The scared and the sacred – Wrestling with identity

THIS is a detail of Jacob Wrestling With The Angel, by Alexander-Louis Leloir (1865). I discovered this image as I began writing my coming-out-in-faith story.

I believe the story which inspired it has something to teach us about our identity, which may explain its popularity as a source of inspiration for artists, and why it speaks to me of my own struggle with sexuality and spirituality.

My author friend Barbara, whose book on coming out initiated my story telling, contains an analysis of what she calls ‘Jack-in-the-box texts’, stories from scripture which capture the transforming power of the ‘coming out’ process as a phenomenon of faith as well as psychology. She examines the stories of Moses, Ruth and Paul as examples – not to claim that they were ‘gay’ or homosexual in orientation, as the concept as we understand it did not exist in their cultures, but to recognise what their stories can teach us about the transforming energy found in the claiming of a new identity:

What I am suggesting is that there is a common human process, clearly discernible in the Bible, that points to a metamorphosis of life as described in contemporary society as ‘coming out’. – Glasson 2011 p.38

My reflection on Jacob and the Angel suggests that this story also has characteristics of this ‘coming out’ process, in which I have found consolation.

The story appears in the Old Testament book of Genesis, chapter 32. Jacob is on his way back to Canaan to meet his brother Esau, hoping for reconciliation. He sends messengers in advance ‘in the hope of winning his favour’. When they return to say Esau is coming to meet him, Jacob is ‘greatly afraid and distressed’. He recalls God‘s promise that if he returns to his native land, God will honour him and his descendants. He responds: ‘I am unworthy of all the faithful love and constancy you have shown your servant,’ and fearfully pleads God for protection from his brother. Jacob sends an advance party of servants with gifts of livestock to placate his brother’s wrath. Jacob intends to spend the night alone.

During the night an angel wrestles with him until daybreak. Jacob negotiates a truce, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me’, and the being both blesses him and wounds him. Jacob is given a new name: Israel, ‘for you have shown your strength against God and men and have prevailed’. Jacob names the place where the struggle occurs ‘because I have seen God face to face and have survived’. The Old Testament view was that sight of God meant death to a human, so to do so and survive was a sign of special favour in God’s sight.

Jacob need to be reconciled with Esau because he obtains the blessing and inheritance of their father by fraud. Jacob, the younger of twins born to Isaac and Rebekah, is a quiet, home loving boy, his mother’s favourite. His older twin Esau is masculine, hirsute, a hunter, and favourite of Isaac. Jacob is cooking when Esau returns exhausted from a hunt. Jacob asks for Esau’s inheritance in exchange for food; Esau swears an oath to grant it to Jacob. Later Esau chooses two wives who are a disappointment to his parents. Rebekah overhears Isaac offering to bless Esau before he dies and persuades Jacob to pass himself off as Esau to receive it. Isaac is almost blind but can tell his sons apart by touch as Esau is hairy and Jacob is ‘smooth’, so Rebekah dresses Jacob in Esau’s best clothes and covers his bare skin with the hides of young goats. Isaac is suspicious at first but is fooled by the pretence and blesses Jacob with a prophecy of his special status as Israel, the last patriarch of the Jewish people.  When Esau returns and comes to Isaac, the deception is revealed. When Esau swears to kill Jacob after Isaac dies, Rebekah warns Jacob to flee, and explains his exile to Isaac as a quest for a suitable wife from his mother’s kin.

After wrestling with the angel, Jacob sees Esau coming to meet him and prepares to bow before him seven times in deference to his wronged brother. But Esau runs to meet Jacob, embracing him with tears and kisses. Esau asks the purpose of the gifts of livestock Jacob sent in advance and declines them. Jacob urges Esau to accept them, ‘for in fact I have come into your presence as into the presence of God, since you have received me kindly …Since God has been gerenous to me, I have all I need’. Esau accepts. They part as Jacob returns to his homeland Canaan and erects an altar to ‘the God of Israel’ there.

Jacob ‘coming out’?

