Wrestling Esau

by Jonathon Penny

-Read this one. The June entry-

June, 1995. I’m being devoured. Digested. It means to have me, totally and gluttonously. It whispers to me of freedom, unencumbered by family and church. It tells me not to waste my time. It makes me angry. It makes me rate: “I want to sleep! Be quiet, son! Shut up! Shut UP! Go to SLEEP!!” I alternate lonely, wakeful nights between the infant child of my love and that other motherless, gnashing thing that calls me father, leering in lewd bastardy. I weep and rant, with my son whimpering in my arms as I curse and shout.

When my calmer mind prevails, he lies quiet and sweet across my knees and I recite desperate, penitent litanies toward heaven and sob apologies to my poor child, punctuated by kisses and promises of improvement.

But heaven is a solid, and oppressive. I feel everything turning in me as I pray, souring. I grow old. I grow fetid.

-When did it begin? Do you remember?-

A long time ago—two years, maybe more—I don’t’ know.

This is the first time I’ve been able to stop and think about it clearly. I noticed it first when Riley was born. It followed close behind him at his birth, grasping his heel like a late-born Esau (that’s what I call it now—The Esau), wrestling for my attentions, gnashing my patience in its teeth. Long nights have passed like that one in June, lonely days deep down inside myself with no way out. Perhaps it isn’t over yet. Perhaps this is only the eye of the storm—but oh Dear God, I hope not!

When did it start? When Heaven went mute. Before Riley was born, when I think of it. Bu that’s when I first noticed some nights are better than others. Like tonight. We are both quiet, and I study his face. He is a knowing child, a loving child, and the Esau is lurking somewhere far away and nearly forgotten. I think about the times when I can’t think straight, when I can’t do right. I see my own haughty faults n t those moments. Thinking about them reconjures the darkness.

-Keep reading.-

Is this one alright?

October, 1995. I’m okay when I teach seminary, or lay on hands. Then I am huge, deliciously swollen, and I ache with joy; march, race exult, weep, and trumpet “God loves you! And so do I!” And I actually mean it. I am drunk with spirit, an evangelist praising and testifying. My students look back at me with the beginnings of eternal hope in their eyes. The room is full of light.

And then I go to class.

The loneliness there steals every precious thing that all who know me think I am—that I think I am—and leaves me a black longing.

“I AM SICK TO DEATH OF PEOPLE WHO HIDE BEHIND THEIR ANTHROPOPMORPHIC GOD!” bellows Professor Blackburn, snarling and maniacal in front of the class. He prowls toward me, glares at me with fiercely intoxicated eyes from under a black, unkempt mane and hairy brow. His teeth are yellow, his finger tips stained by rich tobacco from his cigars They wag secretly at me from beneath the tattered wool of his jacket cuffs. His body is darkly upholstered. He had bee to China. He knows more, is more powerful than me, and I shrink before him, equally offended and embarrassed by the challenge. Every one in the room turns and sees. The moment has passed too quickly, and I am too late. That evening my prayers go nowhere, as usual. It is on no consequence that I meekly (worm!) approach him days later, whispering out a trembling Christian apology.

I am alone in God’s universe. I wish it were Godless. Maybe I wouldn’t care.

-No. You aren’t alone. Remember a better time.-

Like when I proposed to Wendy? I was commanded to propose, really. Not that I didn’t want to eventually. But God removed all of my excuses by making it a commandment.

I’d not been home from Italy long, and the old, tentative friendship had been renewed, dissolved, and replaced gloriously the day we went to report our missions together—our first uncomfortable date. I still remember her dress, a simple affair, was regal on her body—not tight, but an accentuation of her beauties. She was tall and splendid. Pure. I hardly breathed. I tapped the steering wheel. I hummed. I bounced my knee on the inside of the car door. I looked straight ahead. I didn’t say anything silly. I didn’t say anything at all. I breathed her in. Sometimes I even breathed out. In. Out. All day. Breathed her greedily in, breathed her reluctantly out . . . here it is:

August, 1993. I awoke today already in prayer.

“. . . and Lord, it seems that thou has arranged all of this, and if so—” There was no need to go on The familiar calor spread sweetly in my chest.

“Thank you, Father,” I whispered, through tears and nervous laughter.

