Originally posted as part of a poetics / poetry discussion on Tribe. Re-posted in 2013, with an additional section. Re-posting it again with edits and new links. With April, Inter/National Poetry Month, coming up, I thought I’d revisit this theological-mystical consideration of poetics-semantics-epistemology.
Mon, November 21, 2005 – 2:19 PM (edited)
Israel means “(one) who struggles with God.” Jacob crossing the river on his homecoming encounters a messenger (the literal Hebrew word, often interpreted as angel). Who is this messenger? What is its message? They wrestle all night– is it his conscience? is it his fear? Is it something else? The messenger never tells Jacob the messenger’s name. When dawn comes, the messenger makes to leave. Jacob will limp forever. As a blessing (?), the messenger gives Jacob a new name: Israel.
Any passage (metaphorically or literally) contains within it its messengers, its struggles, its need for wrestling.
When one crosses the river, one’s name changes. The old name remains (Jacob is called both Israel and Jacob after the crossing), but the new name has been earned.
Another analogy I’ve read: Shipwreck. There are points in our life when we hit a reef, or when a tempest blows out our sails and ruins our masts. This is a given. This is the way of the sea. It is not the shipwreck that matters, but how we choose to survive it (or not).
Perhaps we come to a delightful tropical paradise by swimming. Perhaps we build a new ship out of the old. Perhaps we build a new ship from the materials we find on the reef. Perhaps we live our lives afraid to go to sea.
I choose to wrestle with God, taking perhaps a name as a question: Israel. Who wrestles with God? Or a command. Wrestle with God. We all wrestle with understanding, or sleep through our lives again and again until God wakes us (as with Avram) and says lech, lecha: go, go forth.
Why “go” twice? Because we are reluctant, because it is hard, because it is a struggle. That is, we wrestle with our own purpose and journey, fight against it at times.
What does God want of us? One of my favorite teachers says this: to be engaged.
God doesn’t care what we do or say so much as that we engage in the struggle, make the journey, earn our new name. What does God want? Who are we to know? How could we?
If we try, though, that is enough.
6 January 2013 (edited 19 March 2016)
Some may find the term “God” off-putting, especially if the image that comes to mind is The White-Bearded One on a Throne. My understanding of this term fluctuates along different neurons, bursting along ideas such as “Creation,” “The Universe,” “Understanding,” or, just plain “Life.” That is, life as we know it, as we don’t know it, and as we cannot (perhaps yet) know it. Possibly, Life, the Universe, and Everything.
Our concept, what we may call God, expands so far outside of, beyond anthropomorphism and human understanding (as yet and possibly ever), that it stretches into near incomprehensibility. We live a life.
We live on a planet. The planet circles a star. The star moves in relationships with a huge number of other stars we call a galaxy. The galaxy speeds through space along with other galaxies, intergalactic objects, nebulae, and dark matter. Physics, astrophysics, theology, mysticism, cosmology, quantum theory, chaos theory—but, before expanding too far into thinking we grasp more than a glimpse of what all this might be, let alone mean
Just remember that you’re standing on a planet that’s evolving
And revolving at nine hundred miles an hour
That’s orbiting at nineteen miles a second, so it’s reckoned
A sun that is the source of all our power
The sun and you and me and all the stars that we can see
Are moving at a million miles a day
In an outer spiral arm, at forty thousand miles an hour
Of the galaxy we call the ‘milky way’
Our galaxy itself contains a hundred billion stars
It’s a hundred thousand light years side to side
It bulges in the middle, sixteen thousand light years thick
But out by us, it’s just three thousand light years wide
We’re thirty thousand light years from galactic central point
We go ’round every two hundred million years
And our galaxy is only one of millions of billions
In this amazing and expanding universe
The universe itself keeps on expanding and expanding
In all of the directions it can whizz
As fast as it can go, the speed of light, you know
Twelve million miles a minute and that’s the fastest speed there is
So remember, when you’re feeling very small and insecure
How amazingly unlikely is your birth
And pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere up in space
‘Cause there’s bugger all down here on Earth
Somehow, the complete totality of all of the universe—probably parallel universes—the rushing, breathing out of the big bang, the theory that time moves out in two directions (two futures), a new equation that solves several problems in quantum physics by eliminating the Big Bang and replacing it with an eternal universe that compresses and expands (in waves?)—all of this approaches a hint of what I mean by the difficulties of understanding the Universe or what we mean by God.
All of the Universe. All of the Universes. All of the possible Universes. It is this I wish to engage in, to wrestle with, to dance with.
However, I don’t know what it is. I don’t expect to understand, beyond a mere glimpse or two. What is important, as I wrote in 2005, is engaging with it, living in it. For what else is there?
And perhaps the glimpses will reveal a bit more. Something new. Something borrowed. Something blue. Something old. The marriage of multiple and interrelated principles, all of which we do not fully understand.
This theme of wrestling to understand glimpses drives my poem Jacob Wrestling, published by Drash Pit, now available here.
Perhaps less obviously, it is also the impetus behind my prose / poem hybrid, Indeterminacy, published by why vandalism? now available here
That publisher, why vandalism?, also published my eBook, The World Behind It, Chaos…, available as a free PDF download here. (Unfortunately, the why vandalism? and Drash Pit websites seem to be no longer active).
Readers who like this post might also like this short piece of mine published in December’s Drash Pit.