I created this blog as a way to process and record my experience as a seminary student. I also hope it will provide a platform for my friends and family to participate in the journey. Some of the entries are kind of long, but what can I say--I was in graduate school, they made us do that...


Thursday, December 18, 2008

I'm half way done...

There are so many things to say as I reflect back on the first half of my seminary experience. I suppose the biggest thing that has happened for me personally has been the realization that I can't throw religion away, no matter how hard I try (and I've tried!). I have figured out that religion matters to me and that it will always be part of my life and vocation. While I don't think I will ever (although never say never) describe myself with the label Christian again, I realize that the Christian tradition is the one available to me. I would feel very odd trying to put on or co-opt a different religion. Christianity is the water I swim in and the Bible is what I know. So here I am, a religious, non-christian, christian. How do you like that label? I have no idea what it means. And you know what? I actually don't need it. For so long I have had an overwhelming need to label myself, but that need is finally loosening. I am what I am and it's probably confusing, but I don't know how to be anything different. I'm slowly getting over the "embarrassment" of wanting to become a minister and hope to spend next year exploring the UU church in order to determine if I want to pursue ordination within that denomination. We'll see!

I read the Dark Night of the Soul by Gerald May this semester and recently entered into my second Spiritual Direction relationship (my first was in Spokane before leaving for Europe). These two things have opened me up and helped me understand and verbalize the realizations of the previous paragraph. I almost dropped out of seminary about 100 times last year. At this point, I'm thankful to my husband who always told me to go back and thankful for the amazing teachers that made staying worthwhile. Last year was hard in so many ways, but I'm glad I didn't give up. I have learned so much and been changed yet again. I have settled on belief in mystery and the mysteries of life, death, compassion, love.... This list could go on. Existence itself is holy and continues to draw me into contemplation of the sacred.

The next four posts have some of my work from this semester. It's a lot...happy reading!

My Gingko Tree

Here's an interactive post! This is a piece of nature writing from my final portfolio in Writing for Public Ministry.

The Gingko

The tree stood at least two stories taller than my new house and I imagined the roots digging their way to the small river a block away or at least to the roots of the maple across the street. In my head, I could see the two root systems intertwined and coiled around one another deep inside the earth. I couldn’t identify this tree. The leaves were new to me—shaped like a fan with curved edges and a soft V cut out of the top. Each leaf was covered in thin, raised lines that started at the stem and fanned symmetrically out to the edge. On that August morning, the day I first saw the tree, the leaves were a dark green and they filled the branches. I stood against the thick trunk and stared towards the sky. Deep, shaded green filled my vision. I called my landlord and discovered that this tree was a ginkgo.

In eastern Asia, the ginkgo tree is sacred. I had moved to Indiana to attend seminary, to explore the holy mystery of life and I had been gifted with a holy tree. In China, Japan and Korea, ginkgos are planted on the grounds of temples and palaces. And here I was, in Indiana with a sacred tree. My house took on a new aura. Walking up my front steps and under the canopy of leaves, I was greeted with holy breath. I looked up and saw the leaves reaching down for me. The base of the thick trunk is about four feet from my walkway, but strong branches grow horizontally over it about ten feet up. From these horizontal branches hang thin branches, full of leaves. I can grab them, examine them—brush my face along them as I enter my home.

I sit and watch the tree regularly. The image of it has become a part of me. But I want more from it than its beauty—even more than its shade. I want the tree to speak to me. I want it to tell me stories. I want to hear about the people who have lived in this house, about everything that has happened on this street. I want to know how old the tree is. I sit at its edges, lean against its base and look out at the world it sees—simple wood homes filled with families, shouting, wiggling teenagers walking home from school and cars hurriedly trying to get somewhere. Some of my neighbors have lived on this street for almost fifty years. I wonder if the old, old man next door remembers when this tree was young, when it was more vulnerable than it seems now, but I discover there’s no way he could have. The ginkgo is sometimes called the grandfather-grandchild tree because it takes three human generations to mature. It’s a name that causes me to wonder about who planted the tree in my yard, at least three generations ago, and what it meant to them when they did. Did they know that it was a holy tree?

Of course, I will never get the stories I want from my tree. Even though many people use ginkgo leaves to help improve their memory, my tree doesn’t have a human memory. It doesn’t record and remember information the way I do. It doesn’t know the stories I want it to tell me. But that doesn’t mean the ginkgo is without stories. I admit they are not stories that matter to the tree, at least not in the way stories matter to me. But the ginkgo has stories. I’ve read about four ginkgo trees in Hiroshima. They were about a mile away from the point of impact when the atomic bombs were dropped in 1945. Yet they survived. Everything around them was destroyed, yet they stood. And the following spring, they blossomed. They still stand, strong and alive. Because of these four trees, the ginkgo is known in Japan as the bearer of hope. Near these bearers of hope are plaques containing prayers for peace. After learning of these Japanese ginkgos, I walked under my tree and told it the story of the hope bearers. I embraced its trunk and prayed for peace.

Sitting on my porch where the walls are waist high, I can’t see the bottom of the trunk. The ceiling cuts the view off just as the first strong branches start to pull away. And the columns on either side form horizontal edges, giving my view a photographic shape. The tree stands four or five stories tall and my first floor view keeps me separated from the thickest, leafiest sections. I don’t know most of my tree. Even when I’m walking toward my house, able to see the entirety of the tree, I rarely look up. It’s the bottom that continues to get my focus—the trunk and the low, canopy-creating branches I know best. I live under the tree and walk atop the buried root system almost unaware of the heights the dark green leaves are reaching for.

