Metaphors in the Catechetical Imagination

Christ and his Church have always used metaphors to fashion and to articulate meaning, to express the inexpressible presence of God, and to communicate his truths,[1] such as “I am the good shepherd” (Jn 10:11, 14).

The National Directory of Catechesis [NDC] has taken the lead in urging catechists to use metaphors. [2] The NDC advocates metaphors because Christ taught that way. So did the early Church. On their face, metaphors and similes compare one thing or idea with a seemingly different thing. But they are much more than fancy figures of speech. Examining how the Church has used metaphors can teach and transform how contemporary catechists do likewise.

Why Metaphors are Made for Catechesis

First, metaphors are fundamental, cognitive software through which we map our world, make decisions, and understand ourselves, others and God. We all naturally think and talk using metaphors. So does the Bible, Christ, and the Church.

Metaphors (and similes) create associations between seemingly unrelated images, memories, and ideas; they form “maps” by which we understand life, express our thoughts, and make memories. Metaphors are a gift from God and lie at the heart of learning and, of course, of catechesis. After all, Jesus could have simply said, “I am a caring protector of my disciples.” Instead, he said, “I am the good shepherd.” In using this metaphor, he engages us in the process of associating and combining personal images in new, different, and unexpected ways. In so doing, metaphors construct new cognitive pathways that prepare our minds to incorporate the new teachings and life in which Jesus calls us to participate. Through metaphors we can imagine “the Kingdom of God” (Mk 4, Mt 13, etc.), or what drinking from “the living water” (Jn 7) might feel like. Metaphors pour new ideas and experiences into new mental frameworks. Metaphors aren’t just a new way of talking; they produce new patterns of experiencing.

Second, metaphors have the distinctive ability to help us “leap across the abyss” of our own experience and meaning into transcendent meaning.[3] The early Church teachers didn’t use metaphors to be eloquent or rhetorical. They used metaphors to build faith and teach doctrine. The NDC recognizes that “knowledge” is not just reciting for the test (§128). Nor is “knowing” simply memorizing. Catechesis seeks to not only to “have” the content of faith, but to “interiorize” and to “live” it. Metaphors give students a way to articulate the reality of God in their lives and to feel his powerful impacts.

In a study of Catholic young people, metaphors were found to be important in providing a foundational image of God and the Church in their lives.[4] Such metaphors were uniformly positive and included images of a warm and loving God who is intimate and active in their lives. Inviting metaphors invites people into a deeper faith.

Third, metaphors can express the inexpressible. Words make feelings “real.” But how can we reveal our deepest feelings or express our gratitude to God if we have no way to express those feelings? Catechists prepare students to express and to share their faith and to prepare the mind for “[discovery] of the mysterious action of God in their lives” (NDC §85). Metaphors neither explain away nor gloss over such mysteries. They highlight them. They invite students to enter into an ineffable historic and eternal faith.

The Metaphorical Imagination Applied to the Catechetical Imagination

Catechists are artists. We use available material to create ways of thinking about our faith in terms that are at times lovely, challenging, and vivid. Pope Francis used a “field hospital” metaphor to describe the Church. He said, “I see clearly that the thing the Church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the Church as a field hospital after battle.”[5]

This rich metaphor can be applied to teach students about the role of the Church and how they can participate in its life. The catechist could ask students:

What role in the “field hospital” do I play?

What “operating tools” do I possess to accomplish my task?

Exactly who are my “patients”?

What is the “battle” from which my “wounded” patients arrive?


Metaphors are the silent partner in catechesis. They appear so often in Church teachings and the Bible that they seem invisible. Yet, they yield rich rewards. They form structures of meaning, purpose, values, and identity, and they animate our prayer life, evangelism, and knowledge of the faith.

Featured Photo: Lawrence Lew, OP; CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0.

[1] See Jeanne Peloso, “The Theological Anthropology of Young Adult Catholics in Post-Modern America” in Pastoral Psychology, 61 (2012), 233–243. See also James Geary, I Is An Other (New York: HarperCollins, 2011). Geary’s book gives due credit to George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s work in Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003).

[2] United States Conference of Catholic Bishops [USCCB], National Directory for Catechesis [NDC] (Washington, D.C.: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2005). §140 specifically lists metaphors as one of Christ’s ways of teaching and encourages us to use “all the resources of interpersonal communication, such as word, silence, metaphor, image, example, and many diverse signs as was the case with the biblical prophets…” (emphasis added).

[3] Sallie McFague, Metaphorical Theology: Models of God in Religious Language (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982); cited in Jeanne Peloso, “Adult Images of God: Implications for Pastoral Counseling” in Journal of Pastoral Counseling, 43 (2008), 15–30.

[4] See Donna M. Orange, “Speaking the Unspeakable: ‘The Implicit,’ Traumatic Living Memory, and the Dialogue of Metaphors” in International Journal of Psychoanalytic Self Psychology, 6 (2011), 187–206.

[5] Pope Francis and Antonio Spadaro, SJ, “A Big Heart Open to God,” in America (September 30, 2013).


Ronald K. Bullis

Ronald K. Bullis has taught Old and New Testaments for over twenty years and writes on the role of narratives in law and religion.

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