting, but the moment that he asks for his blessing that changes everything. Unless we dare to ask to be blessed, unless we make ourselves vulnerable, our fight will not come to an end. However, when we do, we see with Jacob that what we fought, whom we fought, is precisely the person who is holding us, who is embracing us and who will bless us. Jacob’s opponent, the man he fought, turns out to be God himself.
Reflecting on our own friendships, particularly with those who have stayed with us through our struggles, we will see elements of this archetypical friendship between God and Jacob, between God and His people. I wonder if we fight most those whom we love most because we need their blessing too? Do we need their reassurance that they will never let go of us, even after a long night of wrestling? And does at the root of all this lie our fear that we are not good enough to be embraced, that we are not good enough to be blessed? Hence we fight: to find a victory that means defeat, the end of a relationship. But true friends will not let us go, but will show that when we ask we will be blessed. Not without scarring, as many of us know too well too.
Not only do we have true friends, we also are true friends. We can and will be those people embracing and blessing others, just as we have been embraced and blessed. That is the gift of love, given to and shared by each of us. I’d like to finish this first reflection on friendship with a sonnet by Malcolm Guite from his book Parable and Paradox:
I dare not face my brother in the morning,
I dare not look upon the things I’ve done,
Dare not ignore a nightmare’s dreadful warning,
Dare not endure the rising of the sun.
My family, my goods, are sent before me,
I cannot sleep on this strange river shore,
I have betrayed the son of one who bore me,
And my own soul rejects me to the core.
But in the desert darkness one has found me,
Embracing me, He will not let me go,
Nor will I let Him go, whose arms surround me,
Until he tells me all I need to know,
And blesses me where daybreak stakes its claim,
With love that wounds and heals; and with His name.
Malcolm Guite (https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com)