I watched as the leaves gave way in the fall. They changed fast. It didn’t seem possible to keep up with their ever shifting shades of color. At first, the deep green fell out of the leaves, almost as if it was dripping down into the grass. But the leaves refused to lose it all, they simply held the color in a more electric light. They became lime. But electric lime has to move, it has to go somewhere. It dissolved, no longer dripped, but simply disappeared or was swallowed. Goldenrod formed along the edges of each leaf and squeezed out the last stubborn bits of green. All that was left was an ochre color that couldn’t quite be called orange. But then the leaves brightened, somehow turning the exact shade of marigolds. And then they gave up.

One November morning, I awoke to the sound of rain. Except it wasn’t quite the sound of rain. It was soft and padded in some way. It was a sound I’d never heard. It was like what you would expect snow to sound like if snow made noise when it hit the ground. My ears loved it. I sat up, peeked through the blinds, and was startled by what was there. I jumped out of bed. I walked out my front door, clothed in pajamas and looked up in amazement as every leaf fell from my tree. It was raining yellow gingko leaves. My walkway was covered in gold. There were thousands of lines and shapes forming and changing as the leaves fell on top of one another. I sat down on the steps and lay back, feeling the comfort hundreds of leaves can provide. I stared up into the branches—my canopy was slowly becoming bare. I could see patches of sky and light. The leaves rained continuously for hours. It took all morning for the branches to shed their cover and expose themselves.

The ginkgo tree is often called a living fossil, which means it’s a living organism that’s found in fossils, but has no other close living relatives. Scientists think that the ginkgo biloba tree, my tree, is the only species left in a family of trees that dates back almost 300 million years. My tree is older than the dinosaurs! As I watched the golden leaves fall, I couldn’t help but imagine a giant Tyrannosaurus Rex watching the same golden rainfall millions of years ago. With this thought came an overwhelming reminder of my smallness. I am but a tiny speck in the history of the world. My life takes up no more than an itty-bitty portion of the planet. Sitting on a pile of leaves, looking up at empty branches, I wondered what it all meant. I picked up a leaf, yellow and veiny, still supple and full of life. How long until it dried and would crumble between my fingers? I held it, one out of thousands—then dropped it and scooped up handfuls. Golden leaves covered everything, my field of vision blurred. The sidewalk around my house was gone; the grass had disappeared. Half of the street was a golden mosaic.

Most of the leaves fell that morning, but there were a few stubborn ones that refused to let go. They lasted less than a month and soon my leafy canopy was gone. My tree had been stoic, lush and dark green for months. It had stood, deeply rooted and constant as I transitioned through the beginning of seminary. In less than a month all the green had fallen away and in one day almost every leaf had given up. I walked towards my house and looked up at the empty branches. I saw vast linear patterns etched against the grey sky. But as the days grew colder, I forgot to pay attention to the sacredness of those patterns and simply ran towards my door. I became mired in my studies and dependent on the warmth of my house. My world shrank and I neglected my tree.

I had come from the evergreen state, the land of pine and spruce. The land of moss filled trunks supporting branches of needles and cones. I had come from trees that avoid the drastic changes of the gingko. Trees that are sacrificed every winter and decorated with tinsel and light in warm living rooms. My ancient gingko escapes this fatal glory and continues its stoic, isolated stance through the bitter cold of Indiana winter. A winter that refuses to give up until it has chilled every last human bone and people have resigned themselves to the fact that springtime no longer belongs to them. Bundled and miserable, I trudged under my leafless canopy for months. It was incapable of giving me warmth and I was therefore unable to slow my pace, to remember the golden rainfall. Some days the branches were dry, dully holding themselves up as placeholders for the next generation of leaves. Other days they sturdily supported inches of snow and reminded me that they lived for more than leaves.

One day, I came home under the cover of a blue, wintery sky and was amazed to see my tree covered in diamonds. Every branch shimmered. Wherever there was a small, raised shoot on the branches—the part where the leaves would eventually grow again—water had collected and frozen. The tree glowed and glistened in the sunlight. I felt as if it were calling for my attention, as if it were demanding that I finally stop and feel the holy breath underneath its barren canopy. I did. I walked around it and then sat on the ledge of my porch, the place I had first examined it on an August day not long ago. I tried to remember the unknowing I felt then, the warmth, the mystery that surrounded this new tree. I looked at it now with familiar love. Yet, I knew I didn’t have all its secrets. It held the mystery of rebirth, the hope of spring. But it was still winter and the beauty of those diamonds could not fight off the cold. I started to shiver and thanked the gleaming branches for their greeting. Then I went inside and began to wait.


Here they are, my first attempt at poetry! I was really nervous at first, but I actually enjoyed writing them. This was part of my final portfolio for Writing for Public Ministry.


First the deep green fell out
Disappeared or was swallowed
Mottled and faded
Shades of color shift

Lime, electric
Goldenrod wrapped at the edges
Hoping in vein for orange.

Almost as if dripping
Down into the grass

They gave up.


Often my first stop
when I go home.

Past the dried bouquets, produce
slow walkers and flying fish.

To three-girls-bakery
then my spot.

Water is everywhere
shiny grey air hangs heavy.

Salt fills my nostrils
ferries move like sea slugs.

I take a stool at the bar by the window
open my brown bag and take my first bite.

The sandwich is good
but not why I’m here

which is to look.
To see what I long for.


In the corner
Latex dipped knots of wire, string—and rope
Old cracked shades of ochre
Tangled, odd, lovely
Tied and twisted stuck

Lovely because of the gesture
Delicate disorder
Held together in reminiscence
Sharing space with shadows
Bearing everything


My father and I
wait for the music to call us.
Breathe, breathe

and wonder.
Standing still in soundless noise.
My bridesmaids have already

disappeared behind the door.
Two left I start to feel
to feel—

nerves dancing with
stephanotis and lilies.
The weight of my dress.

