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When metaphors become real

Continuing from the last installment from C. S. Lewis’s The Pilgrim’s Regress.

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….. As a man in a dream talks without fear to his dead friend, and only afterwards bethinks himself, “It was a ghost! I have talked with a ghost!” and wakes screaming: even so John sprang up as he saw what he had done.

“I have been praying,” he said. “It is the Landlord under a new name. It is the rules and the black hole and the slavery dressed out in a new fashion to catch me. And I am caught…”

But this was insupportable to him and he said that he had only fallen into a metaphor. Even Mr. Wisdom had confessed that Mother Kirk and the Stewards gave an account of the truth in picture writing. And one must use metaphors. The feelings and the imagination needed that support. “The great thing,” said John, “is to keep the intellect free from them: to remember that they are metaphors.”

John continues onward but the trail becomes so treacherous he finds he must call upon “Mr. Wisdom’s Absolute incessantly….He knew now that he was praying, but he thought he had drawn the fangs of that knowledge.” Finally, the path becomes so dark that he fears falling and stops to rest, hungry and thirsty as he is.

Then I dreamed that once more a Man came to him in the darkness and said, “You must pass the night where you are, but I have brought you a loaf and if you crawl along the ledge ten paces more you will find that a little fall of water comes down the cliff.”

“Sir,” said John. “I do not know your name and I cannot see your face, but I thank you. Will you not sit down and eat, yourself?”

“I am full and not hungry,” said the Man. “And I will pass on. But one word before I go. You cannot have it both ways.”

“What do you mean, sir?”

“Your life has been saved all this day by crying out to something which you call by many names, and you have said to yourself that you used metaphors.”

“Was I wrong, sir?”

“Perhaps not. But you must play fair. If its help is not a metaphor, neither are its commands. If it can answer when you call, then it can speak without your asking. If you can go to it, it can come to you.”

Afterword

John is confronted with the shortcomings of thinking of God as Universal Spirit, a great Mind of which we are each a small part. It’s easy to picture it, like a great mist or nebula of stars high above us. But does this Mind truly have consciousness as we do? If so, then it must have a will of its own. And it must be able to initiate and not merely respond. (And how can we continue to refer to it with the neutral pronoun “it” when the only minds we know are either male or female?)

Avoiding such questions can keep us out of dangerous waters for a while. Universal Spirit, like the God of monism or pantheism, is a rather lame creature. As Lewis writes in another book, “The pantheist’s God does nothing, demands nothing. He is there if you wish for Him, like a book on a shelf.

Jewish and Christian thought teach a concept quite different. Many would like to dispense with the Bible’s apparent metaphors for God too, but, Lewis writes, “it is with a shock that we discover [the Christian images of kingship] to be indispensable. You have had a shock like that before, in connection with smaller matters–when the line pulls at your hand, when something breathes besides you in the dark. But what If He were searching for us? Someone wholly other, such as you experience when you are fishing and there is a sudden tug at the end of the line. It’s alive!”

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Through the Lord’s Prayer to the infinite

Simone Weil was introduced in the previous post.  In this passage she continues the same letter to Father Perrin.  Not all of her statements in Waiting for God are theologically kosher.  However, she was the type of seeker and philosopher who insisted on following truth wherever it led, and who can say whether her journey in theological learning was complete when her brief life ended?  God uses and blesses imperfect vessels to do his work.  

Simone Weil
Simone Weil

From Waiting for God

Since that time I have made a practice of saying [the Lord’s Prayer] through once each morning with absolute attention.  If during the recitation my attention wanders or goes to sleep, in the minutest degree, I begin again until I have once succeeded in going through it with absolutely pure attention.  Sometimes it comes about that I say it again out of sheer pleasure, but I only do it if I really feel the impulse. 

The effect of this practice is extraordinary and surprises me every time, for, although I experience it each day, it exceeds my expectation at each repetition. 

At times the very first words tear my thoughts from my body and transport it to a place outside space where there is neither perspective nor point of view.  The infinity of the ordinary expanses of perception is replaced by an infinity to the second or third degree.  At the same time filling very part of this infinity of infinity, there is silence, a silence which is not an absence of sound but which is the object of a positive sensation, more positive than that of sound.  Noises, if there are any, only reach me after crossing this silence. 

Afterword

In this book Simone Weil writes that she had never read any “mystical works.”  She had not, until a few months before this letter, ever prayed to God.  This passage shows that entirely on her own, she discovered a practice known to Christians since the early centuries of the church: reaching God by meditating on His word.  Such is the grace and power of our Lord.