advent journal: comprehending a metaphor


    These are the words with which my day began:

    Only a daredevil makes metaphors. To make a metaphor is to walk a tightrope, to be shot out of a cannon, to do aerial somersaults without a net. The trouble with metaphors is that you never know when they’ll let you down. You turn a somersault in mid-air, you reach for the trapeze – and suddenly it isn’t there.

    Take the butterfly for instance. Surely the butterfly is a safe bet for a metaphor. The delicacy of beauty. The fragility of life . . . Even Shakespeare does it: “ . . . for men, like butterflies, show not their mealy wings but to summer.” And there you go, sailing through the air, the daring young man on the flying metaphor, when . . .

    Along comes the mourning cloak butterfly. (Raymo 77)

    I know. I hadn’t heard of it either. But the mourning cloak butterfly, it turns out is one tough little creature, hibernating through the New England winter, among others, and showing up at the first sign of any kind of warmth (using that term loosely). I was one of those who thought of butterflies as poster children for all things beautiful and fleeting (except for Monarchs, maybe), until I read Raymo.

    And there goes the metaphor. Beauty is fragile? Life is fleeting? Not at all. Beauty, it turns out, is tough, and life is well nigh impossible to extinguish. The mourning cloak proves it . . . It is an old tattoo ringing in the ears of philosophers and poets, physicists and mystics: the power of the mourning cloak, the resilience of its beauty, what makes it tough, what makes the flame of elegance impossible to extinguish, is something that cannot be seen. (78,80)

    Before I finished my first cup of coffee, my mind was off and running to connect the dots. First, an old favorite from Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

    Earth’s crammed with heaven,
    And every common bush afire with God;
    But only he who sees, takes off his shoes –
    The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

    And then on to a passage I read from L’Engle last night that quoted the very verse from John that Raymo echoed twice:

    St. John said, “And the light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not.” The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not understand it, and cannot extinguish it (I need the double meaning of the word comprehend). This is the great cry of affirmation that is heard over and over again in our imaginative literature, in all art. It is a light to lighten our darkness, to guide us, and we do not need to know, in the realm of provable fact, exactly where it is going to take place. (183)

    One of my working metaphors for faith is art: living faithfully is living artistically, imaginatively (as in image of God). Art is prophetic, compassionate, even incarnational; so is faith. The artist doesn’t set out to make sense as much as make meaning, to find ways to connect whatever he or she can, to move others to respond and relate. Art is both disquieting and cohesive. Art is the fire that burns without consuming; so is faith. The opposite of art is fear, destruction. The heart of art is love, imagination.

    So where does the metaphor break down?

    I heard a clip from President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech and went to read the whole thing. Here is the transcript of what I heard:

    I do not bring with me today a definitive solution to the problems of war. What I do know is that meeting these challenges will require the same vision, hard work, and persistence of those men and women who acted so boldly decades ago. And it will require us to think in new ways about the notions of just war and the imperatives of a just peace.

    We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations — acting individually or in concert — will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.

    I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago: “Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.” As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there’s nothing weak — nothing passive — nothing naïve — in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.

    But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.

    I understand he was making a speech in a world hell bent on beating each other up, and as president of a nation that tends to believe that a realistic worldview is synonymous with arming ourselves to the teeth. I realize he felt he had political realities to take into account. And I think he showed that my metaphor represents a minority opinion. We allow ourselves to believe force answers fear, rather than art, and peace is not as much a viable option as it is a Quixotic goal. The limits of reason are not the limits of either faith or art.

    They never were.

    We are preparing our hearts for Christ to be born again in our time and our culture. The first time the story was told, the baby was born into poverty and grew up on the margins of society. He grew up, surrounding himself with people of no power or means and taught them, expecting they would keep on going. And then the ones with the power – those who saw the world realistically – killed him. His death was not the last word because of force or power, but because of love, imagination, and mystery: because of art: faith.

    All the just wars we can wage will never resurrect anything. Onward Christian soldiers is a metaphor that fell apart long ago. Go out and stand in the dark, under the stars. Get up early and watch the sunrise (I’m not going to, but you do). Go out and find a mourning coat butterfly. Listen to songs like this one:

    I woke up this morning
    and none of the news was good
    death machines were rumbling
    cross the ground where Jesus stood
    and the man on my TV told me
    it had always been that way
    and there’s nothing anyone could do or say
    and I almost listened to him
    yeah, I almost lost my mind
    then I regained my senses again
    looked into my heart to find
    I believe that one fine day
    all the children of Abraham
    will lay down their swords
    forever in Jerusalem

    or this one:

    and in despair I bowed my head
    there is no peace on earth, I said
    for hate is strong and mocks the song
    of peace on earth goodwill to men

    then rang the bells both loud and deep
    God is not dead nor doth he sleep
    the wrong shall fail the right prevail
    with peace on earth goodwill to men

    And then let us say again, together, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot comprehend it.”



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