Spiritual Direction: Integration, Self-Reflection and Future Goals

This was my final paper for Individual Spiritual Direction, my first training steps toward becoming a Spiritual Director (that title freaks me out!). There are five sections and they are each answering specific questions. I think the paper will make sense on its own, but if you would like to know the questions, please let me know.

Section 1:

I came to this class with assumptions, hopes and wonderings. I knew I was interested in the ministry of spiritual direction, but my exposure to it had been minimal. Before beginning this class I had met with one director for five months. I have now met with and discussed direction with two other directors, entered into a relationship with a new director, offered direction to someone and participated in several direction practicum experiences. Because of these encounters, my imagination for the ministry of spiritual direction has been greatly enlarged. I have a renewed vision for the possibilities and gifts of this ministry as well as my place within it.

I live in a world filled with people trying to cope with the mysterious realities of existence and death. While I don’t believe that spirituality can answer these questions or automatically take away pain, I do believe it can respond through the work of grappling with questions and paying attention to pain (and all other emotions). I believe that it is the wrestling with mystery that matters. We may never find answers, but our lives will be fuller for the search. I believe the task of spiritual direction is to offer space and an invitation.

I continue to be enamored by Margaret Guenther’s concept of the Spiritual Director as amateur. This definition gives so much clarity to a sometimes hard to define vocation. The Spiritual Director is not a doctor or a psychotherapist. They are not professionally trained to diagnose or treat sickness in the body or mind. What the Spiritual Director offers is presence. They offer safe space and support to the people who come to them in search of something. Sometimes people come searching for a particular thing, a decision that needs to be made or pain that needs to be healed. Other times they come for no other reason than they couldn’t not come. They don’t know what they’re searching for, but they know that something is missing and they want help. The amateur is available to sit alongside, to listen, to help discern the shape and sound of inarticulate longings. The amateur is not answer-giver, pain remover or boss. The amateur provides an openness and helps give the vision of possibility and hope. It is crucial, however, for the amateur to remember their role. The work done in spiritual direction can open up wounds that may be beyond the scope of an amateur. As I think of the possibility of entering into this kind of work, I continue to grow in awareness of the need to foster relationships with a network of professionals. People I can call on for support and advice when I need it and that I can refer directee’s to when they are in need of different types of care.

After participating in spiritual direction work in the role of the director, I now have a greater appreciation for Guenther’s metaphor of the Spiritual Director as midwife. The section What the Midwife Does (87) provides a practical, earthy description of helping someone bring new life into the world. Of course, new life can be understood broadly. And as Guenther points out, the stages of new life are remarkably similar, no matter what “life” is newly coming into the world. The amateur midwife is available to participate in the entire birthing process right alongside the person who is pregnant. While each stage is important, they are all different. The first—that of waiting—can sometimes be the most difficult for certain personality types. It is important that the Spiritual Director model patient waiting and provide space for the directee to be comfortable in what might seem like a process of doing nothing. Time must be given to figuring out what is being birthed, what it means, where it’s coming from, what the process of bringing it to life might look like. This process of waiting and discerning is critically important and should always be given proper attention. Helping to fight the desire to rush ahead towards something that feels more “productive” is a gift that the director can offer to the directee. Of course, once it (whatever it is) is discovered, the director doesn’t walk away from the process. The focus changes toward dealing with transition, which can be scary and painful. It can bring up past, unresolved issues, it can cause tension in personal and work relationships. It can mean a time of grieving. It can also be a happy time of shedding painful memories that no longer need to be grasped so tightly. It is important for the amateur midwife to create a safe space in which the directee can raise and face any of the multiple issues that arise during this stage without shame or guilt. It is also important that the Spiritual Director slow her words down and avoid rushing in with ideas as the directee begins to brainstorm her next steps. She might point out observations of patterns or previously expressed feelings, but it is not her job to provide a solution. However, as the next steps are decided and acted upon, and new life is born, it is entirely appropriate for the director to celebrate right along with the directee.

Spiritual direction relationships can provide a respite from the expectations of everyday life. They can provide a quiet place to ponder together issues of mystery and heart, to pay attention to pain, but also beauty, to dream and to heal. Spiritual direction is an intentional gift shared between seekers.

Section 2:

My vision for the spiritual life remains a mystery. I am coming through a dark night experience in which I tried to renounce religion and am finally at the point of building rather than deconstructing. In order to do the work of building, I have entered into my second spiritual direction relationship. While I know this work will help me to find practices and contentedness in my spiritual life, I know that I will not find answers. I have come to the conclusion that spiritual matters are by their very nature mysterious and must remain that way. While human beings have to come up with concrete words, images and practices in order to better communicate and understand their spiritual journeys, I believe it is vitally important that concrete answers be avoided. I understand that each person will find comfort in different levels of understanding and I’m therefore not suggesting a dogmatic belief that no one is allowed to find an answer that I can’t find. I am simply stating my belief that we must respect the ever-mysterious quality of divinity and need to err on the side of love and openness as we reach conclusions in our belief systems. I believe one of the fruits of spiritual direction can be working towards a balance in the tension between the human need for answers and the mysterious quality of divinity. A director can challenge their directee to loosen the grip on some of their most tightly held beliefs (if they are proving to be unhealthy), and they can also help people swirling around in confusion ground themselves in something verbal and tangible.

