27 July 2009

No future in parables

17th Week OT (Mon): Ex 32.15-34; Matt 13.31-35
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Sisters of St Mary of Namur

Poets use verse to hide secret messages. Everyone knows that they could just say what they mean in plain prose, but the whole point of poetry is to figure out the code—the symbols, the allusions, etc.—and then decipher the hidden message to win the prize! Once you crack the code a poet uses, all of his or her poems can be decrypted in the same way. Every time I teach poetry, I have to un-teach this method of reading poetry. At some point in the class—especially with E. Dickinson or W. Stevens—someone will snap and cry out in frustration: “Just tell us what it means!!!” Though I am moved to pity, I am also resolved to resist allowing my students to turn good poetry into a de-coder ring game. Jesus seems to share my teacherly attitude when it comes to his parables. Those listening to Jesus must be about ready to do a little shouting all their own: “Mustard seeds! Leaven! Flour! What are you talking about?!” The irony here, of course, is that Jesus is speaking in parables not to hide the truth, but to uncover it: “I will open my mouth in parables, I will announce what has lain hidden from the foundation of the world.” Like enjoying good poetry, understanding a parable is more an experience of wisdom than it is an act of intellect. It's not so much about what you know as how you live.

Poetry, prophecy, parables—all very risky ways of telling the truth. You would do a lot better with a straightforward propositional claim, or even a mathematical equation. No ambiguity, no room for getting it wrong. The future, if we are to know it, must be known clearly; otherwise, we will make all sorts of mistakes now. Of course, some say that the future is mute. Emily Dickinson declares: “The Future never spoke,/Nor will he, like the Dumb,/Reveal by sign or syllable/Of his profound To-come.” What is to come for us is not revealed by sign or syllable. Why? The future never spoke, nor will he. Notice that the parables Jesus proposes are not about the future either. They do not gesture toward tomorrow, rather they describe what the wise can already see: the kingdom of God grows, spreads, breathes life into, is infectious, multiplies. What has lain hidden at the foundation of the world is that the world's foundation is God's kingdom.

Jesus “proposed” his parables to the crowds. The wise see. Those who do not see nonetheless get a glimpse, a flash of what lay underneath. Like the seeds and leaven, the parables themselves work their way into the soil of the imagination, into the flour of the spirit and begin expand, multiply, and breath until they either propose wisdom or produce frustration. Maybe we should say that frustration is the beginning of wisdom. It could be the rough edges of a tale that rub us into seeking out more and more. . .or maybe just the half-told truths of fable that spark a quest. . .or even the odd little story about a woman and her bread dough. . .none of these are about a fictional future but a deepened present.

How does it change your day to believe for even a minute or two that the foundations of the world rest on the kingdom of God?


  1. I was always taught that the beginning of Wisdom is realizing how much you don't know. After that humbling admission, the journey can begin, with less interference from arrogance. Also, the more I study the Bible, the more knowledge the parables impart. Do I have it right?

  2. Billiam, you do! My suggestion is a bit cheeky...although if one allows frustration to drive one to further seeking....

  3. In my early youth, frustration drove me away. As I've matured, it has, as you say, driven me to seek further that which eludes me. I will say, however, that some poetry deserves to be eluded.. ;-) I never looked at decoding poetry. Is there a book on that, since I'll not be able to take your class?

  4. Father,
    That last question is a great source for meditation. Thanks and God Bless!

  5. Billiam,

    A book on de-coding poetry? I hope not! Poetry is not code.

  6. "How does it change your day to believe for even a minute or two that the foundations of the world rest on the kingdom of God? "

    gotta tell ya, it relaxes and calms me. in those fleeting moments that I wholly believe it....but alas, I am human and prone to doubt and question and over analyze.

    I once heard of a poet (I don't remember who now) getting asked to "explain" his poem...his answer was "you want me to say it WORSE??"

    and, this is also why I never share my poetry. I don't want someone trying to "figure out" what it "means" or "analyzing" it. or searching for the "deeper meanings". Poetry is for what Steven King refers to as the basement of your brain. Where the guys work in the dark sorting the boxes...packing unpacking sifting trashing stacking....it's all done under your level of consciousness and is the most important ground work for your experiences.

    This is where music and poetry...and yes, also parables and prayer "touch" us. This is where we absorb and assimilate what we cannot explain.

    This is where the Spirit resides....