Later, mowing her father’s lawn, the second undeniable communique startle out of a stupor.

-Ask her.-

I saw my hands, still soft and fresh from the mission gripping the handle of the mower. I saw the front of the machine. I saw a browning weed stand obstinate on the green. I felt God breathing down my neck.

“I will! When the time is right,” I replied parenthetically, ignoring the immediate stiffness in my back. Twenty minutes passed.

-Ask her today!-

“WHAT!?”

-ASK HER TODAY! –

“Too soon,” I protested, “We need more time, more common ground. More time!”

-Are you finished?-

“Yes,” (meekly now).

-Ask her today—or else.- 

For the first time in my life I was allowed to glimpse, or rather sense Eternity, my Eternity, but without Wendy. Without her there was only sempiternal Annihilation, the Cartesian plain denuded of all its philosophic effrontery, a sensory mewithout any of me in it, a ‘Je ne serai plus.’ She would complete me. That was the promise. And without her I could not be happy, could not be anything more than I was at that moment. Could not be.

Ask her today, or you will lose her forever. –

So I asked her.

I long for that again, that God that was once so immediate, so reliable. But He won’t speak to me! He won’t magnify me anymore! I feel like crying out to him; “Where art thou?” But the question ends, unarticulated, ground between my jaws. Hah! I don’t even have myself to talk to, usually. Is that screwed up, or what?

It’s okay. Be still. Read another good one. Here. This one. April.-

April, 1993. It is sometime during the early mountain tempests of spring. This morning my companion knocked on the first door of the second apartment building on the crest of a long, steep, broad boulevard in Teramo. The building was leprous against the digesting clouds at its roof, shedding patches of stucco and growing mottled, cancerous molds in preparation for future decrepitude. It stood by itself in the universe, shrinking strangely as we approached. We went inside and climbed the stairs our chattering hushed by the darkness.

Hélène opened that first door of the second building on the crest of that boulevard, beautiful and dark and French in an Italian mountain, in simple blouse and jeans, auburn hair falling across her face.

We loved her immediately, with the pure love of servants and the innocent love of boys. The conversation began as so many others had, but with a new intensity.

“We are missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” (“Hélène,” we urged silently, “the gospel was made for such as you. Listen to us.”)

“I am not interested. Je suis athée. I am an atheist.”

“Are you really? I have always wanted to speak to a devout atheist. Are you devout?” Parry, thrust, retreat, reprise, rebuttal, rebuild. (This is getting nowhere. Something’s missing. But what?)

“Oh, you’re married? Have you any children, Signora Hélène?”

And suddenly there was a hurricane in her marvelous face. We didn’t know whether she shrieked or whispered. We didn’t know which would have been more terrible.

“Non ho dei bambini! I don’t have any children! Your God takes them from me before they are born!”

For half a moment we were permitted to enter the storm, to see into her soul, to flounder, drowning in her pain and solitude, in her self-imposed exile from the love of God. It was pitch—painfully, horribly black and endless. We wept there in her godless infinity. We held out our hands, stigmatized and scarred with small sacrifices, miniatures of the Hands that led us to her, that pulled us from her soul before we, too, were overcome Like His, our bowels were filled with mercy. Like Him, we were moved to compassion.

-My child suffers. Bring her unto me.-

“Tell Him, Hélène! Pray to him in your anger!” we cried in residual despair and spiritual alarm. “Pray in your sorrow! He must hear you speak! Oh, Hélène, you must ask for healing! You believe he is! That is the beginning! Now let him teach you how he is! Let him show you that he is your Father! Learn to love him!”

We were still shaking hours later—weak, weary, and weeping. I remember that.

Last Sunday, I told my gospel doctrine class about Hélène as part of the lesson. I realized that I am now as Hélène was then. I am angry and I am alone. Am I also in self-imposed exile?

He spoke to me once, you know—the Esau—sneering through mannequin teachers and peers in a theory seminar:

“Beware false prophets!”

But not all prophets are false, I replied.

“God is dead!” he proclaimed.

I know he’s not. I have too many witnesses, too many clear memories of Him (see how faded they are. I hadn’t realized. Still memories, though. Still clear).

