Recently I found out that I am as much subject to using clichés as anyone else.
Listen to this. I was speaking to my sister who was telling me about her recent experiences in their gospel reflection group. They were reading the resurrection appearance stories, just after Easter, and they began to wonder about who these ‘men in whiter’ might be.
Well, as soon as I heard the phrase ‘men in white’, I immediately went, in thought, to the commentaries. There they say “Any reference to people in white is a reference to either angels or baptism candidates’. That was going to be my ‘stock answer.’
But wisely, I did not say anything till she had finished speaking.
Then my sister said “So we were thinking about what function these ‘men in white’ had in the story. They acted like guides to the bewildered disciples. They helped them to understand the meaning of the events that they were witnessing”. So then we got to thinking about ‘Well, who are the ‘men in white’ for us? This led to some productive thinking, and the identification of people and things tat guide us.”
Well I was surprised and appreciated this insight that my sister had shared a great deal.
So listening to this story put me in mind of the way in which I ‘run to a cliché in order to simply ‘have something’ that stops me from thinking about a thing with fresh eyes, or for a second time.
I am reminded of the book that I have used called ‘Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain’.
The thesis of the book is that up to about twelve years of age, we really look at the world, and within the limitations of our age, draw what we see. Gradually we build up an internal ‘library’ of what things look like.
This means that when someone says ‘draw a house’ we draw a box with windows and a door with a chimney. But we don’t draw any given actual house. But at twelve, we want our drawings to look more like the real thing, so we keep trying.
The problem is that the ‘library’ of possibilities that we have is so rich and dominant, that it is impossible not to drag one out for what ever we want to draw. Not being ale to circumvent the library, we give up.
So the book suggests that we need ways of making things look strange again, so that we can really look at them. We had to turn things upside down, or draw them without looking at the paper.
This actually works, and reminds me of an other practice that I have done called ‘Zen Seeing’.
So this is what happened to me when I was listening to my sister. They had come up with a new way of seeing this story. I was still in my ‘library function’.
I am also reminded of another book called ‘Power in the Helping Professions.’ Here the author says that in the helping professions, we also have our ways of defending ourselves against some unpleasant, and sometimes ugly truth about ourselves. He says hat we are so good at rationalising that we need relationships that do not respect our ‘position’(like those with children) to unsettle us, so that our defences against a new way of looking at things can be lowered.
So again, the idea that growth or refreshment comes through a breaking of the clichés is reflected not only in art, but in the field of being a ‘helper’ too.
Think of all the Robyn Williams films (‘Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poets Society, Patch Adams) that tell the story of people who were able to bring new life to staid institutions because they were prepared to look at things in a different way.
I am also thinking about how a person’s faith grows up. In the beginning we get images o Go from the bible stories which express the Fathering of God, and the wonder of being alive and so on. But then these images do not satisfy us as we get past the teenage years.
They need re-working, they need us to look at them again in order to understand them as adults. It is in this way that images an d stories about God can speak to us again, just as my sister found.
The sad thing is that many both in he church and outside of it, do not do this work. Consequently many leave the church at the spot where a re-looking is what is needed.
The same is true of us in the church. Following Jesus means a regular attempt to open ourselves up to new ways of looking at the Scriptures, to thinking about the whole library of images that we have been given.
To do that, we also need to b e in regular contact with people who will do this with us.
Maybe this is what St. Paul meant when he (could have) said “The cliché brings death, but the Spirit (who is a winnowing fire) brings life.