Photo by Kevin Cosgrove.
NC has a special place in its heart (okay, really, the magazine doesn’t have a heart perhaps, but in the editor’s heart) for mixed forms, hybrid forms and old forms gone out of fashion. They don’t teach sermon-writing in the college workshops, but the sermon is a great and ancient nonfiction form (books of sermons used to be bestsellers), and we have published several on this site. This is the first sermon Hilary Mullins ever gave and dates back to 2000 when she lived in Oakland, CA. She now lives in Bethel, VT, and is a graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing Program and writes and teaches and washes windows in the summer. Her most recent contribution to NC was an essay on her experiences during Hurricane Irene. This her second sermon on NC. See the first here.
One dervish to another, What was your vision of God’s presence? — Rumi
I’m no dervish, no Sufi mystic. I’m just a writer. And though like Rumi, I too sometimes conceive of God as a baptism of fire, I find that when I sit down to write, water is the vision that keeps returning to me. I’ve been writing about water my whole life. It’s not my only metaphor, but it may be my most frequent. I’ve written poems about rivers and brooks, about lakes and skating on lakes. I’m not sure, but I think it has something to do with the lake back in Vermont I grew up swimming in, the hours and endless hours I spent in that water.
Especially I remember swimming underwater: nosing around submerged parts of trees for the sudden sparkle of a fishing lure, or better yet, pulling myself with wide arm-strokes down the mysterious, green-dark slope where the real depths began.
Experiences like this get under our skin, making a metaphorical sense that sticks with us, informing our lives. Though as a writer, I’m probably more aware than most of the metaphors I use, I think everybody uses them.
And I’m certainly not the only one who thinks this. University of California linguistics professor George Lakoff thinks so too. Lakoff has been championing the importance of metaphor for quite some time now. In a recent book with the delicious title, Philosophy in the Flesh, Lakoff and Eugene philosopher Mark Johnson argue that metaphors are not a mere matter of the words we use. In fact, they claim that metaphors structure the ways we conceptualize our most fundamental experiences.
And furthermore, they say, reeling in abundant evidence from the cognitive sciences, this metaphorical structuring of meaning is largely unconscious and inescapable, the result of our embodied existence.
Let me give you an example. When we are babies, picked up and held, we learn to associate affection with the actual warmth of embrace. And ever after—so the argument goes—those two things become associated in our minds: we think of affection itself as warm, though literally of course it is not.
This linkage, which occurs in the brain, this conceptualization of affection as warmth, Lakoff and Johnson call a primary metaphor. And we have many, many of these metaphors. Think about it: we talk of happiness in terms of being up, we think of intimacy in terms of closeness, of knowing as seeing, of understanding as grasping.
None of this is literal. For instance, happiness, as an emotion we feel in our body is not actually up or down; it has no location in space that way at all. And yet this is how we think of it and therefore how we experience it: happiness, for us, is up.
One of the implications of metaphor theory—if you find it convincing and I certainly do—is that we are not the transcendent rational creatures we have taken ourselves to be for a very long time. To the contrary, Lakoff and Johnson argue that reason is not a transcendent entity somewhere “out there” like some supernatural deity we can commune with through our rational faculty. They claim instead that what we think of as “reason” is actually a product of our bodies and the ways that we, these bodies, interact with the world. As a result, our reason is largely metaphorical and imaginative.
As someone well-acquainted with the power of metaphor in my own work, I take this to be good news. For I have long noticed that the introduction of a good metaphor can transform a piece of stagnant writing into something else all together, into something with a pulse, something with movement, direction.
For example: Let’s say I tell you about a period of major transition in my life. Let’s say I list the feelings I had during that time, that I describe to you my resulting indecision and hesitation. There’s nothing wrong with such a retelling of course. I could convey something important this way.
But, let’s say I use an image instead, an image about riding a train. Let’s say that I’m standing in an open doorway on that train, straddling a gap between cars, that I’m gazing down the rattling, serpentine-length of that train, all its doors open, the swaying of its motion along the tracks rocking me gently towards my next destination. Yes, let’s say, held in the belly of that train, I am rocked and carried along.
Something in us perks up when we speak of our experiences this way, something vital in us begins breathing, resonating. This is no small thing, for I believe it brings us closer to where we live, which is another way to talk about the search for meaning in our lives, or if you will, the search for God.
But there’s more that I think metaphor can do. I think it can transform us as well.
Let’s think about the train some more. The fact is though my description of riding that train may be imaginative, my actual choice of the train as a metaphor is not. It’s not that I’m criticizing my originality. No. What I want to point out is that trains, planes, and automobiles are metaphors people frequently reach for when they are speaking of their lives.
I remember when I used to work at a teen center, we often played a board game called Life. On the board, point by point, along a curving, broad path were laid out all the conventional mileage markers of a life: birth, school, first job, marriage, house, children. And each contestant piloted her or himself along this yellow brick road of expectation in a tiny, plastic car.