Jacob is not favoured by his father as he does not conform to expectations of masculinity in his culture. He gains paternal approval by deceit, pretending to be someone he was not. He leaves the family to escape hostility and seek a suitable marriage. He returns seeking reconciliation, feeling unworthy, afraid of rejection, attack, destruction. He tries to please God and his brother to placate their wrath. He wrestles with a divine being (a metaphor for his spirituality? conscience?) and does not let go until he receives blessing/affirmation. Unlike the blessing of his father, this is not obtained by deceit as it follows his desire for honesty and reconciliation. He receives a new name (identity) and is reconciled with his brother and his homeland, recognising with gratitude the gifts he has received through the struggle and exile.

Does the process sound familiar to you? It does to me.

Like Jacob, I was the quiet ‘mummy’s boy’ compared to my more masculine, outgoing brothers. I was the youngest. I felt I had won the approval of my parents and siblings by pretending to be someone I was not.

Like Jacob, I was scared, and my fear led me into hiding. Unlike Jacob I exiled myself, not through fear of revenge, but rejection if my true identity as a gay man were revealed. Instead of seeking a suitable wife, I sought solace in the arms of the Catholic Church and a new identity through ordination, to the delight of my parents (blessing and favoured status).

Having left the false security of ‘exile’ in the seminary without being ordained, I returned to my family and let them know who I really was, though – like Jacob – I was filled with fear and distress, and felt unworthy of their ‘faithful love and constancy.’ I also feared that God’s promise of unconditional love was an illusion, that my true identity was unacceptable, that I would not be welcome home. I had tried to placate God by doing good, trying to be ‘good enough’. I preferred to be solitary than accept the challenge and expectation of relationship with others. I preferred to bury my talent rather than risk the wrath of the Master for showing a poor return on His investment. Though Esau’s welcome of Jacob is like the father of the Prodigal Son, in my reflection on this later story I could only imagine rejection and banishment.

Unlike Jacob, my struggle was not over in just one night – it began with intensity the first time I applied to the seminary, and continued until I finally felt free to leave and claim a more authentic identity – not a new name, but a new persona that was my own, not as someone’s son, someone’s brother, the seminarian or ‘failed priest’.

In  my final year of university I attended a weekend selection conference at the seminary to assess my suitability for ministry in the Catholic Church. By the end of the conference the vocations director and his colleagues aimed to discern whose names would be put forward to the bishops as prospective candidates for seminary formation. For me it was different; I went with the expectation of being told I was not ready, that I would need more life experience before they would accept me, but to my surprise the vocations director took me to one side at lunchtime on the Saturday to give me a deadline: I had until the close of the conference on Sunday afternoon – barely 24 hours – to decide whether I would take up the teacher training course I had been offered, or start seminary formation that year. This was possibly the most intense 24 hour period I have known – I didn’t sleep much that night as the weight and consequence of that decision pressed upon me. I felt like Jacob wrestling with the angel – fear and blessing battling for my soul and identity. Unlike Jacob, my fear won on that occasion, and I withdrew my application.

I reapplied successfully three years later, and threw myself into seminary life with intensity; I was a model student and it soon became clear that they had plans for my future. My parents seemed so proud and the parish raised money to support me. I tried hard to be the best I could. But by the end of the year the cracks began to show. Fortunately I had an excellent spiritual director, a priest who taught moral theology and was wonderfully pastoral. I confided in him about my struggles with sexuality, and he helped me to begin to be free of the shame and self-judgement I felt. In doing so within the context of a trusting and affirming pastoral relationship, he rebuilt my faith in the healing power of the human encounter with God’s forgiveness that the sacrament of Reconciliation, at its best, should offer.

He also helped me to gain insight into repetitive intrusive thoughts which troubled me, which were either sexual (a subconscious attempt by my latent sexuality to enter my conscious mind) or suicidal. These were more difficult to resolve, and my spiritual director referred me to a clinical psychologist. This therapeutic relationship proved to be profoundly challenging and ultimately liberating, probably life saving.

