Poetry tills and harvests in the fields of metaphor.
When Shakespeare’s Romeo muses, “Juliet is the sun,” he is not making a statement that is literally true. But it is true. How so? Oddly enough, answering this question involves us in more metaphorical speech.
Juliet is at the center of Romeo’s world; she brings light and warmth; the world blossoms when her face shines, and so on and so forth. Apparently, we can’t really opt out of using metaphors, which suggests some limitations to literal speech.
In some ways, the metaphorical way of speaking is truer than the literal. What, after all, is Juliet, literally? (That is, let’s pretend that Juliet is a real person.) She is a female of the species, a member of the Capulet family. Not much of this matters to Romeo. His concerns transcend the literal level. In the play, this has tragic consequences, and Shakespeare is saying something about the tragedy of human life in a world where political exigency violently opposes human desire.
But let’s return to Romeo’s view of Juliet one last time. For her lover, Juliet is more like the sun that the sun itself. When Romeo thinks that Juliet is dead, his own life is no longer worth living, whether or not the actual sun is still shining.
This is all to say that, for human beings, metaphorical speech is not less true than literal speech. It is reserved, rather, for speaking the truths that are truest, dearest, and most, not least, substantial.
Poetic metaphors are used to speak about spiritual realities. The fact that these realities cannot be expressed literally is often used by persons today to claim that spiritual realities are false projections of human wishful thinking. But this, I say, is clearly a mistake.
This does not, however, mean that any old metaphor is true. As I suggested a moment ago, Romeo’s metaphorical thinking about Juliet made an idol of her that proved disastrous for himself and his family. He might have expressed the meaning of Juliet in his life with a better metaphor.
But my point here is not to give a lecture on literary criticism.
We human beings need this metaphorical speech to speak about spiritual realities, which are of central importance to our lives. Man cannot live without meaning, but we cannot speak about meaning except by metaphor. The literal meaning of things cannot sustain this spiritual hunger, which is why Saint Paul can go so far as to say that the letter kills.
The Word of God became flesh for us. He entered into our world of matter, of literal truths, in order to bring us to God, to the fullness of spiritual truth. But to do this fully, Our Lord needed to elevate and purify our understanding of Who He is.
First, by rising from the dead, He demonstrated that while death marks a limit to our literal lives, it had no ultimate power over Him. When Jesus returned from the dead in His flesh, he spent forty days teaching the Apostles about heavenly realities.
But to initiate them fully into the life of the spirit, and to remove any confusion, Christ ascended into heaven and gave us the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, allows us to read beyond the literal meaning of things into their most profound spiritual truth.
This is, for one thing, why Catholics are not Biblical literalists. But neither is our reading of the Scriptures arbitrary. How do we know when we are reading with the Spirit of Truth, and when we have strayed into our own fancy?
As I mentioned above, Romeo could have avoided catastrophe by more wisely choosing his metaphorical language in regard to Juliet. So it is possible to go astray when we read beyond the literal.
There are many ways to reflect on the Ascension, but one particular aspect of this mystery is relevant here.
The Ascension is the foundation of the liturgy.
The Fathers often spoke of Christ’s Ascension as the transition from a world of shadows to that of reality, mediated by sacramental signs. Before Christ, man had a shadowy sense of the divine, and some efforts that the ancients made to understand god were sorely deficient, such as imagining gods as having the form of animals, or as petulant superhumans. Christ brings us to the Father not only by ascending to the Father, thereby turning our attention heavenward. He also sends the Holy Spirit, Who fills all things and reveals their meaning to us.
The primary place of this revelation is in the structure of the liturgy, where water, stone, light, sound, bread, and wine convey to us God’s meaning, His nearness, His love. And just as Juliet was more sun-like to Romeo than the sun itself, we discover that Christ is more bread-like than bread. He is the fulfillment of bread and wine, their truest meaning.
God is more rock-like than rock.
God is true light, he dwells in uncreated light of which literal light is but a pale symbol.
This insight is the fruit of Christ’s Ascension.
And our ability to read God’s loving plan into everything we encounter is already to participate consciously in the resurrected life, which is the fruit of our baptism. This is the strength of the saints in our midst, the constant union with God that comes about in the renewal of our minds, away from the literal appearance of creatures to the Creator of all, God Who is blessed forever and ever. Amen.