Wrestling with God
Each year at this time as our Year 12 students graduate and prepare to move beyond the walls of Loreto Normanhurst, I wonder where their path will take them – spiritually, religiously. They will each find their way and make their own choice. But one thing I do pray for them – and I always talk to my class about this – is that they may indeed engage in the conversation, the soul-searching, the argument, that they may listen to the whispers in their heart as much as to the voices around them, that they may never walk away disinterested – I pray that they may wrestle with God and that, dare I say, as the old ascetic in the story below says, that they may lose.
“Working up courage, I entered the cave and proceeded toward the voice. The ascetic was curled up on the ground. He had raised his head, and I was able in the half-light to make out his face as it gleamed in the depths of unutterable beatitude … . I did not know what to say, where to begin… Finally, I gathered up courage. ‘Do you still wrestle with the devil Father Makarios?’ I asked him. ‘Not any longer, my child. I have grown old now, and he has grown old with me. He doesn’t have the strength. I wrestle with God.’ ‘With God!’ I exclaimed in astonishment. ‘And you hope to win?’ ‘I hope to lose, my child. My bones remain with me still, and they continue to resist’. ‘Yours is a hard life, Father. I too want to be saved. Is there no other way?’ ‘More agreeable?’ asked the ascetic, smiling compassionately. ‘More human, Father’. ‘One, only one’. ‘What is it?’ ‘Ascent. To climb a series of steps. From the full stomach to hunger, from the slaked throat to thirst, from joy to suffering; the devil sits at the summit of a comfortable life. Choose’. ‘I am still young. The world is nice. I have time to choose’. Reaching out with the five bones of his hand, the ascetic touched my knee and pushed me. ‘Wake up, my child. Wake up before death wakes you up’. (Nikos Kazantzakis, Report to Greco.)
If you haven’t read Report to Greco I highly recommend it. It is an utterly absorbing account of a spiritual search and journey and is set in Greece, the author’s homeland. The extract above tells of Kazantzakis’ visit to Mount Athos, in the peninsula of Halkidiki, also known as the peninsula of Athos. It is a place completely dedicated to prayer and worship of God. The peninsula is 50 kilometres in length and 8 – 12 kilometres in width. Its highest point is like a huge cone, rising 2033 metres. It is also known as The Holy Mount and is the centre of Eastern Orthodox monasticism. The area is divided into twenty ‘cardinal areas’. Each area has a cardinal monastery and some other establishments around it, such as cottages, cloisters, cells and hermitages. The monks in each monastery live in community, having common prayer and liturgies and they do some form of work. The Holy Mount is self-governed – each monastery elects a superior for life and together they form the Holy Assembly which has legislative authority. It is here, on the Holy Mount, that Kazantzakis meets the monk whose transparency to God is the fruit of a lifetime of struggle and surrender. He speaks to Kazantakis of something that is profoundly biblical – wrestling with God. It is also profoundly human. And the great moment of insight in this exchange is in the words, ‘I hope to lose!’
Ms Kerry McCullough
Spirituality and Liturgy Coordinator