As I consciously begin moving toward the ministry of spiritual direction I am finding that many of the difficult experiences I’ve had in my life—or more specifically, the work I have done to process and begin healing from these experiences—will be important assets in my role as a spiritual director. I understand what it is to be optimistic in spite of seemingly hopeless situations. I know the feeling of loving a family member even though they hurt you. I know how to set healthy boundaries in unhealthy relationships. But I have also been blessed with many incredible experiences and wondrously healthy and communicative relationships. Beyond my experience with individual people are my experiences with larger faith communities. While I often joke about my roller coaster ride with religion, I wouldn’t trade any of the steps in my journey (maybe some of the behaviors associated with them!). I understand what it is to be without religion, to be fundamentalist, liberal, confused and agnostic. All of these words represent more to me than clich├ęd labels. They are times of my life, they are people I still call friends, they are points of the spectrum in which many of my directee’s will find themselves. I am thankful for the many experiences in my life that will help me better understand the perspectives my directee’s will be speaking from.

I was gifted with an amazing first experience of spiritual direction with a Dominican sister that gave me a respect for the importance and sacredness of this ministry. I now have a male director and am learning that gender distinctions are less important than I once thought in this type of relationship. I realize that I hold my own sessions of spiritual direction as a place I can let my guard down (not an easy thing to do for an Enneagram 8), a place that I can be completely honest about my spiritual life without fear of embarrassment or judgment. As a highly extroverted person I need to verbally process my thoughts in order to understand my thinking. Intimate spiritual thoughts aren’t always easy to share, however, and I’m grateful to have a place to process them. As I begin to offer direction to others, it is my sincerest hope that I will be able to offer the safe and open presence I have been given. Offering direction to someone has been a gifted experience. It is a sacred privilege to be let into someone’s inner life and spiritual awareness. One of the most important aspects of being offered the chance to “practice” spiritual direction has been the calming of a few of my biggest fears. I have always been concerned that the largeness of my personality could take over and that I would bring too much of myself into the conversation. I am also a pragmatic, systems person who likes to work toward resolution. I worried that I would need to jump in with solutions to every problem or at least the problems I felt to be easily fixable. I have done neither of these things in my brief experience as a director and this gives me the confidence to continue in the work. And there is much work to be done. Beyond more training and practice, I need to continue down my own spiritual path. I have come a long way in the past few years and am relieved to have reached the present moment. Many of the practices I am currently working on in my own spiritual life match the qualities I think of as important for any Spiritual Director. Most importantly among them I have to keep working out my prayer life, a goal that reminds me of Paul’s call to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.

Section 3:

Spiritual direction is something I’ve thought about for a long time and as I have studied it intentionally over the past few months I’ve been opened up to several new possibilities. Some of the most important for me personally have included Janet Ruffing’s discussion of the Communion of Saints and Gerald May’s book on the dark night. As I mentioned above, I have just been released from a dark night experience. It was May’s book that gave words to some of my unnamable emotions and helped me to move into the next phase of my spiritual journey. This is a book I will return to and one I will always be grateful for. Ruffing’s discussion on the Communion of Saints, along with my study of Theresa of Avila for history class and May’s discussion of Theresa and John, have provided me with a breakthrough. It’s hard to explain my excitement about it at this point. I feel something very important growing within me in relation to the Communion of Saints but I haven’t had enough time to sit, study and reflect on it yet. Even in my early contemplations of it though, it has opened an entirely new way of relating to spirituality and prayer in my life.

In addition to personal breakthroughs I have also gained insight into practical aspects of spiritual direction. Vocationally, the idea of colleagueship both for support and referral has become important. This is something that makes practical sense and is absolutely necessary, but that I hadn’t ever really thought through before. In terms of the actual direction session I have appreciated learning more about resistance, focusing, and patterns in life’s many stages. The most important aspect about learning some of these things has been the fact that they take me out of my own experience and broaden my perspective on why people come to direction and the various needs of people in direction. Getting to do my “practice” direction with a father in his forties has been incredibly rewarding for me because of the sheer differences between us.

Section 4:

I am a compassionate person with common sense. While this is a simple description, it’s one I think is valuable in any ministry of accompaniment. I think a certain level of compassion is necessary in order to open space within oneself and truly hear the stories of others. But a certain level of common sense is necessary in order not to get lost in the stories of others. It is important to be able to find the balance between truly hearing and getting lost. I have been lucky in my life to have a few great mentors that have modeled healthy behaviors that strike this balance in accompaniment work. I think I have a gift for quickly understanding the heart of what someone is trying to communicate and being able to mirror it back to them in helpful ways. This is a gift that needs more testing before I can boldly claim it, but I feel its early fruits in my life and relationships.

One aspect of spiritual direction that I am currently wrestling with is money. I have never been to a director that charges a fee. My first director asked that I make donations to her community, but never monitored whether I did or how much I gave. My current director doesn’t charge at all. I have never met anyone that makes a living doing spiritual direction and I’m struggling with how this ministry will fit into my life, especially in an occupational way. The conversation we had in our last class around this subject was helpful. I feel the most comfortable with the concept of being released and supported by a congregation or organization to provide spiritual direction. But that of course demands a willing group to support me in this work, which is something I might not always be able to depend on. I suppose this is an issue that needs to be given over to the beautiful concept of trust. The only thing I can control at this point is working to prepare myself for this ministry. I have to trust that I will be supported in the work if I’m supposed to do it.

Feedback is an important aspect of all skill building work and I appreciated the chance to have supervision sessions. While writing a verbatim for supervision is difficult, it’s an important exercise that forces me to think deeply about my direction sessions. It helped me to get beyond superficial reflections and into the deeper, multi-layered aspects of any direction session. Having a space to discuss the verbatim was helpful, especially for a verbal processor like me. Having another set of eyes and ears walk with me through a session opened up the practice of spiritual direction in new ways. Another important aspect of participating in supervision was simply the experience of it. I now have a vision for what supervision is and why it’s important. I can’t imagine having multiple directee’s without a system in place for support and feedback.

