When the Angel Kneads Harshly

18 Jan

When the Angel Kneads Harshly

What we choose to engage is so tiny!

What engages us is so great!

If only we would let ourselves be dominated

as things do by some immense storm,

we would become strong too, and not need names.

When we win it’s with small things,

and the triumph itself makes us small.

What is extraordinary and eternal

does not want to be bent by us.

I mean the Angel who appeared

to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:

when the wrestler’s sinews

grew like long like metal strings,

he felt them under his fingers

like chords of deep music.

Whoever was beaten by this Angel

(who often simply declined the fight)

went away proud and strengthened

and great from that harsh hand,

that kneaded him as if to change his shape.

Winning does not tempt that man.

This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,

by constantly greater beings.

(Rainer Maria Rilke, “The Man Beholding,” translated by Robert Bly, revised by Philip Hefner)

This poem by Rilke speaks to me particularly, because at the present moment I am wrestling with health issues that are complex and make diagnosis difficult. When the diagnosis is arrived at, the treatment will very likely be comparably complex. The diagnostic processes will contribute new knowledge to my understanding of myself.  My experience reinforces the sense I have had for some years that we are always being revealed anew to ourselves, in both our bodies and our spirits.

Rilke’s point broke in as revelation to me. In the flash of a moment, I realized that I am caught up in a Jacob-like engagement not so much with ailments and medical problems as with forces that are larger and more foundational–birth defects, the degeneration that comes naturally to a body that has functioned at the top of its energies for four score years.  Hands-on, I am encountering my created nature, my body as the processes of nature have shaped it and passed it on to me. My engagement is with more than the sum of my body’s medicalized ailments. I am wrestling with my body as it was planted in the soil of evolutionary processes and shaped and circumscribed–kneaded–by those processes.  Nature–such an abstract term!–has become oncrete and specific in my-body-in-context which is me. Stream-of-consciousness as a writing style is perhaps the most fitting way to talk about the specificity of nature that makes me what I am at this moment in time.

I say this because my initial condition was spina bifida; and my life in one sense is story of how my body refused to succumb to the forces that selected against it and, through an amazing set of compensatory processes, carved its shape, sculpted me. Nature allowed and even supported that compensation while exacting the distinctive costs that were entailed. One leg can do the work of two, but not forever, and not without paying homage to the kneading (Rilke chose just the right word!) that it had to undergo. And there is more.

Specific medical issues may be the tiny antagonists that we choose to engage. My present wrestling is with the more fundamental realities of my bodily journey–much of the time, I have not even been aware that they were engaging/kneading me, but I am more aware of their presence now.

Winning is not the issue in this match, growth comes in the defeat. Hard words for us.  Fulfillment comes in being the object of the kneading process, not in some imagined triumph over the One who kneads. What could it possibly mean to triumph over the me-as-incarnated-in-the-chunk-of-nature? I do not yet understand how strengthening and greatness are bestowed by the harsh hand of the Angel–but I know that understanding will come one day. My identity is being formed. Who I am now throws light on who I have always been, even though I have been unaware of that identity until now.

Words take on new meanings in these days: winning and losing are not what  they were. I am seeing new depths in the words of the nineteenth century theologian’s insight that we meet God  when we experience utter dependency. I draw closer to that “utter” dependency when I grapple with Rilke’s Angel and when I feel that Angel’s kneading. Conceding-while-struggling is to become clear about who I am. Is that a loss or a win? Struggling grows out of the insistence that “human” nature has a hand in carving out existence–it is not the Angel alone who wields the sculpting tool. This may be co-creating, an idea I have thought and written about for many years. My self-creation continues, in a way that includes acknowledging the Angel, conceding to the Angel, while never ceasing the struggle. But it is not a struggle against the Angel; it is a struggle for the Angel to acknowledge something as well: that no matter how  overwhelmed I am, no matter how immeasurably greater the contesting forces are, this dough, this chunk of nature, will take its own shape, even in the face of the ungraspable kneading  powers that form my natural and spiritual world.

Saint Benedict interpreted Jacob’s wrestling ground as holy. Jacob himself, as he was kneaded and as he shaped himself was the point where heaven and earth met (“Jacob’s ladder”). Jacob-sculpted-in-the-grappling-with-the-Angel is the connection.

Grappling, wrestling are rendered in Rilke’s German in Ringen. Roll the “r”! The physicality of it all is so real–and so fundamentally spiritual. I do not wrestle alone, it is the Angel, along with nature as it expresses itself in me–in all that I have been and shall become–the me   that wrestles and is kneaded in the process.

Phil Hefner. 17 January 2014

2 Responses to “When the Angel Kneads Harshly”

  1. Ed Krentz June 28, 2014 at 9:36 pm #

    You are truly reflecting theologically, basically on all that is happening to your body. Men’s agitation Moslem, old Virgil said. Your mind is moving envelope as your body is increasigly still. Thanks for letting us listen in on it. Ed Krentzedkrentz@yahoo.com

    • philnevahefner June 29, 2014 at 3:17 am #

      Ed–I like the image: “mind as moving envelope, while body is increasingly still.” We learn more about that as we age, right? Even if our bodies are not fully disabled.

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