Like Jacob, I needed perseverance in order to prevail. I became frustrated at seeming to go over issues I thought I had resolved. The psychologist replied: ‘You may have been to them before, but you haven’t been through them.’ He was right; there were layers of defence and resistance to get through to reach the core of understanding that would eventually give me the freedom to move on. The process was painful and it was tempting to take flight, but my spiritual director talked me back from the brink of leaving the relative safety of the seminary until such time as I could be clear about why I came to be there, and why I wanted to leave. Once I was able to say that I had come to seminary to do something ‘good’ with my life because I didn’t think I was ‘good enough’, I was free to leave.

Within a few months I was able to return home to my parents and be honest about my reasons for going to seminary and needing to leave. My father’s response was to say ‘God still loves you’. Like Jacob, I received the blessing I had always hoped for but thought I would never receive, and I did so openly and honestly, no longer pretending to be something I was not. This was a glimpse of unconditional love which transcended the limitations of my relationship with my father, with all our fears and frailties, and gave me hope of holding these sides of my nature together, the sexual and the spiritual, the scared and the sacred, with honesty and integrity.

It was a life-changing moment. Unlike Jacob and other biblical characters, claiming my new identity did not involve a change of name (though for some, especially people who identify as transgender, coming out can involve this), but it did involve letting people know the real me, with the greater intimacy and risk that entailed. In ancient cultures, a person’s true name expressed their true nature, and using this true name conveyed great power. Claiming and revealing myself as I am, as God intended me to be, has been life affirming and profoundly transforming. Like Jacob, coming out can make us vulnerable, open to wounding, and some may be spiritually or physically harmed in the process by those who claim the power to judge us. But if we are open to allowing God into the struggle, we may find healing. Scar tissue can be tougher than that which is unharmed – if we can live out our passion for authenticity, we may find ourselves being a witness to others to show them that they too can come through the struggle, if not unscathed, at least more courageous and resilient.

Representation in art

It seems I am not alone in seeing parallels in this story to the struggle to reconcile sexuality and spirituality. Jacob’s struggle has been portrayed by many artists in the last few centuries – the metaphor of the myth seems to strike a chord deep in the human psyche. Like the Leloir painting, many depictions show one or both figures partially or fully naked, demonstrating the strength, prowess and beauty of the male physique. Homoerotic overtones are present in some depictions – is their wrestling an intimate embrace?

Click here for a gallery of art showing Jacob and the Angel.

Here in Liverpool is another representation of this myth – a sculpture by Jacob Epstein, which stands in the foyer of the Tate Liverpool gallery. Here is a synopsis of the gallery’s information about the sculpture:

Jacob and the Angel 1940-1 Sir Jacob Epstein 1880-1959 Purchased with assistance from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund and the Henry Moore Foundation 1996

During the early 1930s Epstein painted a series of unconventional water-colours on Old Testament stories. The subject of Jacob and the Angel fascinated him and may have had personal significance, not least because Epstein’s first name was Jacob. In the early 1940s he was the most controversial artist working in Britain. His carvings routinely met with incomprehension, derision and, in some cases, physical attack. His sculpture of Jacob and the Angel was considered sufficiently sensational to be exhibited as a sideshow attraction at a Blackpool fun fair, later touring Britain and South Africa as an ‘adults only’ exhibit, with a money back guarantee if this wasn’t ‘the most shocking thing you have ever seen’.

In the carving, the night-long struggle between Jacob and his assailant is translated into a strangely ambiguous embrace between two colossal male figures. Jacob is depicted with his eyes closed and head thrown back; the angel is holding him in a tight grasp, as if squeezing his last breath from him.

Jacob and the Angel is one of a group of large carvings dealing with religious themes. Epstein’s use of this primitivist style when dealing with religious subject matter was found shocking by many of his contemporaries.

