Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Parables and worlds

I promised that I would have a lot to say about the passage, "The whole world is like one big parable," and I like to keep my promises.

In the atrium, when meditating on Jesus' parables, I explain to the older children (the younger ones already know about this and haven't forgotten it yet) that a parable is like a set of Russian nesting dolls. When you open the first beautiful doll, inside you find another one, even more richly decorated than the last; however, with a parable, there is no final, tiny doll in the center, rather the number of times one can open a parable and find something even richer inside is infinite. This year Lizzie, a girl in the atrium, said, "Maybe it's like starting from the center, and each time you get to the next doll, it's bigger and more beautiful, and they just keep getting bigger and you never end...until the whole world is filled up!" Another girl, Michaela, added, "It's even bigger than the world, so the last of all the dolls wouldn't just fill the world, it would fill...infinity."

So, what is a parable?

The parable is a literary text, a method of teaching. It is the method that Jesus used to teach others about his real identity. There are many ways of teaching, but what is significant for us is that Jesus himself used parables for a particular reason.
There is something perplexing to us in the history of catechesis. How is it that when we seek to convey the message of Christ, which he did using parables, we often use the definitional method? Definition and parable are poles apart. How is it possible to define any person, let alone the person of God? How can I describe a person by locking the description in as few words as possible? Still less, how can I do this when speaking of the person of God, by trying to clarify in a few, clear and precise words the mystery of God?
The Gospel follows a different path, the way of parables. The parable method presupposes that we recognize that we cannot exhaust what the parable is proposing, precisely because the parable hides what it wishes to teach. The parable is a type of approximation because we cannot attain a terse definition of whom Christ is, we cannot explain in only a few words what is meant in the Gospel about the Kingdom of God. We have a great difficulty in appreciating this.
The Gospel speaks of the Kingdom of God in many parables that present many points of view. If we used the method of definition we would have to keep all these parables in mind at once...
There is a limitation, which is not restricted to the religious field, to a method that wants only to define or delimit. If we look around ourselves, how many things are we really able to define? ...we can understand and explain facts about nature, but we cannot explain the human person in the same manner. How much less is this possible for the person of God? If there is always something about the human person that goes beyond a precise "definition", then how much more is this true when speaking of God?
The intent of a parable is to conceal, not because the author does not know how to be clear, but because there is a consciousness of the inability to exhaust a parable's meaning, which is only reached little by little. The parable challenges us and reminds us that we can never entirely discover its depths. A particularity of the parable is that it always remains open. The definition encloses and thus closes the door to any further probing; the parable remains always open, available for further penetration and awareness. ...there are always greater and newer things to be found.

The Nature of a Parable

A parable is comprised of an action, a fact; sometimes it is so simple as to seem banal, as in the case of a woman baking bread, nevertheless it is an action which is inexhaustible in its meaning. The parable’s significance extends beyond the action; it is like a façade, which hides a large house. If we stop only to look at the house we will certainly see little, but if we enter through the opening and walk around there will be much discovering awaiting us.
This is also the way to discover the real meaning of a parable. We must not stop at the surface, such as a woman baking bread; instead, we need to enter the house, so to speak, and walk around it in silence and reverence. [...] In the same way, the parable may be said to be an invitation to search...
A parable always has different levels: the ordinary, and also the metaphysical level, which goes beyond our physical senses. A parable takes an element of everyday life and juxtaposes this with a more metaphysical element. Take the example of the parable of the leaven or yeast, in which the Kingdom of God is said to be like a woman baking bread. In placing these two elements together, the impact of their juxtaposition is enlightening for us, illuminating the real message of the parable. There is a flash of light that reveals a new significance, in which the distant concept of the Kingdom of God and the common experience of making bread combine to produce a new revelation of reality.
The parable takes a little incident of daily life and makes it into a sign or indication pointing to a higher reality. Parables lead us to pause awhile to consider a woman making bread, a mustard seed, a pearl, and move us to seek for another meaning. It takes care on our part to understand the parables; by “understanding” is meant more than the solely rational and intellectual sense...
...An image in a parable needs no translation; although it may be translated from one language into another, an image still remains an image, a shepherd is a shepherd. The spirit of a parable is in its aesthetic character, which we need to discover and engage in to discover its meaning.
...A parable explained is no longer a parable. If the parable does not wish to state clearly the meaning of what it wishes to teach, then there is a reason.
A parable conceals not for lack of clarity, but because it is its nature, method and character. If we try to explain it, something of its soul dies, because a parable by its very nature always remains open to new discoveries and interpretations. The day on which a parable is “explained” it becomes fixed, like a pinned butterfly that can no longer fly.
...We contemplate the parables, rather than clarifying them. Contemplation is always open, whereas explanation ties down and limits. We need to live with the parables, staying close to the text, turning them over in our mind, yet without arriving at the point of saying, “this is what the parable means”. There are always old elements to be illumined and new ones to enlighten us. When, however, we say, even to ourselves, “the parable means this”, then how can we free ourselves from that definition or explanation, and continue to probe into and ponder the parable? There is a whole world in a parable. (from a meditation given by Sofia Cavalletti and translated by Patricia Coulter)

So, if there is a whole world in a parable, how can the whole world be a parable? And if it is so much work to try to understand a small, simple parable, how can we approach the world as a whole, complex and filled with contradictions, as a parable, and hope to make any sense out of it? Well, I say, let's forget the objections and dive in! Our working hypothesis is that the parable of the world, in all its detail and our every experience of it, demonstrates God. Let us see what we shall see!

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Dumbstruck by the Mystery

...our temptation is always to impose our prejudices or our measure on reality -- except when we are faced with a fact that leaves us dumbstruck, and instead of dominating the fact ourselves, we are dominated, overcome by it. If there were no moments of this kind, the Mystery could do anything, but in the end, we would reduce everything to the usual explanation. But not even a Nobel Prize winner can stop himself from being dumbstruck before an absolutely gratuitous gesture. If there were not these moments, we would find answers, explanations, and interpretations to avoid being struck by anything. It is good that some things happen that we cannot dominate, then we have to take them seriously, and this is the great question of philosophy. If the conditions for the possibility of knowledge (see Kant) impose themselves on reality or if there is something that is so powerfully disproportionate that it does not let itself be "grasped" by the conditions of possibility, then the horizon opens. If this were not the case, then we could dominate everything and be in peace, or at least without drama. Instead, not even the intelligence of a Nobel Prize winner could prevent him from coming face-to-face with a fact that made him dumbstruck -- instead of dominating, it was he who was dominated. Here begins the drama, because I am called to answer. It is the drama that unfolds between us and the Mystery, through certain facts, certain moments, in which the Mystery imposes itself with this evidence. These are facts that we cannot put in our pocket, which we cannot reduce to antecedent factors.
-- Julian Carron in "Friends, that is, Witnesses."