How can living illustrate being?
This question is constantly nudging the artist in me. I find myself exploring human situations for their metaphorical value and for what I recognize as the therapy hidden there. My mission doesn't interfere with my art as long as it goes on emerging from the humanity rather than the rhetoric of Christian concern.
Today the artist with integrity must be equally conscious that his art does not interfere with his mission. With growth, that mission is directed more and more naturally to the regenerative properties of his work. Art that regenerates naturally, purely, does so less by what is said than by the manner of the ''saying.'' I'm thinking of the therapy of beauty. My Greek lexicon tells me that therapeia means ''a waiting on or service . . . a fostering or nurturing.'' The definition goes on to include cultivating, caring, and even divine worship.
But this is not a discussion of devotional art or literature. The purist may hesitate before Ruskin's research into moral beauty vis-a-vis aesthetics, yet I don't think he will quarrel with these words of William Stafford: There are people on a parallel way: I do not see them often, or even think of them often, but it is precious to me that they are sharing the world. Something about how they have accepted their lives, or how the sunlight happens to them, helps me to hold the strange, enigmatic days in line for my own living . . . .
The inescapable humanity of these lines turns me again to my opening question: How can living illustrate being? Perhaps this kind of ''illustrating'' is beginning to happen as the moral truths hiding in human experience are gracefully and memorably drawn out. Which brings me to the parable. The humanity of the parable is a fine gauze through which the living light continues to filter. The parable's caring, its gentle scolding and insistent fostering, make up its therapy. And in no hands was this instrument more regeneratively, more poetically employed, than in the hands of Jesus.
Each parable's message captures the living that illustrates being as it is allowed to enter our contemporary awareness and there to become seminal. No rhetoric or moralizing trespasses upon its precincts. Jesus' artistry here lies in his mastery of the situational: through the warp of humanity he fashions his rare illustrations of being, and with flawless touch turns a moral lesson into a thing of beauty. Pure didactics as aesthetics. And throughout the fabric he is working with, threads of spiritual light are found ingeniously interwoven.
Take his shortest parable, in Matthew 21. Matthew begins with the quick responses of two sons to their father's request to work in his vineyard. ''I will not,'' answers the first one - then changes his mind to make of repentance something quite lovely because it is so totally unexpected. ''I go, sir,'' answers the second son - and doesn't: for him, today is too soon.
So teaching, art, and therapy are one in Jesus' hands. Human situations are so shaped to his sublime purpose that humanity never ceases to be the warp through which he continues to weave his mission . . . It is in the highest sense that his own human life is a parable.
I liked the way Steven Ratiner in a recent essay about Robert Frost on this page referred to something like the deepening of human experience. It is a deepening which spiritual perception alone makes visible. ''In the simplest human acts,'' he writes, ''a measure of choice and dramatic discovery is portrayed. The missing element for most individuals is the eye to appreciate and the voice to celebrate the hidden dimensions of experience . . . .'' For me, it is the parable that provides that eye and that voice.
And I think one can look at this page in the light of what parables do. I cherish the humanhood that looms out of this page. It is daily ''drawing out the moral truths hidden in human experience''. . . touching their ''hidden dimensions.''
In love with living, we learn, then, to sound out the parables about us. This is the stuff of ministry. It's a ministry whose therapeia is intuitively sought after by Christian and non-Christian alike. After all, our days are for living in . . . . And our lives are long green prayers which go on being wondered and wandered in . . . .