Nikos Kazantzakis, the author of Zorba, the Greek, was an extraordinarily complex man, especially religiously. An artist, a searcher, strongly independent, yet a man with a mystical bent, he often found himself involved in painful interior struggles in his relationship to God. Sometimes he would acquiesce in obedience, sometimes he would hold out in proud resistance. His is an interesting story.
In the preface to one of his major novels, as an hermeneutical key to the book, he writes the following:
“Every man partakes of the divine nature in both his spirit and his flesh. That is why the mystery of Christ is not simply a mystery of a particular creed: it is universal. The struggle between God and man breaks out in everyone, together with the longing for reconciliation. Most often this struggle is unconscious and short-lived. A weak soul does not have the endurance to resist the flesh for long. It grows heavy, becomes flesh itself, and the contest ends. But among responsible men, men who keep their eyes riveted day and night upon the Supreme Duty, the conflict between flesh and spirit breaks out mercilessly and may last until death. The stronger the soul and the flesh, the more fruitful the struggle and the richer the final harmony. God does not love weak souls and flabby flesh. The Spirit wants to have to wrestle with flesh which is strong and full of resistance. It is a carnivorous bird which is incessantly hungry; it eats flesh and, by assimilating it, makes it disappear. Struggle between flesh and spirit, rebellion and resistance, reconciliation and submission, and finally – the supreme purpose of the struggle – union with God: this was the ascent taken by Christ, the ascent which he invites us to take as well, following in his bloody tracks.”
This passage may smack of non-inclusive language and dualism, but the spirituality it expresses is biblical. Coming to peace with God and ourselves, once we reach a certain level in the spiritual quest, ultimately involves wrestling with God and putting up the proper resistance so that, when we finally do come to peace, the final synthesis may be rich, life-giving, and properly respect both God and our own complexity.
Scripture abounds with rich images of this: Jacob wrestling all night with the angel of God; (What an image! A human being and God, in hand-to-hand combat, rolling in the dust, with the human holding out and holding God to his promise.) Abraham arguing with God, talking God out of destroying a city; Moses initially resisting his call, telling God to take his brother instead; the older brother of the prodigal son, bitterly protesting to God that life is unfair; and, of course, Jesus himself, in the Garden of Gethsemane, asking God to change the plan. Rabbi Abraham Heschel, commenting on this, points out the great figures of faith didn’t always easily acquiesce to God’s plan for them, with the simple words: “Thy will be done.”. Often there was first an argument which began with the words: “Thy will be changed!”
In a poem, entitled, A Man Watching, Rainer Marie Rilke, suggests that it is healthy to wrestle with God because a defeat by the other world is better than a victory in this one, and that, while it is painful to be in the storm of one’s life, it is perhaps far worse if the storm never shows up. His words:
“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 …
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 things.”
In his autobiography, Kazantzakis shares a wonderful anecdote: As a young man, he used to visit various monasteries on Mount Athos, interviewing the monks who lived there. In one rather memorable interview he engaged an old monk who had a great reputation for holiness: He asked this monk: “Do you still struggle with the devil?” “Oh, no,” the old man replied, “I used to struggle with him, when I was young, but now I’ve grown old and tired and the devil has grown old and tired with me. We leave each other alone!” “So it’s easy for you now?” asked the young Kazantzakis. “Oh no,” replied the old man, “it’s worse, far worse! Now I wrestle with God!” “You wrestle with God,” said the surprised young Kazantzakis, “and hope to win?” “No,” replied the old monk, “I wrestle with God and I hope to lose!”
For a believer, struggling with his or her complexities at a certain stage of the spiritual life, there are few definitions of prayer that are more helpful.