The Power of Metaphor

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 an underlying unity between seemingly unlike things. On a deeper level, things often shift, surprise, and even amuse us. Not everything 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, and I drew them from various sources. Many were taken from The Spirituality of Imperfection: Story Telling and the Search for Meaning. They are 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; He asks us to live with difficulties. If there really were a solution to the problem of distraction and temptation, spiritual teachers would have provided it long ago. Therefore, those who claim to have solution to this common human problem are of little account.

2. When the Rabbi Bunam was asked why, when giving the Law, God so often says, “I am the Lord.” The Rabbi expounded, “This is God’s way of drawing us to his commands. And so he says to us by this expression: ‘Look, I am the one who fished you out of the mud. Now come over here and listen to me!’

In other words, the God who commands us is the same God who loves us and has rescued us countless times. Maybe we should listen to Him!

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 gently interrupted and asked, “My dear do you want forgiveness or an explanation?”

Some people confuse confession with therapy. Therapy offers explanations; confession seeks mercy and forgiveness.

4. Concepts create idols; only wonder comprehends everything. People kill one another over idols, but 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 can 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.”

Serving the world comes at the cost of 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 pin the blame for our problems on the devil when the true cause 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 completely good nor completely bad. The journey from evil to good is not yet finished. 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 prayer into something complicated.

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

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Power of Metaphor