In many ways, the feedback I received this semester has been affirming. When I was the director during practicum, my biggest fears were thrown on me. I was told that I became the directee and that I made the session about myself. However, after participating in the other practicum experiences, multiple direction sessions with my directee and our supervision sessions (I count the debrief after my painful practicum as one of my supervision sessions) my fears have been calmed and I feel able to move forward confidently in this work. Confidence is important, but overconfidence is dangerous and I am well aware that continuing to hone my skills, ask for feedback and remain aware of the presence I give to directee’s will always remain a crucial aspect of offering this ministry. I am looking forward to continuing with my current directee next semester and hope to offer direction as part of my supervised ministry next year. It is my hope that through continued exposure to various directee’s I will be able to identify the specific areas of growth that I need to focus on. At this point, I feel that the most pressing issue I need to focus on is my own spirituality. As I stated above, I am finally at a place of rebuilding my own understanding and relationship with the Holy. This next year will be a time of discernment for me as I decide whether or not to remain a committed Quaker or to seek membership within the Unitarian Universalist Association. It will also be a time of growth as I commit to my own spiritual disciplines. I continue to realize how much tradition and ritual matter to me. As I explore these aspects and intentionally meditate on the liturgical year I’m hopeful that my ministry of direction will be affected in positive ways. I came to seminary knowing that spiritual direction was a ministry I wanted to explore. After investigating other areas of emphasis and working through some of my own difficulties in regards to spirituality, I am even more confident that I am heading towards a ministry of spiritual direction in some form or another. As I stated above, I am looking forward to continued exposure and “practice” over the next year in order to continue discerning what role this ministry will play in my life.

Section 5:

Five years from now will be an interesting time in my life. Jeremy will be finishing his PhD and we will therefore have lived in the same city for five years, which will be different for us. We will hopefully be moving to a teaching job for him at that point, which will entail choosing a city and settling. Something we’ve been unsure we would ever do. As I ponder my life and ministry, however, I’m realizing more and more the importance of building relationships and remaining active in a particular community. I hope that Jeremy and I will be able to participate in the community we move to next year because of the longevity we will have there. I hope to work towards ordination or recording if I continue to feel called in that direction and I hope to gain more experience with multiple directee’s. I hope to gain experience in both congregational settings and retreat centers. I also hope to work toward certification as a Pilates instructor. I would like to incorporate bodywork into my ministry as well as aspects of the creative life. I am constantly dreaming up workshop, retreat and Sunday school hour ideas. I’ve decided to finally start writing them down so that I will be able to utilize them when I have the opportunities.

I’m looking forward to my two independent studies next year—art and spirituality as well as working with married couples. Both of these classes will help me begin to explore specific aspects of my ministry goals. I have also been feeling called back into some sort of social work. I hope to find an organization to volunteer with regularly over the next five years. It is my hope to be able to offer spiritual direction and workshops with the underserved and often ignored populations in our country. Before coming to seminary I worked for an amazing organization for three years serving women trapped in mental illness, poverty and homelessness in Spokane. I can imagine several ways of bringing my ministerial goals to the women of that center and hope I can find a similar place wherever I move to next.

I was taught from a young age that dreams can come true. This belief has carried into my entire outlook on life. If my future self and present self could have coffee, I’m sure we would laugh and share stories and memories. I hope my future self would tell me to keep going and not to be scared of settling down somewhere and that my work in ministry had turned out to be more fruitful than I ever could have imagined and to keep working hard. My present self would ask my future self about some of the spiritual practices that had become meaningful to me so that I could get started on them right away!

Jacob Wrestles with God

This was my final paper for Bible Violence and Nonviolence. I loved writing it! I am sort of falling in love with the crazy, crazy book that is the Bible.

A Close Reading of Genesis 32:24-31 (Before Research)

The Basic Story:

Just after leaving his father-in-law Laban’s household and right before being reunited with his brother Esau, Jacob sent everyone away and sequestered himself in solitude. Once alone, he was confronted by a man, whom he wrestled with until daybreak. Their physical strength was well matched, for there was no clear victor in the battle. The unidentified man, upon realizing that he was unable to physically beat Jacob, resorted to cheaters tactics and struck Jacob on the hip socket. As they continued to wrestle, Jacob’s hip was put out of joint. (In remembering this story, I have often though that the man put Jacob’s hip out of place directly, but in my recent reading I have come to realize that the man only set the stage for the injury, he didn’t directly cause the injury. This is a subtle distinction, but one that is worth noting.) The man asked to be released at dawn, apparently unable to leave on his own even though Jacob was injured. Jacob, clearly in control at this point, refused to let go unless the man blessed him. This is a perplexing request. I would think Jacob would have gladly let the man go so that he could rest and care for his hip. The man responded to the request for blessing by asking Jacob’s name, which Jacob told him. This was the first time the issue of identity was raised between these two men. In an effort to take control, the man changed Jacob’s name to Israel and explained that Jacob had wrestled with God and humans, but had prevailed. At this point, I’m still unsure who the ‘man’ is. Is he God or is he human? He’s called a man, but how would he know that Jacob had wrestled with God if he wasn’t himself God? And why would a man have the power to change Jacob’s name? At this point in the story, Jacob is thinking the same thing and asks the man for his name. The man asks Jacob, in what sounds like a sarcastic tone, why Jacob would ask this question. Skipping over the second request, the man grants Jacob his first request and blesses him. Jacob then, unable to name or know the name of the man, names the place. At this point it is clear that Jacob believes the man to have been God for he says that he has seen God face-to-face and lived. The story ends with Jacob walking away into the sunrise—with a limp.