I spent an hour with this sculpture to see for myself what the fuss was about. It’s hard to deny it has a very physical presence, standing more than 7 feet (2.14 metres) tall and weighing 2.5 metric tons (2500 kg). The marble is veined in the colours of flesh, blood and bone. The angel is larger, stronger, more dominant, and has a phallus, like a pagan fertility symbol. Jacob is smaller, more passive, feminine, leaning back in surrender or ecstasy, lips puckered. His arms hang by his sides, not gripping the angel – is it the end of the struggle as dawn breaks, the moment of blessing? The moment of climax when all tension is released?

Epstein has embodied  a sacred image – the nude figures seem atypical of ancient images of wrestling figures, less aggressive, softer, more intimate. Portraying the angel as undeniably male is controversial – most Western art favours androgynous cherubs and robed messengers, spiritual beings whose gender is not revealed or relevant. There is fear and taboo about recognising sexuality in the context of the sacred in our culture, which is a paradox. Sex is perhaps the most animal of human acts, yet among the most transcendent, becoming at its best a spiritual expression through physical intimacy.

The statue has also been on a ‘coming out’ journey, from the fun fair to the ‘X-rated’, to its purchase by a local TV station, who loaned it to the University of Liverpool and the city’s Anglican cathedral, then finally to Tate Liverpool who acquired it for permanent display in the foyer,  where it stands proudly for all to see, on the way to the gift shop! It could be a metaphor for the shift in society’s view of sexuality in the 70 years since its creation, through media, academia and faith perspectives as well as art.

Jacob’s struggle with the angel seems to be an archetypal image of the human condition and the relationship between creature and creator, fear and hope, profane and sacred, sexual and spiritual. Kittredge Cherry, a lesbian Christian and author of the Jesus In Love blog, writes:

Many have interpreted this story as a struggle between material and spiritual needs, but it is especially powerful for queer people who are trying to reconcile their sexuality and their faith. Jacob refused to give up the fight until he forced a blessing out of God. Like Jacob, LGBT people can also win God’s blessing by continuing to wrestle with our faith, regardless of those who condemn (us) as sinners… the friendly conclusion affirms that God wants to relate to human beings as equals. God rewards those who challenge God. (Full text here)

In Trembling Before G-d, a documentary on homosexuality and Judaism, Rabbi Steve Greenberg says:

The demonstration that human beings can influence even God is all over the Torah.  Moses influences God, Abraham influences God.  God, Blessed Be He, wishes to learn from his conversations with human beings.  All over the Torah.  That’s what the covenant is all about!  The whole engagement is not about God’s control but about God’s love, because God engages human beings, says what God thinks, and they say back, and then He goes Oh, and God says Oh, you know what, that’s right.  You know what, let’s do it this way instead.  It’s not Judaism if it’s not responsive to the human condition.

In playwright Tony Kushner’s screen adaptation of Angels in America, his political epic about the 1980s AIDS crisis, the Leloir painting can be seen over the fireplace in Joe and Harper’s living room as they talk about his childhood dreams. Justin, a gay Mormon blogger, writes about dissent among Mormons regarding the Church’s stance on gay marriage:

Angels in America reminds me of  Jacob’s wrestle with an angel of God to get the blessing he wants.  Likewise, perhaps I ought to do more wrestling, more petitioning, rather than idly accepting current doctrine.  Truth is truth, but that doesn’t mean I can’t petition, and it doesn’t mean the doctrine can’t be changed. (Full text here)

So Jacob and the Angel not only represents the tension between parts of ourselves, between ourselves and God, but also between us and our faith communities which withhold blessing from those who do not surrender their minority sexual or gender identity and live in deceit or hiding. Whatever sacrifices we may make for our faith, denying who God made us to be is not one of them. Jacob’s audacity to hold out for a blessing in his own right, without deceit, is a lesson to us all.

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  1. […] same story has had a powerful resonance for me in reconciling faith and sexuality, which I have written of here. It was moving to hear Bishop Paul reframe this story and draw on its lessons as the Church […]

  2. […] “The scared and the sacred – Wrestling with identity” by Kieran Bohan (A Brave Faith blog) […]

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