It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet people die miserably every day…
of what is found there
— William Carlos Williams
Today I hit a wall I didn’t see coming.
I ran into people who couldn’t see the metaphor sitting right in front of us. They weren’t stupid or belligerent or intractable; they just didn’t see it. And I didn’t know what to do. I felt like I was sitting in a coffee shop somewhere in Pakistan trying to carry on a conversation and I was the only one who didn’t speak Urdu. I knew what I wanted to say, but none of the words I had seemed to work.
I think I was so flummoxed because talking about faith means talking about poetry: it’s all metaphor. Let me say here that I learned something from my conversation, so I want to clarify: to say it’s metaphor is not saying it’s something other than true. Poetry, for me, is our best chance at truth telling. For the sake of definition: metaphor is comparison – using one thing to talk about something else.
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Matthew 23:37)
OK, so technically it’s a simile because Jesus used “as,” but he wasn’t claiming to be a hen as much as using the metaphor to talk about the ache in his heart. The word metaphor can be traced back to the sixteenth century:
lit. “a carrying over,” from metapherein “transfer, carry over,” from meta- “over, across” (see meta- ) + pherein “to carry, bear”
A word bridge, if you will: to carry over, to bear across. This is the way truth travels. When I was looking up the word origin, I came across a philosopher who was new to me: R. G. Collingwood. His introduction was this quote:
It is a commonplace that all religion expresses itself in mythological or metaphorical terms; it says one thing and means another; it uses imagery to convey truth. But the crucial fact about religion is not that it is metaphor, but that it is unconscious metaphor. No one can express any thought without using metaphors, but this does not reduce all philosophy and science to religion, because the scientist knows that his metaphors are merely metaphors and that the truth is something other than the imagery by which it is expressed, whereas in religion the truth and the imagery are identified. To repeat the Creed as a religious act it is necessary not to add “All this I believe in a symbolical or figurative sense”: to make that addition is to convert religion into philosophy.
I don’t know much at all about Mr. Collingwood’s faith perspective, but he’s on to something when it comes to realizing that the language of faith is one where “the truth and the imagery are identified.”
And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. (Luke 22:19-20)
Jesus’ words are crammed full of metaphor, still when I take the Bread and the Cup in worship there is more going on than figurative language when Ginger looks me in the eye and says, “The Body of Christ.” And it is with the same sense of full contact poetry that I hear one of my favorite Advent quotes (and the one at the center of the conversation that started this post):
What good is it to me if Mary gave birth to the Son of God fourteen hundred years ago and I do not also give birth to the Son of God in my time and in my culture? We are all meant to be Mothers of God. — Meister Eckhart
When we come back to the story that birthed our faith, we usually see ourselves among the shepherds working our way to the manger and staring up into the starlit night to hear the angels sing. Sometimes, we journey with the Magi, or perhaps come to terms with our inner Innkeeper. Still it seems to me the heart of the story is in the young peasant girl who carried the baby to term and then gave birth to the Incarnation. Eckhart calls us to engage the story as viscerally as it is possible for truth and imagery to collide: hurt and push and scream and struggle and labor to do what it takes to let our lives give birth to Love in the middle of our world. We are all meant to be mothers of God, being created in the image of God who is Mother to us.
A neighbor sent an email on our listserv asking if anyone had a copy of the movie Ishtar. It has never made it to DVD and she said she was one of the few who liked the movie and really wanted to see it again. I was happy to let her know there were at least two of us in the neighborhood and I was glad to let her borrow my copy. The song at the heart of the movie begins,
telling the truth can be dangerous business . . .
As goofy as the song is, truth is dangerous business – dangerous and wonderful business. I don’t mean the kind of truth that becomes a weapon or a measuring stick, but the truth that gives birth in us to a sense of what God can do if we, like Mary, are willing to say, “Let it be.”
The old saying about Socrates — he told the truth, so they killed him — seems far more applicable to Jesus. Telling the trugh is a dangerous thing.
So, I may be the third person who liked the movie Ishtar. My wife makes four.
um, I really relished what you say about metaphor. We live among folks who think metaphor = a fancy/false way of saying something that could be said better and more simply… when metaphor is a way of saying something that can’t be said at ALL, otherwise. (I come at this from the English-instructor bias, prior to the preacher bias)
Nearly all the people we talk to would be in my grandmother’s camp. For her, metaphor was “camouflage” and myth was “hooey.”
Peace — and thanks!!!
The poem with which you began embodies and explores the ambiguities of love and language, and in the end affirms both. Williams knew believed that poetry rightly written, rightly read could open the door to, point the poet and the reader to the deeper mystery about which nothing can be said. Such transcendence may also be the reality that’s left when the Chaos clears everything else away.
Thanks for this post. I have read it several times over the weeks since you posted it. The famous quote from William Carlos Williams is typical of Williams’ poetry: It is compact and brilliant, almost enough in and of itself, but pointing to something further for which the reader must search his or her own soul. Williams spent his whole life reaching for the words to carry readers (and himself)to that Something about which nothing more can be said. To your point about living with those who do not understand the truth of metaphor, Williams might say, they have become lost from their purpose: to love the world, even in its ugliness, and to experience Wonder. Wonder can only find expression in metaphor. In another poem, Williams summons the memory of fellow poet Rene Char(who was also a fighter in the French Resistance in WWII) to whom he says:
you are a poet who believes
in the power of beauty
to right all wrongs.
I believe it also.
With invention and courage
we shall surpass
the pitiful dumb beasts,
let all men believe it,
as you have taught me also
to believe it.
(from: To a Dog Injured in the Street)
The pitiful dumb beasts are, of course, those who have given over their wonder and love to functionality, manipulation, cruelty and war upon each other an the earth.
Adding to Williams, I would say, the encounter with those who do not know wonder and the need to express its truth in metaphor calls to action those who would meet the pittyless world they create with invention and courage….and faithful love.