“FREEDOM IS TO BE FOUND IN THE REJECTION OF A GOD OF COVENANT AND LAW! DON’T YOU WANT TO BE FREE?” (He was shrieking, now. Like Hélène. The old argument. But in malice, not pain.)

Preposterous. I have always known the proponents of such illiberal education to be sophists in the clothing of the sagacious. “These are the Hollow Men,” I remind myself.

“YOU HAVE NO SUPPORTING EVIDENCE! Ahem. Does that not suggest . . .”

Suggest what? I have never put much stock in evidence. You make inferences, I can do the same! These are matters of the soul, and the soul includes both spirit and body. Truth is more profound than supposition and conjecture—it is buried deep in the marrow of the bones!

“But do you care if it is true?”

I fear it is true. I fear it so that I cannot let go of it.

“Do you want it to be true?”

I—don’t have an answer for that. Perhaps there isn’t one.

Perhaps I . . .

“DO YOU WHAT IT TO BE TRUE?!”

I DON’T KNOW! ALRIGHT?

Oh, God. I don’t know.

Ah. There it is. Unearthed at last.

Remember.-

June, 1993. Emilio knelt with us in his music room, his holy of holies, a shrine adorned by his jeweler’s skill. A blinding ivory piano stood behind me in antiseptic slumber. My companion’s suit pants were dark and offensive against the pristine white of the rug. A glass menagerie peered over Emilio’s shoulder. Here he would finally pray to know Truth as he knew us.

We waited silently, willing an effort from this man whose eyes shone with tears whenever we talked, who sensed an affinity with us that grew beyond mortal encounters and cognisances, too deep for cheap, inflated talk of premortal friendships and promise. We know infinite brother- and son- hood together, and an infinite choice lay before him.

Nostro Padre che sei in Cielo, he began. “Our Father, who art in Heaven.”

(Father, help him know. Help him see. He is such a good man.)

Caro padre, io . . .”

(For his sake, Father, answer his poor prayer. Tell him that thou art with him, and with us. Tell him that we are thine.)

“. . . non sono un brav’uomo. I am not a good man. These young men tell me to pray to you for knowledge . . .”

(Oh, Father! Please, please, please PLEASEPLEASAEPLEASE—”)

An hour passed, and we heard only the silent pleading of our hearts and minds, felt the ache in our souls, and then in our knees. It was too much, and he surrendered.

(Father? Is it enough?)

-He does not want me sufficiently yet, my son, and you will abide. Leave him in my hands, wham Am his Father.-

Two years is a long time. I have pretended, have wondered covertly through High Council talks, seminary lessons, and the birth of a second child what was wrong with me, and if this thing would ever leave me peace. The truth has come out, finally, the truthful question and the naked answer, in those dreary, dumb prayers I have repeated for twenty-four months: Heaven is not mute; I am deaf. I am deaf on purpose.

Sometimes, when I come home exhausted, I cling weeping and helpless to my dear wife. I look at my children and long that they be given a father, one worthy of them in my place. I ache for them, and the old me. On longer days, when I have had no respite from the secular, I push my wife away, despising my life, despising her goodness and her forgiving heart that make my charade so obvious and vacuous. I wish to be free of the bonds of family and of church. I sit in the car listening to harsh, desperate music. I wish to be free of theology. I wish to be free of belief. I almost drive away. Other times I see the Esau standing greedy and threatening beside my wife and children in photographs and mirrors, his face where mine should be, His arm around them.

I hate him.

-What else?-

Well, I was my old self again when Hollywood perpetrated sacrilege on The Scarlet Letter in ’96. I wrote a paper called “The Psychology of Repentance,” asserting that Hawthorne was actually standing in merciful judgement over Hester and Arthur, that they never fully repented but that they longed to. “He was talking about hell,” I preached, “about separation from God.” It was incredible to write that paper, to smuggle truth into it.

Later that year, I wrote a poem censuring Wallace Stevens for misunderstanding his own questions, his own problems. I insisted that it was man’s idea of God that offended Stevens. The truth of it stood on them heavily, and whispered to them things beyond their expectation, beyond their comprehension. It stood more heavily on me. It was my idea of God that turned me from Him, for He would be shaped by me, but would rather do the shaping, and I had be an unwieldy subject, an arrogant patient.