Jacob’s Personal Story:

When I read this story in it’s biblical context I see the unfolding of a family drama. Jacob refused to give Esau hospitality, but instead forced him to trade his birthright for food. Then Jacob schemed with his mother to steal his brother’s blessing. He directly and knowingly lied to his ailing father and received his blessing under false pretense. He then fled his homeland and stayed away for twenty years. Understandably, he was terrified of how Esau would react to his return. Esau, however, was capable of greater forgiveness and generosity. He came to meet Jacob in love. Jacob was unable to trust this love and did everything he could to ply Esau with gifts and send him away. In the context of the full stories of Isaac and his sons, I interpret the story of Jacob’s night of fighting in a specific way. It seems clear that Jacob was fearfully wrestling with the demons of his past behavior as he prepared to return to the land of his father.

The Universal Story:

When I read the story in isolation of it’s surrounding stories, however, I understand it in a completely different way. I see a metaphor for the spiritual life. It’s a story of two men fighting, so I initially feel left on the outside of the action. But as I focus on the issues involved in the story, I am able to move beyond the two characters and see what they represent. Which for me is humanity and the unknowable mystery of life. In the first two verses, the narrator sets up the story and gives a lot of information. We learn that Jacob is alone and suddenly wrestling with another man. The transition between these two descriptions leaves me with several questions. Where did the man come from? Who is he? Why did he attack Jacob? This odd transition filled with gaps causes me to assume that the narrator wanted me to be confused. He (I assume the narrator was male) wanted me to feel the mysterious quality of this story immediately. I believe that the mysterious facts of existence and death do come upon humans abruptly. I believe that at certain points in life, humans can become overwhelmed with confusion about the reason for and meaning of life. Just as Jacob, who in a moment of solitude was forced into a holy war of questions, everyone is blindsided with big questions at some point.

Not only is there struggle, there is injury. This is the most confusing aspect of these verses for me. The fact that injury came through deep struggle and questioning makes sense, but the cause of injury is perplexing. The man, who I view as an unknowable mystery, is losing the fight and so strikes Jacob, or humanity. This section makes me think of the Tower of Babel. As humans came too close to the heavens, the Lord scattered and confused them. It is the same here, as humanity prevails against mystery, mystery causes injury against humanity. This is difficult for me. I don’t believe humanity can understand the unknowable, so these stories of the Divine feeling threatened and needing to slow human progress make me curious. The next verse is also odd. The ‘man’ speaks and asks to be let go. Why on earth can’t he just leave as quickly and mysteriously as he arrived? What control does ‘humanity’ have over him?

At this point in the story, Jacob finally speaks. He holds the man captive and demands a blessing. Unlike the past few verses, this one makes complete sense to me. Human beings are constantly trying to hold mystery captive, to lock it down, define it and force blessings out of it. The question Jacob is asked in response to this demand is also perfect, “What is your name?” I read, “who are you? What is your essential identity? Do you know yourself?” I hear mystery asking, “if you humans want to understand life’s biggest mysteries, you should start by examining yourselves.”

Of course, as we examine ourselves in light of the world’s biggest questions, we will be unable to remain the same. We will change. Our identity and our understanding of everything will change. The man understands this and changes Jacob’s name to Israel. He makes the bold claim that Jacob has striven with God and humans and has survived. Therefore, he is no longer Jacob. His essential identity is changed. In response, Jacob (curiously not referred to as Israel until Genesis 35:21, even though God changes his name a second time to Israel in 35:10) asks for the man’s name. This verse is another that makes sense to me. All of human striving towards anything spiritual or religious is an effort to follow Jacob in this question. We want to know the unknowable name. Of course, it can’t be known and the man mocks Jacob for even asking. In the same breath, however, he seems to take pity and offers Jacob his longed for blessing.

At this point, the man disappears from the story. We are not given details as to why or how he leaves. He’s just gone. We are also not given any details about the actual blessing. The last two verses contain information from the narrator as well as a grand proclamation from Jacob. The narrator tells us that Jacob gave the place a new name, that the sun rose and that Jacob was still injured. Jacob tells us that he has seen God face to face and has survived. There is much to be gleaned from these pieces of information. Jacob imitated the man’s act of renaming, the man left before sunrise just as he said he needed to and even though Jacob received a blessing, he still walked away limping. From Jacob’s claim I assume we are to understand the man to be God. But I am still skeptical. If he had actually looked true mystery in the face, I don’t believe he could have survived. Just as the Tower of Babel was scattered and Jacob’s hip was struck, I don’t think mystery will ever allow humanity the understanding of a face to face encounter. But clearly, Jacob got close. And in the process he was injured, blessed and changed. And then the dawn broke.

A Close Reading of Genesis 32:24-31 (After Research)

In order to study Genesis 32 particularly, the character of Jacob must be studied generally. This seems unavoidable. I was drawn to one small episode in his life—his long night of wrestling—but have been pulled into his fuller story. People have been captivated by Jacob for millennia. He is a full character whose life is portrayed from birth to death in the Genesis narrative and whose name is remembered throughout almost all of scripture. A close reading of the stories of Jacob’s life reveal that he was a complex man, full of manipulation and egocentricities. Even before his birth, the Lord was making proclamations of his divisiveness. He came from the womb grasping for his brother’s heel and was given a name that means ‘he takes by the heel’, ‘he supplants’ or even ‘he’s grabby’. Jacob grabbed his brother’s heel in birth and continued to fight with him throughout adolescence. He fought with Laban for twenty years. And for one night he fought with an unidentified man.

