Nine Brief Examples of the Power of Metaphor

Words, while an important part of our toolset, can also get in the way of reality. But how can we live without them? On some level we must allow a deep level of language to help us in sorting out reality; words are something that help us to form a mental picture. In particular, we sometimes turn to metaphors and extended metaphors (parables, allegories, stories, etc.).

A metaphor is a figure of speech in which two different things are equated for rhetorical effect. It can be used to provide clarity to something unfamiliar by comparing it to something familiar, or to point out hidden similarities between two unlike things. The word comes from the Greek metapherein (meta (beyond) + pherein (to bear or carry)) meaning “to transfer,” or, more literally, “to carry something beyond.”

A metaphor often seeks to capture something deeper by comparing it to something that is more easily grasped. In the metaphor “All the world’s a stage,” Shakespeare takes a deep concept (the world (or life)) and frames it in the context of something more manageable (a stage). This is not to say that a stage is precisely the equivalent of the world, but rather to capture some truth about the world and highlight it for understanding.

Similarly, stories can be used to communicate what is complex or to some degree inexpressible, by relating memorable experiences that disclose truth. Good stories often convey many complex truths at once. The best stories use surprise, irony, conflict, or some combination thereof to convey truth and wisdom in a memorable way.

Stories and metaphors can expose a unity between seemingly unlike things that exists beneath the surface level. On these deeper levels, things often shift, surprise, and even amuse us. Not everything in life is as it first appears; God does not easily fit into a convenient little box. Stories and metaphors can open windows onto wider vistas and expose deeper mysteries.

With this background in mind, consider the following stories. There is a wide collection of such stories from both the Rabbinic tradition and the Desert Fathers. The saints, too, have supplied us with many. The following selections are somewhat random as I drew them from various sources. Many of them were taken from The Spirituality of Imperfection: Story Telling and the Search for Meaning. They are a rich stories of the magnificent and mysterious reality called life.

In each case, the “story” is presented in bold, black italics. I have limited myself to very brief comments, shown in plain, red text.

When the disciples of the Rabbi Baal Shem Tov asked him how to know whether a 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 who are of no account.

Not all things have a solution. God sometimes allows things to happen in order test us and He asks us to live with difficulties. If there really were a solution to the problem of distraction and temptation, spiritual teachers would long ago have provided it. Therefore, those who claim some insight into this common 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 heaven and earth, the Rabbi expounded, “‘Heaven and earth!’ Then man might have said, ‘Heaven—that is too much for me.’ So God said to man, ‘Look, I am the one who fished you out of the mud. Now come over here and listen to me!’

We often relate first to earthly things and then to higher spiritual matters.

3. A woman sought out a confessor of long experience. In her 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?

Some people confuse confession and spirituality with therapy. Therapy offers explanations; confession 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).

Too often our certitude is rooted not in God or in true faith but in our own thoughts. Our thoughts can become idols and we can become ideologues. Wonder is able to bring us to our knees in humility and gratitude. Wonder opens us to all that God has done. Blind adherence to ideology can close us in on ourselves and our own limited thoughts.

5. The philosopher Diogenes was 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 be subservient to the king.”

This is analogous to our serving of this world and 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.

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.

Too often we determine the cause of our problems 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!”

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).

Too often we make of prayer a complicated thing.

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

Here is a collection of sayings, most of which ring true to me, set to music:

5 Replies to “Nine Brief Examples of the Power of Metaphor”

  1. I like the metaphors which the Lord made literal:
    – Christ’s physical Heart was literally opened on the Cross because metaphorically His spiritual Heart is open to us;
    – God literally came to Israel in the flesh via His Incarnation and Public Ministry because metaphorically He came to Israel via His Omnipresence and Shekhinah (not that these two things aren’t real);
    – the Light of the World literally cured the man born blind because metaphorically He frees us from the darkness of sin;
    – Jesus literally opened His Hands on the Cross because metaphorically He was opened handed toward the poor and needy;

    And many other ways in which God has set an example for us.

  2. – Sometimes the only thing you can do in the face of a storm is to turn your bow into the wind and go forward.

  3. Writing from the perspective of a retired English and composition teacher, I encouraged students to cultivate the art of storytelling to make their points. Better a story than a hammer.

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