Like Darren.

January, 1997. Darren, another seminary teacher, just left his wife. The coordinator told him that they weren’t going to hire him, so he left her. I guess there was no longer a reason to pretend righteousness. We were in a class together last semester. I knew he was struggling, but I had no idea how much. More and more, the things coming out of his mouth sounded hollow and “liberated,” and I had been alarmed.

He must have given in. I saw him tonight at the theatre. He was with a girl. They stood too close to each other, vacant and giggling at nothing, denying the world and its consequences. They are lovers. I wanted to smack him. Thank heaven I am not that far gone! I annon live without the commandments, covenants and relationships I have been conditioned t0 keep, accept and engender. I need them.

I need God.

-You must call me Father.- (The exhortation is disturbing and soothing all at once as I pace the floor on another sleepless night, this time without Riley, who sleeps quietly and obediently now.)

I wish I could. There is an aggravation, an incontinence of spirit that menaces when I close my eyes. I see you, Father, looking at me, the Oldest Man, penetrating, challenging, glaring.

But it is emotionally and spiritually taxing to defend an ideology against a jealous world. It is painful to deny the seduction of books, of learning, of knowledge over and over again, to read and not revert, to think and not regress. I long for hypothermic numbness. To lie down. TO be without feeling.

I won’t walk away from you, but will I ever walk with you again? Do I really want to give myself completely over to you, to accept what reason and fashion and learning (motley triplets!) tell me I cannot?

June, 1992. I called Irene yesterday before I left Italy finally behind.

“Penny!” she answered, “You called! I didn’t think you would!”

“Of course I called. How are you?”

“Oh, Penny. Have the others told you?”

“Told me what?”

“Yesterday my brother died in a car accident.”

Irene, cara Irene. Mi dispiace tanto. I am so sorry. What will you do?”

I remembered she wouldn’t accept resurrection She said she wanted some sort of Zen-consciousness thing to happen to her at death; wanted to become a faceless, formless part of some huge, spiritual organism that concerted the dead in vast anonymity. We argued, we testified, we begged. She just didn’t want resurrection. It had been the only thing that held her back.

“Oh, Penny,” she wept shamelessly into the receive, “Ci credo! Ci credo tutto. I believe it all I need to believe it all.”

“What will you do then, Irene?”

Lo so, Penny. So che devo fare. I will do what must be done.”

That’s it, then. I am faced not, at graduation, with unemployment and feeding wife and two children, and I must do what must be done. I must do it for my wife, and for my children, I must do it because it is expected of me. I must do it because you have commanded it.

-And now, my son?-

I hope this is no the eye of the storm, Father. But if it is I a m no stranger to its strength anymore, nor to thine. I’ll see it coming next time, I think, see it rising up against a clear ideology, forceful and pointless and overwhelming, and when it lays its dark pitiless bulk across my vision to suffocate me with its pressure, memory, better than terror, will be ready, and whisper stolidly that the darkness in finite, that it will end.

And I will try to remember better times.

June, 1993. My companion and I were standing at the mouth of the piazza on the eve of my retirement among the smells and jocular warmth of a tobacco shop, of an open bakery, of a pizzeria and a cobbler’s workroom. It was a delightful, final baptism; a happy moment in worn clothes, ruined shoes and tired bodies, with the music of traffic and voices all around us. We saw Hélène, three months a stranger to us. “How are you?” we asked.

Sto meglio.I am better. Thank you . . .

I am better, too.

It is a dim morning at the end of another sleepless night, I put Christopher gently in his crib and look at my two sons, helpless and dependent on me, peaceful, perhaps aware somehow of what has happened in their father tonight. They will bring me peace now, peace that I’ve tasted the last few hours, will bring humility and healthy, helpless dependence on my own Father not always, perhaps, but more often.

I turn and close the door, return to bed for a moment to hold Wendy and to enjoy silent tears, then prepare myself quietly for the day. When I am ready, I step out into the half-light of the cold dawn of another winter, intent today on a reconciliation, hoping to embrace that other child, the Esau, with the strength of growing humanity and wisdom of accompanying Divinity, and win him to me. Despite the cold, my face is smooth, my shoulders relaxed and broad under an open heaven.

At least for now.