[Consonant with both Anglicanism’s and monasticism’s love of patristic theology-spirituality, I occasionally post selections from Durham University’s two-year lectionary for the Divine Office that draws mostly from patristic writings. The lectionary was initially edited by Stephen Mark Holmes (University of Edinburgh School of Divinity) and subsequently re-edited and formatted by Michele Freyhauf (Durham University). Click here for the link to the lectionary.]
Patristic Lectionary—6 February, St. Paul Miki & Companions, Martyrs; Ferial Day Following the Fourth Sunday After Epiphany.
[The image is Gustave Doré’s “Jacob Wrestling with the Angel”]
Jacob Meets Esau and Wrestles with God
And Jacob sent messengers before him to Esau his brother in the land of Seir, the country of Edom, instructing them, “Thus you shall say to my lord Esau: Thus says your servant Jacob, ‘I have sojourned with Laban and stayed until now; and I have oxen, asses, flocks, menservants, and maidservants; and I have sent to tell my lord, in order that I may find favour in your sight.’”
And the messengers returned to Jacob, saying, “We came to your brother Esau, and he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men with him.” Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed; and he divided the people that were with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two companies, thinking, “If Esau comes to the one company and destroys it, then the company which is left will escape.”
And Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O LORD who didst say to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good’, I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness which thou hast shown to thy servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan; and now I have become two companies. Deliver me, I pray thee, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, lest he come and slay us all, the mothers with the children. But thou didst say, ‘I will do you good, and make your descendants as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.’”
So he lodged there that night, and took from what he had with him a present for his brother Esau, two hundred she-goats and twenty he-goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty milch camels and their colts, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty she-asses and ten he-asses. These he delivered into the hand of his servants, every drove by itself, and said to his servants, “Pass on before me, and put a space between drove and drove.” He instructed the foremost, “When Esau my brother meets you, and asks you, ‘To whom do you belong? Where are you going? And whose are these before you?’ then you shall say, ‘They belong to your servant Jacob; they are a present sent to my lord Esau; and moreover he is behind us.’” He likewise instructed the second and the third and all who followed the droves, “You shall say the same thing to Esau when you meet him, and you shall say, ‘Moreover your servant Jacob is behind us.’” For he thought, “I may appease him with the present that goes before me, and afterwards I shall see his face; perhaps he will accept me.” So the present passed on before him; and he himself lodged that night in the camp.
The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. And Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and Jacob’s thigh was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Tell me, I pray, your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”
A Reading from the Homilies on Ezekiel by St. Gregory the Great
Hom. In Ez., 1.12 (PL 76:955)
The pursuit of the contemplative life is something for which a great and sustained effort on the part of the powers of the soul is required, an effort to rise from earthly to heavenly things, an effort to keep one’s attention fixed on spiritual things, an effort to pass beyond and above the sphere of things visible to the eyes of flesh, an effort finally to hem oneself in, so to speak, in order to gain access to spaces that are broad and open.
There are times indeed when one succeeds, overcoming the opposing obscurity of one’s blindness and catching at least a glimpse, be it ever so fleeting and superficial, of boundless light. But the experience is momentary only, so that all too quickly the soul must again return to itself. From that light which is approached with bated breath, it must now, sighing and mournful, go back once more to the obscurity of its blindness.
We have a beautiful illustration of all this in the sacred history of the Scriptures where the story is told of Jacob’s encounter with the angel, while on his return journey to the home of his parents. On the way he met an angel with whom he engaged in a great struggle and, like anyone involved in such a contest, Jacob found his opponent, now stronger, now weaker than himself.
Let us understand the angel of this story as representing the Lord, and Jacob who contended with the angel as representing the soul of the perfect individual who in contemplation has come face to face with God. This soul, as it exerts every effort to behold God as he is in himself, is like one engaged with another in a contest of strength. At one moment it prevails so to speak, as it gains access to that boundless light and briefly experiences in mind and heart the sweet savour of the divine presence.
The next moment, however, it succumbs, overcome and drained of its strength by the very sweetness of the taste it has experienced. The angel, therefore, is, as it were, overcome when in the innermost recesses of the intellect the divine presence is directly experienced and seen.
Here, however, it is to be noted that the angel, when he could not prevail over Jacob, touched the sciatic muscle of Jacob’s hip, so that it forthwith withered and shrank. From that time on Jacob became lame in one leg and walked with a limp. Thus also does the all-powerful God cause all carnal affections to dry up and wither away in us, once we have come to experience in our mind and hear the knowledge of him as he is in himself.
Previously we walked about on two feet, as it were, when we thought, so it seemed, that we could seek after God while remaining at the same time attached to the world. But having once come to the knowledge and experience of the sweetness of God, only one of these two feet retains its life and vigour, the other becoming lame and useless. For it necessarily follows that the stronger we grow in our love for God alone, the weaker becomes our love for the world.
Br. John-Bede Pauley OSB