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.