The mysterious night angle that wrestled with Jacob is often assumed to be his own inner demons. Jacob was fighting with himself. This theory makes sense. After two decades Jacob was going home. But his brother (the one from whom he stole birthright and blessing) was coming to meet him—with four hundred men. It’s easy to believe that Jacob was terrified, racked with guilt and overcome with nightmares. Norman Cohen offers a modern day midrash on the story in which there is no mystery man. He understands the entire episode to have been a vision. This is acceptable speculation, for the Hebrew text reveals no concrete answer. In The New interpreter’s Bible, however, the speculation is removed. While Terence E. Fretheim believes that the narrator delays in identifying the assailant, he believes readers can figure it out. “Initially, he appears only as a “man” [but]…the reader gradually comes to realize that this is no ordinary assailant; it is God in human form” (NIB 565). I marvel at this sort of certainty. Throughout the various commentaries I read, it seems the people who come to this conclusion rely on two things, verses 28 and 30. The Hebrew word that is used in these verses and translated as God is ‘elohim, which “is a high concentration point of lexical ambiguity” (Alter 182). Alter claims that ‘elohim does not mean “divine messenger” but can refer to divine beings. He goes on to say that it could mean God, gods or even princes or judges (Alter 182). In this context, it seems clearly connected to divinity, but there is no way of knowing whether it is singular or plural. There is also no way of knowing whether the mysterious man is using the word to reference himself or if he’s speaking to other parts of Jacob’s life. The certainty found in The New Interpreters Bible seems a little over zealous. Fretheim claims that most ancient and modern readers would assume the man to be God from the beginning and he therefore works from that assumption throughout his commentary. I respectfully disagree and will work in my commentary from the assumption that the man remains mysterious. We will never know his identity for sure.

We do, however, know something of his actions—he injured Jacob. I am always surprised by how violent verse 25 seems considering it comes in the middle of an already violent scene—two men fighting. Exactly how the man injured Jacob is ambiguous. The man did something to Jacob’s hip, either ‘touched’ it (NIV) or ‘struck’ it (NRSV). These words have very different connotations. According to Alter “struck is unwarranted…the adversary maims Jacob with a magic touch, or, if one prefers, by skillful pressure on a pressure point” (Alter 181). According to Fretheim, however, “struck is truer to the context…though both translations are possible” (NIB 566). We are again left with uncertainty, we simply don’t know. Schneir Levin focuses on a different word dispute in his wonderings about the actual injury. The NRSV translates the beginning of verse 25 as “When the man saw that he did not prevail against him.” Levin says that the Hebrew actually reads “and when he saw that he was not able to…him” (Levin 326). He says that translators are inferring the word prevail. Levin thinks the word should be castrate. He believes that the mysterious man is none other than Esau. He writes “What else could [Jacob] dream about than Esau taking his life or the ultimate humiliation of castration?” (Levin 326). Levin quotes several doctors who all agree that Jacob’s hip could not have been put out of joint because he would not have been able to walk away from the scene:

But there is another surgical possibility, the obvious one, the common one, which in predisposed males—that is, males with a potentially open passage from the abdomen through the groin and into the scrotum—can result in a hernia in the groin, most often on the right side, and as a consequence of increased intra-abdominal pressure during the course of a worrying dream. Such a rupture, a hernia, is often sufficiently uncomfortable, when it occurs to result in a temporary limp. (Levin 327).

This is a creative and fascinating idea. Levine began this study by looking at the Hebrew word takya which is translated as “put out of joint” in the NRSV. Levin would like to see it translated as ruptured. While I admire Levin’s creativity, I would be disappointed to think of Jacob’s injury as temporary. I know that sounds harsh, but in a literary sense Jacob’s limp needs to be permanent. He was forever changed after his mysterious encounter. All of these word studies: struck/touched, put-of-joint/ruptured, prevailed/ castrated have helped me to consider this odd scene of violence in more creative, nuanced and ambiguous ways.

Verse 26 leaves the tale of the narrator and allows the two characters to use their own voices. The first utterance from each man is a demand. First the mysterious man asks to be let go because the dawn is coming. This is curious; why must he leave before daybreak? This element is a wonderful literary device that supports the mysterious quality of the story. This man must stay under the cover of darkness. In a study on the character of God in Genesis, W. Lee Humphreys asks intriguing questions about the man’s demand. He ponders four options for why he must leave before dawn. Either he can’t stand the light of day or he’s not supposed to be seen during the day. Or maybe his power is only effective during the night. Another possibility is that his power would be too overwhelming if seen in the light of day. All of these speculations are valid and lead Humphreys to the conclusion that the man must be more than a mere human (Humphreys 194). Claus Westermann, in a comprehensive reading of the man’s character in the story determines that he fits the profile of an evil spirit or demon. The man attacks suddenly and surprisingly, refuses to identify himself and must escape before he can been seen in the light (Westermann 516). The obvious parallels between the mysterious man and night spirits in fairy tales and folklore deserve to be mentioned. Several scholars raise this point. Westermann writes:

The basic narrative…bears distinct animistic traits and is not to be dissociated from the region, the ford, the river. The danger of the ford is personified in the spirit or demon who does not want to let the traveler cross the river and attacks him so as to prevent him doing so. This accords neither with the religion of Israel nor with that of the patriarchs, but with animistic belief in spirits or demons and has parallels among many people. (Westermann 515)

The story of two men wrestling in the night is more than likely an ancient folktale that has been made over and used in the Genesis account as a hinge between two sides of Jacob’s life. All of this contributes to our inability to concretely identify the man. He doesn’t want to be brought into the light. Jacob, however, doesn’t care what the man wants (and why should he, the man has attacked and injured him). Jacob’s first words in the narrative are a refusal and a demand for blessing. Walter Brueggemann reminds us that “since chapter 27, we have known [Jacob] would do anything to get a blessing [and] now he seeks a more weighty [one]” (Brueggemann 268). This is a point I hadn’t thought of, but it seems completely right. It portrays Jacob as an insecure man constantly looking for validation. It’s sadly comical to think of poor Jacob searching for blessing from a violent stranger. It seems he’ll take it wherever he can get it.

