Mystery and Metaphor of God

This is a reflection written by Richard Rohr and distributed by the Center for Action and Contemplation.  We invite you to subscribe to his daily email reflections.


Before 500 BCE, religion and poetry were largely the same thing. People did not presume to be able to define the Mystery. They looked for words that could describe the Mystery. Poetry doesn’t claim to be a perfect description as dogma foolishly does. It’s a “hint half guessed,” to use T. S. Eliot’s phrase. [1] That’s why poetry seduces and entices you into being a searcher for the Mystery yourself. It creates the heart leap, the gasp of breath, inspiring you to go further and deeper; you want to fill in the blanks for yourself.

When religion becomes mere philosophy, definitions, moralisms, and rituals, it no longer has the power to transform.

Poetry does this by speaking in metaphors. All religious language is metaphor by necessity, yet I must insist on this to every new group of students, especially Protestants who tend to understand the Bible in a more literal way. Religion points toward a Mystery that you don’t know—can’t know—until you have experienced it. Poetry gives you resonance more than logical proof, and resonance is much more healing and integrating. It resounds inside of you. It evokes and calls forth a deeper self. When religion becomes mere philosophy, definitions, moralisms, and rituals, it no longer has the power to transform.

For poetry to be most effective, I believe it should be spoken aloud, embodied. After all, God didn’t think, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3). God spoke, and creation vibrated into existence. Isn’t it just like our Creator to imprint the subtlety and mystery of creativity in the thisness of each voice?

Cynthia Bourgeault says that she gradually learned the value of speaking the scripture aloud before beginning to prepare a sermon on it:

Nine times out of ten, when I finally read the passage out loud during the proclamation of the Gospel on Sunday morning, I hear exactly the phrase or innuendo that I should have preached on, but that escaped my reading eye.

Virtually all spiritual paths begin their training with breath and tone—conscious breathing, following the breath, vibrating the mantra—and for good reason: these are the actual tools and technologies for engaging and energizing our more subtle inner being. [2]

Poetry, like chant, is meant to vibrate through the uniqueness of our own voice for it to come alive. Don’t take my word for it! Find your favorite poem and see if it becomes real in a new way when you say the words out loud. 

One of my favorite poets is Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926). Here is one of his poems translated from German by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows. If you can, read it aloud slowly, musically.

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand. [3]

Gateway to Presence:
If you want to go deeper with today’s meditation, take note of what word or phrase stands out to you. Come back to that word or phrase throughout the day, being present to its impact and invitation.

[1] T. S. Eliot, “Four Quartets: The Dry Salvages,” The Complete Poems and Plays 1909-1950 (Harcourt Brace: 1980), 136.

[2] Cynthia Bourgeault, Chanting the Psalms: A Practical Guide with Instructional CD (New Seeds: 2006), 76.

[3] Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (The Berkley Publishing Group: 1996), 119. Used with permission.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, “Poetry and Prayer,” unpublished talks (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2005) and Franciscan Mysticism: I Am That Which I AM Seeking, disc 1 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2012), CDMP3 download.

Find Your Passion!

This report by NBC News tells us

  • 40% of students who enter a four year college will NOT complete their degree within 4 years. 
  • 30% end up in jobs that do not need a four year degree
  • 28% of Associate Degrees end up making more money than jobs with a four year degree. 

The decision to go to college after high school or to take time off not about the value of education.  It is about the path to finding one's purpose.  At Discovery House our goals are to: 

  • Help participants recognize their strengths while making a positive contribution through community service.
  • Identify their hopes and dreams so that they can select a college and career that allow them to set and fulfill life goals. 
  • Gain life experience that will empower them to resolve conflict, communicate, adapt to ever changing situations and understand the complexity of life.
  • Develop a healthy understanding of God.

The results of a gap year can be astounding once a student does go to college. 


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Daring to Fail

This opinion piece was written by Sarah Montross and originally published in the News Observer.

When I tell people I’m going to Ecuador on a gap year next year before college, I get mixed reactions. Older people tend to respond with “I wish I had done that” or “I didn’t know something like this was an option when I was younger.” While kids my age tend to smile and say, “That’s so cool! I’d love to do something like that … but I can’t."

Why can’t you?

Failure is a driving factor in all our lives — from the fear of failing an exam to not getting into that dream college, and even finding the right path at all. Deviating from society’s norms is challenging, and not many people can get past their fear of taking a different path.

But why? Taking a leap of faith and struggling does not translate to failure; instead, it translates to growth and learning. In my life, the concept of taking risks and branching far beyond my comfort zone has become foreign. I feel like I’m expected to go from preschool to college without so much as summer break or time to reflect on who I am. I am expected to have a plan, and jump on the educational treadmill that leads me into the real world.

The problem is, how am I supposed to thrive in the world if I’ve never really lived in it?

When I decided to apply to become a Global Citizen Year Fellow, I was terrified. I didn’t think it was in the realm of possibilities to take a gap year, especially not in a foreign country with a foreign language. My parents didn’t understand, and I couldn’t explain exactly why I felt compelled to send in an application. A few weeks later I found out I was accepted into the program as an Ecuador Fellow. I’m going to spend eight months living with a host family, learning how to speak Spanish, and immersing myself in the culture.

When people ask me why I’m voluntarily putting myself in a country whose language I don’t speak and culture I don’t yet understand, I have trouble explaining it. The best I can do is to say, “I just know this is something I need to do for myself.” I crave an adventure that will allow me to fail. I need to learn from my mistakes. And I need to do it before I head off to college. Ultimately, I know that I can only grow if I’m pushed to my limits and forced to recognize my strengths and weaknesses, and figure out where where I need to improve.

You might be someone who would have thought, “I could never take a gap year.” What makes you hesitate to diverge from the more common path? What would happen if you challenged yourself? Most of us don’t know who we are outside of our comfort zone.

I never thought I would dare to push myself beyond what I thought were my limits. I’m the person who is afraid to ask the server for ketchup. So why am I leaping into a new country for eight months? I’ve become attached to my now-favorite quote: “Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

I still go back and forth between thinking I’m insane and knowing this is the right choice. I’m beyond terrified for what the next year will bring, but I’m not going to let my fear limit me.

Don’t let your fear stop you either. I challenge you to branch away from what is considered "normal" and experience life beyond simple boundaries. And I hope you choose to challenge yourself too.

Sarah Montross, a senior at Carrboro High School, is passionate about global issues and public health.

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Discovery House, a service-based gap year experience for participants ages 18-20, will begin August 2018.  Please share this information with an individuals who may want to participate or support this new ministry.