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Using Metaphors to Teach Prayer

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Scriptures pulse with metaphorical phrases and images (“The Lord is my shepherd . . .”). Jesus’s description of the Kingdom of God is a metaphor. The National Directory for Catechesis [NDC] urges catechists to recognize and to apply metaphors in their teaching practices.[1] This is especially true in defining, encouraging, modeling, and practicing the art of prayer.

The genius of defining prayer by metaphor is that it preserves prayer’s Mystery and intimacy. The Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC] uses a metaphor to define prayer by writing, “Prayer is the life of the new heart.”[2] For catechists to teach how prayer is both “life” and a “new heart,” students need to know how metaphors form and inform their prayer lives.

First, metaphors shape our thought. Thinking in metaphors is part of our cognitive architecture and we form our world views through metaphors. They form pictures in our mind of how we live and how we act.[3]

The power of “The Lord is my shepherd” (Ps 23:1) comes from the association with a loving, protective, and vigilant caretaker. We are drawn into the Lord by the image of the shepherd. We act and think according to the warm, inviting, safe image of the shepherd. While we create metaphors, metaphors also create us.

Second, “our prayer takes flesh” in and through words.[4] Yet, finding words for our innermost feelings is often difficult if not impossible. Metaphors are famous for their capacity to express the inexpressible.[5] How can we reveal our deepest feelings or express our gratitude to God if we have no way to express those feelings? In fact, meditation is called a “quest”—a search for living in God.[6] We don’t express love, longing, gratitude as well as fear, anxiety, or, contrition like we would recite a grocery list. When we reach out to God in prayer our dialogue sounds more like poetry than a recipe. Metaphor is a language of intimacy.

St. Catherine of Siena’s meditative metaphors illustrate her search:
Precious Blood, Ocean of Divine Mercy: Flow upon us!
Precious Blood, Most pure Offering: Procure us every Grace!
Precious Blood, Hope and Refuge of sinners: Atone for us![7]

St. Catherine’s repetition of the “precious blood” metaphor served as a “quest” to find who God is and who she is with God. Working from the root metaphor of “Precious Blood,” she multiplies connective metaphors of a flowing ocean, an offering and a refuge for sinners. One small seed can create a fruitful tree!

Third, students exercise their creative meaning by repeating metaphors. Repetition of one metaphor leads to other metaphors and opens the wellsprings of prayer. Catechists could suggest a metaphor and encourage students to make their own connections. Such connections make their own prayers dialogues personally significant. For example, researchers found that metaphors provided foundational images of God and the Church in the lives of young adult Catholics. Such metaphors were uniformly positive and included images of a warm and loving God who is intimate and active in their lives.[8]

While metaphors for God can be intensely personal, even intimate, they can also be universal and inclusive.[9] St. Catherine used the fire metaphor as a vivid, cherished and universal metaphor in searching for her God-driven identity:

In your nature, eternal Godhead,
I shall come to know my nature.
And what is my nature, boundless love?
It is fire,
because you are nothing but a fire of love.[10]

Catechists can encourage prayer by exposing their students to such vivid metaphors. Our culture is rife with metaphors; we naturally speak in metaphors. Art, for example, overflows with metaphors useful for prayer.

Church Life Journal has published significant articles on how faith can be formed by film and literature.[11] Metaphors seed both film and literature in scenes and plot, in soundtrack and script, and in theme and in tone. Cinema and literature (most art, actually) are both capable of using images and metaphors to point to God and the Mysteries of the faith. Likewise, catechists can introduce metaphors by identifying and discussing the role and function of metaphors in architecture, poetry, novels, paintings, songs and murals. All art can serve as inspiration for creating prayerful metaphors.

Metaphors cultivate prayer’s personal relationship with God. Metaphors are not merely flowery language. Jesus used metaphors to speak about His greatest Mysteries. The Church urges catechists to dip into its deep reservoirs of metaphor. Students can use metaphors to speak their most inexpressible thoughts and feelings to God. Catechists can also teach metaphors in order to make prayer relevant, personal, and useful. Film and literature illustrate the inclusive and universal usefulness of metaphors for infusing prayer with meaning and relevance.

Featured Image: Gebhard Fugel, Moses Before the Burning Bush, c. 1920. Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-90. 

[1] U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, National Directory for Catechesis (Washington, D.C.: USCCB, 2005), §140.

[2] U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], 1994, §2697.

[3] James Geary, I is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How it Shapes the Way We See the World (New York: HarperCollins, 2011).

[4] CCC §2700.

[5] Donna M. Orange, “Speaking the Unspeakable: ‘The Implicit,’ Traumatic Living Memory, and the Dialogue of Metaphors,” in International Journal of Psychoanalytic Self Psychology 6 (2011): 187–206. See also: Geary, I is an Other, op. cit.

[6] CCC §2705.

[7] Catherine of Siena et. al., “Prayers to St. Catherine,” Patron Saint Medals, http://st-catherine-medal.com/prayers-to-saint-catherine.htm, accessed 4/28/17.

[8] Jeanne Peloso, “Adult Images of God: Implications for Pastoral Counseling,” in Journal of Pastoral Counseling 43 (2008) 15-30; Jeanne Peloso, “The Theological Anthropology of Young Adult Catholics in Post-modern America,” in Pastoral Psychology 61 (2012): 233-243.

[9] Elizabeth Dreyer (interview), “Complex, Quirky and Profound,” U.S. Catholic Aug. 2016, 34-37. Her interview discussed how she taught about St. Catherine of Siena. She said, “I find metaphors to be inclusive and universal, which makes them accessible to everyone” (36).

[10] Catherine of Siena, “Prayers of St. Catherine of Siena,” Godspace, https://godspace-msa.com/2016/04/29/prayers-of-st-catherine-of-siena/, accessed 4/29/17.

[11] See: Mary Ann Wilson “Forming Adults in Faith Through Fiction,” Church Life Journal, https://churchlife.nd.edu/2016/09/19/forming-adults-in-faith-through-fiction/ (accessed 19 September 2016); Renée Roden, “Jesus in the Movies: Challenges of Cinematizing the Gospels,” Church Life Journal, https://churchlife.nd.edu/2017/03/27/jesus-in-the-movies/ (accessed 27 March 2017).

Ronald K. Bullis

Ronald K. Bullis has taught Old and New Testaments for over twenty years and writes on the role of narratives in law and religion.