Metaphor and Sacrament

by Robert Jones

Mr. Jones is pastor of the Buerneville and Monte Rio Community churches in California.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, June 1, 1983 pp. 547-549. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


If sacrament depends on Word becoming flesh, then metaphor depends on flesh becoming word. Our problem is that we have gotten stuck on a theory of substances — transubstantiation, consubstantiation — rather than looking into the nature of language and the ways meanings are made.

As a text I used Theory of Literature, by Rene Wellek and Austin Warren (Harcourt, Brace, 1956). The students wouldn’t read it. Those were bad days for the theory of anything. But in that book I came across a sentence that has anchored my intellectual life ever since: "The four basic elements in our whole conception of metaphor would appear to be that of analogy; that of double vision; that of sensuous image, revelatory of the imperceptible; that of animistic projection" (p. 197). That is to say, there are four basic ways of using language to make connections and meanings. These may have waxed and waned with fashion, taste, culture, perhaps even with scientific or political necessity, but over the centuries of human speech these four ways of metaphor have emerged and remained.

Upon reading the sentence, my mind went immediately to my seminary course on the sacraments. Wasn’t I told that four basic theories of the sacraments had arisen in the church, each grounded in the history and theology of a particular way of faith? There is the Roman Catholic theory of "transubstantiation," in which the bread and wine are said to become the body of Christ in actual identification. Then there is Luther’s idea of "consubstantiation," in which Christ’s body and blood are thought to be present "in, with and under" the sacramental elements, a parallelism or double vision. Calvin taught that while the body and blood of Christ are not locally present in the sacrament, they are spiritually present through faith, which can reveal much more than one can see. And finally, the Anabaptist position said that the sacraments were just symbols or analogies for the body and blood of Christ, clearly the most rational view.

The four ways poets use metaphor and the four ways the church has understood the sacraments correspond to each other almost exactly. I believe we are looking at something basic to human communication and basic to our ways of knowing and expressing reality. George Santayana said, "Poetry and religion are one." The correspondence between metaphor and sacrament would tend to bear him out. The means of grace and the figures of speech seem to operate in the same four ways.

In Chaucer’s great poem Troilus and Criseyde we have magnificent examples of parallel metaphor. The positions of the stars in the heavens reflect the fortunes of the heroes in the story, even while the two realms never merge. The same kind of situation is present in William Snodgrass’s "Heart’s Needle," a complicated poem which speaks of a divorce and of the war in Vietnam in such a way that the two themes remain side by side, each serving as counterpoint to the other. It is a common device and can be suggestive and powerful.

Poetry is full of the third type of metaphor, the sensuous image which pushes us to see what we have not seen. William Butler Yeats’s "Sailing to Byzantium" not only sings, it seeks to reveal a new vision of meaning in the artifacts and riches of the Byzantine civilization. More accessible to us, perhaps, are Robert Frost’s "Mending Wall" or "The Road Not Taken," in which the well-rendered and fully developed images of ordinary things reveal our own experiences and attitudes to us. There is mystery here, but not complete identity.

Wellek and Warren call the fourth type of metaphor "animistic projection." I take issue with the term, though I support its intention. "Animism" has been used by cultural anthropologists to describe the religion of primitive peoples. The term relies on the assumption that a primitive person sees a tree, has a concept of spirit, and puts the two together. What seems to be the case, however, is that the primitive mind is dominated by vast networks of collective notions in which all is spirit, all matter, all miracle. It is a world in which absolute identities exist, a world in which utterances can call objects into being, a world in which reasoned analysis is barely necessary or possible. This is the world of the fourth kind of metaphor. I call it the metaphor of absolute identity.

To my mind, it is this fourth type of metaphor which gets closest to expressing the mystery of divine grace. In the work of writers like William Carlos Williams, things become present in words. For him and his followers, the poem does not so much say something as mean something through what it is. "The poem creates its own world of virtual reality," says Suzanne Langer. The poem becomes a metaphor of itself, a sacrament of the world it creates. If sacrament depends on Word becoming flesh, then metaphor depends on flesh becoming word. The two processes are that close.

Williams’s short poem ‘‘The Red Wheelbarrow" selects the wheelbarrow, some white chickens and rain, and arranges them in sixteen ordinary words. It gives a clear, particular perception and little more. The poem bids us stand within its world; and we do. Something new has been created by the act of naming it. To me, this is not only how the fourth kind of metaphor works, it is also the deepest way we experience the sacraments. We enter the reality the sacrament creates.

You may suspect that I, a Protestant, am coming out in favor of a rather Roman Catholic view of the sacraments, that I am urging us toward the least rational approach to the means of grace. If so, you are right. For all the value of rigorous thought, there are times when we need to let it go -- not forever, not even for very long, but for a brief season while we are in the presence of such mysteries as the sacraments. We should not invoke our mysteries too early in theological discussion, lest we have nothing to say. But when we honestly come upon them, when we are face to face with the Word become flesh, the most radical acceptance of the words as they are spoken is what is called for. "This is my body broken for you."

Our problem is that we have gotten stuck on a theory of substances -- transubstantiation, consubstantiation -- rather than looking into the nature of language and the ways meanings are made. I hear there have even been chemical analyses done on the sacramental elements in order to prove this or that. God help us. What violence is thereby done to a metaphor or a sacrament! Poets have always brought incongruous things together, creating new realities of thought and word and deed. Our metaphors and sacraments need not be amenable to chemical or any other kind of analysis. They need only be powerful and real, pleasing and helpful, guides for our wandering minds, warmth for our coldness of heart.

I am always impressed, when I attend a Roman Catholic mass, at how the altar boys hold a special dish under the chins of the communicants to catch the wafer should it fall, or to catch any crumbs that might drop while the wafer is being bitten into and chewed. I also notice how the priest takes care of the chalice, wiping it, folding the cloth, wiping again in an effort to make sure that not a particle of what has now become Christ’s body and blood is left to lie around on the altar. What an appreciation for the thingness of it all! What a demonstration of how deeply certain utterances can affect us and our world! I believe that if at the most sacred point in the liturgy we hear the words "This is my body broken for you . . . ," then by the grace of God who gives us life and language, we ought to receive that piece of bread as being Christ’s body, impossible though it is, irrational though it is, distasteful though it may seem. It is only impossible, irrational and distasteful if we resist the power of metaphoric speech.

Finally, this fourth mode of metaphor and sacrament rests more firmly than the others on the premise that all things are intrinsically one. Within the mystic oneness there must be a way to grapple with the obvious diversities we experience. There must always be room for all the figures of speech to operate. But there must also be times and places when and where the pull of diversity is set aside in favor of truth’s essential coherence. Our view of the sacraments must not prevent that from happening. After all, the church’s preaching also depends on the bringing together of incongruous realities. Do we not say that darkness is really light, sadness a phase of joy, surrender the way of freedom, weakness a form of strength, and death finally life? We can say these things because language allows us to express unities we may not have experienced. These unities rest, abide in and gather us to the one true, holy and everlasting God. And so, for the Word and the ways of words, all praise.