Of course, it seemed silly, putzing in plastic through a life like that, but the fact is that that board game was a good mock-up of our culture’s concept of life: which is to say we hold life to be a journey, one complete with itinerary, destinations, and obstacles to those destinations. This can be a useful way to think of life.
And yet it has its obvious drawbacks as well. For conceiving of our lives this way leads us to make judgments about whether we have at any given point in time made it to the “mileage markers” we or others think are appropriate to that period in our lives. People who are obviously successful when they are young, look good according to this reasoning, while some of us late-bloomers can look pretty lackadaisical.
But this is just one way of looking at things. In other countries, people don’t think this way at all. In other countries, there is no journey—there’s just you, living your life.
Lately, with seven years and counting between my first and still unfinished second novel, some of these other countries are beginning to look pretty appealing.
But maybe I won’t have to move. Maybe I can start with countering the concept here, now, in myself. I think to some extent this is possible. We may not have much choice, ultimately, about whether we experience happy as up or affection as warmth (Lakoff and Johnson contend that we do not), but it is possible, I think, to grapple with some of our culture’s more complex metaphors if we find that, rather than bringing us along in some way, they are holding us back.
Think about the ways we talk about our relationships. Again journey metaphors abound. That is, we tend to think of love as a journey, of lovers as travelers with common destinations or paths. Fact is the little plastic car on the Life game board says it pretty well: we think of our relationships as vehicles on this common journey we undertake together. Sometimes our relationships “spin their wheels”, sometimes they “run out of gas”. Or sometimes they hit a “dead end.”
Haven’t you ever hit a dead end in a relationship? A lot of us have. That is, we’ve thought about it just that way. And so, then, did we decide that the whole thing had been a waste of time? A useless trip? The love-is-a-journey metaphor itself could very well lead us to that conclusion.
But what if we conceived of relationships in a different way? What if, as Lakoff and Johnson have suggested, we think of love as a collaborative work of art? Imagine that. Then ask yourself this: is art ever a waste of time?
And yet though I especially like the notion of collaboration that this metaphor offers, I find myself still wanting to salvage the journey metaphor. I like the motion in this image, the sense of distance traveled. Lately though, my own mileage markers don’t have much to do with the conventional signposts on the Life game board. Instead I find myself marking the miles with lessons learned. Sometimes it’s not even a matter of miles so much as it is the depth I’ve managed to get to, whether by myself or in the company of another. Being in relationship with another person for me is sometimes like going for a swim, an underwater dive. I want to see how deep we can go. And swimming for me is never a waste of time!
This is why I believe the metaphors we use really do matter. Though it may be true that most of them are engrained and automatic, I still think that if you start nosing around in the ones you use, you can sometimes open up a little light in what might be a pretty dark corner. Or you can just as well notice one that’s always been a taproot for you and make more of it.
Some of you may remember a sermon Rob Hardies gave a few months ago where he argued that for religious liberals, thinking about God metaphorically is the way to go. Well, I for one have started to think of God as a writer.
Now thinking about God as a writer is not necessarily helpful to me on a night when I’m feeling lonely, or on a morning when I have something to do that makes my spirits sink. Lately when I’m feeling that way, I imagine God as a massive live-oak tree, someone I can climb into, a place I can rest.
But when I’m in motion, and wondering what to do next in my life, I like thinking of God as a writer. For as a writer myself, I know how important it is to get in tune with the story I’m writing.
This is not a matter of knowing where the story is going, how it will end, or all of what will occur along the way. Indeed, I find that when I try to force the outcome, the whole thing breaks down, that me and my story get flat-out stuck, going nowhere fast. I find instead that to do well when I’m writing, a certain sort of surrender is required, a trust that the unfolding story itself will take me where it needs to go. I have to strike a balance, as if I were on a bike. Sometimes it even feels like I’m riding with no hands.
So I like to think of God that way, like me, but at the same time not like me at all. I like to think of God as an author writing the world. And in that writing, he’s present but divinely absent-minded too, somehow manifest but not at all embodied.
God the writer. He writes a world with all us characters in it. All of us. It’s not that he winds this story-world up and lets it go, as if it were a Newtonian script. No, writers have to keep writing to keep their stories going. But as any writer will tell you, those stories have a life of their own, a kind of creative free-will. And I have found recently that things go better with me when I pray to find some way to get in tune with the unfolding story—with my own and with the larger one, the multitudinous one I am just another piece of.
This is no guarantee, of course, that things won’t go wrong, that even terrible things won’t happen to me at some point when I’m living from this point of view. The way I look at it, all the characters in this story—God’s story—have free will. Speaking to this very same point, the writer Virginia Woolf once commented that nothing can be done about a drunk with a bat. Me, I’m not as fatalistic as all that—perhaps because I haven’t live through WWI and II in England, as Woolf did.
