Nine Brief Examples of the Power of Metaphor and Story

Words, while a precious human capacity, also get in the way of reality. But how can we live without them? At some level we must allow for a deeper level of language to help us in sorting out reality. Something that helps us to form a mental picture. And for this, since words are often a necessary mediator, we turn to metaphors, and stories.

A metaphor is a figure of speech in which an implied comparison is made between two unlike things that actually have something in common. A metaphor expresses the unfamiliar, in terms of the familiar. The word is  from the Greek metapherein meaning “to transfer,” or, more literally,  “to carry something beyond.” from meta (beyond) + pherein (to bear or carry).

So a metaphor seeks to capture something deeper by comparing something less definable to something else that is more easily grasped. In the metaphor, “All the world’s a stage” Shakespeare takes a large and deep concept (the world, or life) and frames it in the context of something more manageable, a stage. This is not to exhaust the meaning of “life” or “the world,” but to capture some truth about them and highlight it for understanding.

Stories communicate what is complex and to some degree, inexpressible, or hard to see by relating memorable experiences that disclose truth. Good stories often communicate many complex truths at once. The best stories use surprise, irony, conflict or some quirky combination of all them to convey truth and wisdom memorably.

As such, these words, stories, and metaphors are often deeply paradoxical, for, at the deeper level of things, is found a unity often hard to see on the surface. And at these deeper levels things often shift, surprise and amuse us. Not everything in life is as it first appears, and God does not easily fit into our little boxes. Stories and metaphors thus open windows onto wider vistas, and deeper mysteries.

With this background in mind, consider a few stories and metaphors. There is a wide collection of such stories from both the Rabbinic tradition and the Desert Fathers. The saints too supply us with much. Pardon the random nature of the following selections, I have drawn them from various sources, but many come from The Spirituality of Imperfection: Story Telling and the Search for Meaning. In these summer months, it makes some sense to share some of these stories and metaphors with you as they are a rich source of the magnificent and mysterious reality called life.

In these selections, I want to largely let them speak for themselves. I will limit myself to brief comments in red.

1. When the disciples of the Rabbi Baal Shem Tov asked him how to know whether or celebrated scholar whom they proposed to visit was a true wise man he answered: “Ask him to advise you what to do to keep unholy thoughts from disturbing you in your prayers and studies. If he gives you advice, then you will know that he belongs to those are of no account.

For not all things admit of a solution and God sometimes permits things to test us and asks us to live with difficulties. Were there a solution to such a problem as distractions and temptations, spiritual teachers would long ago have given it. Thus those who claim some insight into this common and human problem are of little account.

2. When the Rabbi Bunam was asked why the first of the Ten Commandments speaks of God bringing us out of the land of Egypt, rather than of God creating the heavens and the earth, the Rabbi explained: “Heaven on earth!?” Then man might have said ‘Heaven! That is all too much for me!'” So God said to man, “I am the one who fished you out of the mud. Now come here and listen to me.

For we often relate first to more earthly things, than higher spiritual matters.

3. A woman sought out a confessor of long experience. In the confession she recounted the behaviors that troubled her. She then began to detail how these behaviors seemed somehow connected with her experience of having grown up in an alcoholic home. At that point the grizzled veteran confessor reached out, and gently patting her hand, asked: “My dear do you want forgiveness or an explanation?

For some confuse confession and spirituality with therapy. Therapy offers explanations, Confession offers and true spirituality seeks mercy and forgiveness.

4. Concepts create idols; only wonder comprehends everything. People kill one another over idols. Wonder makes us fall to our knees. – St. Gregory of Nyssa

For too often our certitude is rooted not in God or in true faith, but in our own thoughts, and these thoughts become idols, and we become ideologues. But wonder is able to fall to its knees in humility and gratitude. Wonder opens us to all God has done, ideology closes us too easily in ourselves and our own limited thoughts.

5. The philosopher Diogenes was sitting on a curb stone, eating bread and lentils for his supper. He was seen by the philosopher Aristippus who lived comfortably by flattering the king. Said Aristippus to Diogenes, “If you would learn to be subservient to the king, you would not have to live on lentils.” Said Diogenes in reply, learn to live on lentils, and you will not have to cultivate the king.

And this is an analogy to our serving of this world and of our consequent slavery to it.

6. A man of piety complained to Baal Shem Tov, saying “I have labored hard and long in the service of the Lord, and yet I am little improved. I’m still an ordinary, ignorant person.” The rabbi answered, “You have gained the realization that you are ordinary and ignorant, and this in itself is a worthy accomplishment.

For humility, reverence for the truth about ourselves, is the door.

7. One day some disciples of Abba Besarian ceased talking in embarrassment when he entered the house of study. He asked them what they were talking about. They said, “We were saying how afraid we are that the evil urge will pursue us.” “Don’t worry,” he replied “You have not gotten high enough for it to pursue you. For the time being you are still pursuing it.

For too often and quickly we assess the cause of our ill to be the devil, when, more truly, it is our own flesh.

8. The priest put this question to a class of children: “If all the good people in the world were red, and all the bad people were green, what color would you be? A young girl thought hard for a moment, then her face brightened, and she replied, “I’d be streaky!

For, we are all a mixed bag, neither wholly good, nor wholly bad. The journey from evil to good is not yet complete. God alone is wholly good.

9. For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven; it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy. – St. Therese of Lisieux

For too often we make of prayer a complicated thing.

Please feel free to add your own insights into these sayings. I hope to post more of these in the near future.

Here are some more sayings most of which ring true:

9 Replies to “Nine Brief Examples of the Power of Metaphor and Story”

  1. One of my favorites from the desert fathers:

    Abba Lot came to Abba Joseph and said: Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and, according as I am able, I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do? The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: Why not become all flame?

  2. Thank you Msgr. Pope. I must confess the Title for this post scared me a bit. “Nine brief” seemed like an oxymoron but I am humbled once again. A great start to the morning. What a beautiful picture though; a world full of streakly people. How much more insightful can it get.

  3. When I told my children the red and green story,my youngest one said “…but I like green”.

  4. Compliments to Msgr Pope – who is a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington.
    Want to learn about and appreciate metaphors and stories?
    Come over to my part of the world – India, please!

  5. Great post! Where does the quote from St. Gregory of Nyssa come from? I’d like to read the entire text. Thanks.

  6. And yet a symbol, a picture or a simple drawing tells a whole story!
    So does a smile…

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