Verse 26 seems to be a transition between physical and verbal wrestling. The next three verses become solely a match of words and wit. Jacob and the man begin to struggle with issues of identity. They each ask for the other’s name. Jacob gives his quickly, but is mocked for asking the same of the man. The man, while not identifying who he is, clearly understands himself to be someone of authority. Placed in the very center of this story (and in between the two requests for names), is Jacob’s name change. I can’t imagine that the placement of this action is accidental. The name/identity change is the point of the story and there are several reasons why it’s important and unique. Abram was changed into Abraham in conjunction with his being called the ancestor of a multitude of generations and he is never again referred to as Abram. Jacob’s name was changed twice, but he continues to be called Jacob. His new name, Israel, becomes a synonym or metaphor for Jacob’s identity or role in the community. The second reference to Jacob’s new name happens in Genesis 35:10-11 and more closely resembles Abraham’s experience. The first reference, the one of concern in this essay, happens as a result of Jacob’s continued struggles. There are significant theological reasons for the change. Alter writes:

Of all the patriarchs Jacob is the one whose life is entangled in moral ambiguities. Rashi beautifully catches the resonance of the name change: ‘it will no longer be said that the blessings came to you through deviousness…but instead through lordliness…and openness.’ (Alter 182)

Jacob’s identity as the father of great nations and kings is important and was in need of transformation. It is much more attractive to be descended from someone named for godliness rather than grabbiness.

After Jacob receives his new name, the story begins to wind down. The wrestling match is coming to a close and there is no clear victor. Both men have won at various points. The man could not win physically and so injured Jacob. He couldn’t free himself before dawn, but he is never forced to reveal his identity and he has the power to change the identity of Jacob. Jacob, although taken by surprise, was able to physically dominate the man even after sustaining an injury. Jacob asks for two things throughout the battle, but is only granted one. He is not allowed to know the man’s name, but he does receive his longed for blessing; a blessing he didn’t have to lie to get.

Whoever the mystery man is—one of Jacob’s personal demons, a representation of Esau, an angel, a river spirit, God, or something else—he is able to bless Jacob. And because of this, Jacob is changed. Walter Brueggemann, working from the assumption that the man is God writes:

Something happens in this transaction that is irreversible…Power has shifted between God and humankind. Israel is the one who has faced God, been touched by God, prevailed, gained a blessing, and been renamed. There is something new underway here about the weakness of God and the strength of Israel. The encounter will not permit a neat summary of roles, as though God is strong and Jacob is weak, or as though things are reversed with Jacob strong and God weak. All of that remains unsettled. But new possibilities are open to Israel that have not been available before. In the giving of the blessing, something of the power of God has been entrusted to Israel. (Brueggemann 269)

While I disagree with Brueggemann’s assumption of the man’s identity, I am still compelled by his conception of Jacob’s transformation. Jacob is returning to a home he fled two decades ago after stealing the blessing of his brother. He is scared and guilty. Through this mysterious encounter, however, he is built up. He is given his own blessing. He still had to fight for it, ask for it and suffer for it, but it belonged to him and no one could take it away or claim that he stole it. As Brueggemann claimed above, the power dynamic had changed.

This change is not lost on Jacob. He claims a new identity for himself and the place of his transformation. The ending of this story is beautiful; Jacob felt a divine presence in a way not many people get to and he celebrates it. He claims to have seen God face to face. The Hebrew term ‘elohim is used again and it’s impossible to know for sure who Jacob thought he saw, but it was clearly someone important. Someone so powerful that Jacob is amazed to have survived it. Following in the footsteps of Hagar at the well, he renamed the place Peniel, a name that builds on panim ‘el panim which literally means face to face, he wasn’t trying to hide his experience of the mysterious encounter (Alter 183). The last verse tells us that the story is complete; the sun rose and the night was over. Alter highlights the symmetry of this ending (Alter 183). As Jacob was fleeing home twenty years ago, the sun set on him, “He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set” (Genesis 28:11). And now he walked towards home through the sunrise. “The encounter with the unfathomable Other [left] a lasting mark on [him]…and he [bore] his inward scars as he [lived] onward” (Alter 183). In other words, the man with a history now had a future. Jacob’s dark night had lifted and he was limping triumphantly towards home.

Conclusion (After Reflection and Research)

In all of my study, I never came across an interpretation of this story as a metaphor for the spiritual journey. Robert Alter referred to the mysterious man as an “embodiment of portentous antagonism in Jacob’s dark night of the soul” (Alter 181). But that’s as close as I got. Before beginning this study, I believed my understanding to be common, I worried I was being too obvious. But unless I missed something, this story is always read as the hinge point in the middle of Jacob’s life. It’s understood as his conversion or transformation. The identity of the mystery man is something people have dwelled on for thousands of years. He is often thought to embody Esau, but many commentators just assume the man is God and work from there. Others, refuse to solve the mystery cleanly and allow the ambiguity to stand. As I stated in my original reflection on the text, I see the story of family drama. I see the moment of fear before returning home. It’s a grand story and I understand why it has captivated so many people for so incredibly long. But I leave this work more intrigued by what appears to be lacking in scholarship on this story and what I believe to be a fruitful reading. Human beings will always want to name the unnamable. Humanity has always and more than likely always will wrestle with conceptions of divinity. In this story I find a model for the struggle. As I fight with the unknown, I suffer. I refuse to let go and I want to be blessed. Everything about who I am is called into question and I am changed, yet I am never allowed to know who or what I fight with. At various points I am injured and at others I am blessed. I carry all of this with me and in the morning sun, I am made new.

(Let me know if you would like the bibliography.)