PrayerTheology & Spirituality

Jean-Louis Chrétien and the Wounded Word

Photo: Paul Gauguin, “Vision of the Sermon” (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel), https://www.nationalgalleries.org/art-and-artists/4940/vision-sermon-jacob-wrestling-angel

…what would prayer be without this inward combat with the dumbness in us?
This prayer that is so violent and at first uttered against our will—
who can say if it is authentic or inauthentic?

Jean-Louis Chrétien, “The Wounded Word”

In his provocative essay “The Wounded Word: The Phenomenology of Prayer,” Jean-Louis Chrétien argues that prayer is the “religious phenomenon par excellence,” and that through prayer, one meets God and is made in this encounter. [1] This encounter—as the epigraph suggests—is characterized as violent. One’s encounter with God in prayer according to Chrétien is “agonic,” such that ourselves are “radically transform[ed]” and broken. [2] Those who address God leave the encounter wounded, much like Jacob after his wrestling match with the mysterious divine figure. [3] It is through this brokenness and wounding, however, that persons become stronger, become more closely aligned with God, and as a result more fully human—for it is not apart from God but only through and within God that humans can become what they ought to be. Thus, the answer to the question above posed by Chrétien appears to be that prayer is neither authentic nor inauthentic, but rather is the condition, the ground, for authenticity. 

Though his description and analysis of prayer may seem strange to some, it is in keeping with the broader move within the philosophy of the New Phenomenologists that suggests that humans are fundamentally interpersonal beings. They suggest that humans are not autonomous or individual, but are constituted by our encounter with the other, both the human and divine other. For Emmanuel Levinas, this encounter is with “the face” of the other which “refuse[s] to be contained,” [4] for Jean-Luc Marion it is the givenness of one’s own self that we come to appreciate through encounters with “saturated phenomena”—which are phenomena “that cannot be wholly contained within concepts that can be grasped by our understanding” [5]—and for Chrétien, “selfhood is a response to a prior call to being and beauty.” [6]

Chrétien proposes a new manner of humanity or, perhaps more accurately, argues that we ought to recognize what is always already the case, namely that we are not independent, autonomous beings but are rather intersubjective, interconnected, and dependent upon others for everything, from our sustenance, to our language, to our existence. Bruce Ellis Benson describes this foundational aspect of Chrétien’s thought when he writes: 

One certainly doesn’t begin thinking of oneself already as a decentered self, willing and ready to recognize an obligation to an other—whether human or divine. Instead, one begins with a world in which oneself is always already the center. Or such is what one supposes. Yet, if Chrétien is right about the constitution of ourselves being so closely connected to the constitution by others, then it is really more of a question of how we think about ourselves than how we truly are. [7]

Benson’s point here is that Chrétien is not calling us to change the world and ourselves but to recognize reality and live into it. The problem is that humans, due to sin, social conditioning, or some other obstacle, do not normally see the world this way. This disconnect between our perception of the world and reality, Benson argues, helps us to understand Chrétien’s emphasis on agony, struggle, and violence:

To think [of ourselves as decentered] is always a struggle, though not the sort of struggle in which one finally wins but rather the sort in which one continually engages… If Chrétien is right, then there is a certain kind of violence that is not merely present but necessary in our encounters with the other. Unfortunately, the violence often has to be done to us, even done by us, precisely for the sake of the relationship with the other. The agonic aspect of our relations to others, then, may not be the only aspect, but it is certainly one that must be present. [8]

Thus, the struggle, the wound, the agony of encounter with the other is ultimately humanizing, inasmuch as it leads us to live lives in accord with reality—to live authentically. 

We can now turn to Chrétien’s account of Jacob’s struggle with the divine stranger, which is a recurring theme in his writing. Each of us is a Jacob in his thought, as we all struggle with God and the other. He affirmingly quotes Saint François de Sales, who stated, “we are each new Jacobs, assaulted by God, and his perseverance should be for us a constant source of confidence.” [9] It is not, then, Jacob’s “victory” (if it could be called that) over God, that we ought to admire and model, but rather Jacob’s willingness to struggle, his learning of dependence, and his ultimately changed identity. In what Chrétien refers to as “the most beautiful page written on this loving struggle,” Louis Chardon argues that the gift that Jacob is given through his wound is dependence, “The blow that he gives to him on the thigh, causing him a fresh pain, is favorable, because in losing the strength in his leg to hold himself up, he is forced to redouble the efforts of his grasping in order better to steady himself.” [10]

The wound, then, is paradoxically the blessing that Jacob demanded from God. And, Benson notes, that with this wound Jacob “is given by way of a name is in effect a new self, a different identity. Chrétien writes that ‘the meaning of call and response is radically transformed when the call actually creates the respondent.’” [11] Jacob’s new dependent identity is a recognition that he was always already created by a call that preceded him. This is the call of “the Word” which “In order to constitute… destitutes. In order to give, it takes away. In order to create, it deletes all that would boast of self-sufficient being, prior to the call and independently of it.” [12] This is the violence of the call, it takes those things that we hold dear—our egoism, pride, our very selves as we understand them—and shatters them so that we can be renewed. 

This call comes from God, but also from fellow humans. Thomas de Gabory argues that through the call of others, especially in their suffering, we come to experience life: “The distress of my fellows upsets me, but it is the voice of life calling me… Whoever receives the call feels a unique and irreplaceable person.” [13] In fact, Gabory argues that, according to Chrétien, it is the suffering of others that predisposes us to hear the call that breaks and reforms us. 

In closing, then, I merely wish to remind myself and anyone reading this essay, that the process of becoming, of undoing the effects of the Fall and our personal and communal sins, will be painful. Yet, if we wish to be fully human, to love and be loved, it is a process we must endure. To quote a favorite James Baldwin line, “Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.” What Chrétien tells us is that prayer is one of the primary ways we experience this agonizing, even violent, love—a love that opens us up to be in real relationship with our fellow humans and our God.


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David Justice

David Justice

My research focus is the theology and philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr. I primarily explore the fundamental transformation and, at times, destruction necessary to make the Beloved Community a reality. In making this argument I draw on his rootedness in the Black church and put King into conversation with feminist, Womanist, and decolonial thought. I am currently a PhD candidate at Saint Louis University in Theological Studies and an MA student in Religion at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. My wife Mariah and I have two kids who are adorable and love wearing us out. You can find me on social media @DavidtheJust

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