Nonetheless the drunks with bats are still out there, and the fact is that we often fail, for one reason or another to stop them. In the face of such possibilities, we might do well then to pray we’ll be able to duck in time.
But if it just so happens that we are not able to get out of harm’s way, then perhaps that will be the day we call on God the shepherd, God the healer. For I think that when God appears, she comes to us in the form we most need at that time.
Let me give you one more example. I once wrote a story about a bear who appeared to me at nightfall, silently challenging me to follow her up a mountainside. In the story—after some hesitation—I met her challenge and tore up the mountain, trying to catch up to her.
Now imaging God as manifested in this great mother bear had wonderful poetic implications for me. For this goddess could take me into her den, surrounding me there with the embracing warmth of her massive body. She could lick me down like the needy cub I was, she could send me off in the morning, reborn, my old skin shed.
Of course it was just a story. But it was more than that too. For though I never literally saw that bear, she was nonetheless a vision. And though I can’t tell you if that bear was a spirit guide, or a gift from what the Jungian psychologists call the collective unconscious or even just the result of hundreds of thousands of nerve cells firing in my brain, I can tell you that this divinely imaginary bear helped me change my life at a time when I badly needed to begin anew.
One dervish to another, What was your vision of God’s presence?
You may not be a dervish either—I bet you aren’t—and yet I am suggesting this morning that you let yourself become more aware of the ways God comes to you. Pay attention! Let your own visions, your own metaphors bubble up. Live with them. Notice how they live in you. Notice how they move.
For metaphors aren’t stagnant; they evolve. And it is through this transformative power that they transform us. So if God is your shepherd, leading you beside still waters, take a few minutes to enter that scene. Smell the water, feel the good ground under your feet, and let yourself be led.
Let yourself be led.
We can none of us know where our stories are going. But we can try to live in them more deeply. So if God is fire, throw yourself in a while. Burn a little. But if God is water, take a swim. Dive in, let your head break the surface. Pull yourself down as far as you can go, keeping your eyes open for sudden sparkles in the submerged trees. Let yourself slide down that mysterious green-dark slope. And trust that even in those times when you feel you are drowning, God—the source of your inspiration—will show you how to breathe.
Amen and blessed be.
— Hilary Mullins
Hilary Mullins lives in Vermont. She supports her writing habit by teaching college and cleaning windows and has been writing sermons for area churches since 2000. Besides her sermons and essays in NC and Vermont’s Seven Days, she has published a YA novel called The Cat Came Back.
Hi Hilary—A voice from a long ways back. Delighted to read your sermon, starting with the water metaphor. I just last night saw a performance of Mary Zimmerman’s staging of Ovid’s Metamorphosis, performed in lake of water. Most moving and beautiful transformations. Then your comments on metaphor itself. I’ve been very taken by W.V. Quine’s idea that metaphor comes first and literal use of language second. He says, for instance, “The neatly worked inner stretches of science are an open space in the tropical jungle, created by clearing tropes away.” I used his ideas in an essay (unpublished) on symbols. And living metaphors, or letting them live in you—that’s a wonderful idea. Thanks for this.
Hi Maggie, Very nice to hear you your response here! I don’t know W.V. Quine; am going to look him up. Thanks for the lead……
Hilary, please allow me to introduce myself. I’m a recent VCFA grad and someone who has written a couple of sermons, too. Thank you so much for this one. It was just what my soul needed today, and I felt these metaphors in my throat, chest, and gut. “One dervish to another”–and though I’m not really a dervish, I might be some kind of mystic or at least a contemplative writer. Fire, water, air/breath/wind, mother: these are some of the images I have for the creative Spirit. I like the bear, though. I really do.
Hi Anna Maria, Thanks for the kind words: I love the bear too! If I could, I would paste in here a photo I saw taped to the wall at the local market the other day: a bear up some hunter’s tree stand. Evidently, the hunter came post-season to take the stand down but when he saw the bear, decided he might just wait….
In any case, I’m more and more atuned to metaphor and just all one can do with them on the page.
And last but not least, read the What It’s Like piece you did with your husband: nice!
I’m smiling large at the thought of a bear up a hunter’s tree stand! Thanks for that image. Also, thanks for your kind comment on Steve’s and my piece.
Bravo, Hilary! It’s hard to locate you online, since I’ve discovered several other impostors with the same name (but definitely not you, since at least one is the girlfriend of an NFL quarterback). Loved what you had to say about metaphor (the subject of my own dissertation at Yale), and welcome back to the East Coast
Hi Mark! Glad to hear your response; glad to hear you are still out there. And yeah, the gal wih the quarterback? She’s definitely not me! Sorry to be so undiscoverable. You can reach me at email@example.com tho that address may change in the next while. Hope you are well and I’m glad you liked the piece–interesting to hear metaphor has been your own particular study too!