As I have been contemplating this week’s post, there has been a voice in my head saying:
The stories are getting in the way!
I have thinking that this was the voice of God, and feeling a little guilty because of my resistance; I have continued to read another chapter or five of the fiction book I had picked up, or watch another couple of episodes of Grimm. I have no television, but my daughter has a Netflix account, so occasionally I succumb when I am tired, stressed or ill. I try to keep it to films, because they are complete within themselves, and box sets lure me in and I become immersed in them. I am the same way with fiction, so I usually save that kind of reading for the holidays. I bought three fiction books last weekend and I have already read two of them and the holidays have only begun. Oops.
As I was making breakfast the other morning, and thinking about the post I was trying to write and not feeling it flow, again I heard the voice:
The stories are getting in the way! You are never going to get your post written, you have nothing to say.
I noticed how jarring the voice was, how critical: water on a stone. And then I listened for the softer, gentler, more loving sound, the drop of water on the sponge.
The stories you have engaged with are about stories. It is all about the story.
So here is a different post to the one I had planned to write. I loved fairy tales when I was a child, and I was a voracious reader. The Grimm’s tales haunted me, they were indeed grim, with their darkness, coldness and cruelty. One time when I was talking to my spiritual director about getting lost in a book, he asked me what kind of books drew me? Rather than criticise myself for being distracted by the story, it was more to notice what it was that attracted me to what I was reading, or watching. I thought about it and realised that I was drawn to fantasy and it was about swords, magic and dragons. The fantasy genre typically has an underdog, often with unknown or hidden – even from themselves – identity, with supernatural powers, who ends up becoming a saviour, a hero. In my preferred stories, there is some moral ambiguity, something to wrestle with – the villains have redeeming qualities and the heroes have weaknesses.
I notice the parallels: a poor baby born in a stable – the underdog; the supernatural power – the miracles of Jesus; in Celtic spirituality, dragons accompanied God, so here, disciples; and of course the sword that pierced His side, or even the sword as symbol for the cross. In my mind there is always the mystery, the question – did Jesus always know His identity or was it something He had to grow into? In my prayer experience of the second week of the exercises, it was something He discovered, but I am not trained in theology, so I am not offering that as an answer, simply a description of my prayer experience.
In the book I have just finished, Strange The Dreamer by Laini Taylor, there is a key turning point where our hero, Lazlo Strange, a lowly librarian with a very vivid imagination and dreams, steps out of himself in a heartfelt plea to the warrior strangers to take him with them to the land he has always dreamt of, and where they are from. The recommendation he makes for himself, much to the palpable disapproval of his society is:
I know a lot of stories.
His words had come spilling out in answer to his own question:
Who am I ? What do I have to offer?
His self doubt came rushing in as soon as the words left his mouth: his adversary laughed, but the head of the warriors did not. They took Lazlo with them.
As a spiritual director, I listen to other people telling me their story, and it is the story of their own relationship with God. I listen for where He is moving and working in their stories, for where there is connection and transformation in response to that connection. I also listen out for the touch of that opposed to God, the critical voice, the self doubt; where the volition is to disrupt, to spoil and to slow down the movement towards God, in an effort to reverse it completely. I am aware when I am listening that it is not my story, but nevertheless, when I recognise the presence of God in the story of the person in front of me, it moves me and quite literally brings me out in goosebumps.
No, I tell you this because I was told to tell it – by what you might call ‘ a higher authority’ – and truth is, the thought of how to tell it has taxed me for so many years.Miss Garnet’s Angel, Salley Vickers
As for my own story, I am telling of it here, in these pages. My tales are infused with my prayer and lived experience of God: the images I think in all tell of my history with Him as it has built up and ingrained itself in my memory. It is also His story, because He is at the centre of it, He is the reason for it.
And so to “the reason for the season”, as a popular caption appears at this time every year, it is part of His story, retold at Carol services, school nativity plays, at church every year. The Incarnation – His story, His intervention in our world. It is easy to grow cynical and bored with the familiar, to allow the commercialisation of Christmas to distract from and corrupt what is there at the heart of it. I remember one Christmas when I was a teenager I decided not to “do Christmas” because I felt it to be commercialised and that it had lost its meaning. It was honestly the worst Christmas I have ever experienced, because even though I sang the carols and went to mass, I had missed the whole point: love, plain and simply, love. My family had respected my rebellion and had not expected any presents from me, or complained about the lack thereof, but they had not responded in kind: they gave gifts as they would have, unconditionally, and did not alter their behaviour in any way. I was moved by their generous response to my rebellion and I was miserable. If you really do not believe that it is better to give than to receive, try not giving in one of those places where we are encouraged to stop and remember those we love especially, and notice how it feels. For me, it did not feel like an emotional blackmail at my failure to conform to social convention, it felt like a missed opportunity. No more Grinch for me.
The story of the Incarnation illustrates the generosity of God: He does not hold back in His gift giving. One of my friends once told me that at mass, she had had the sense that God was listening to His story being told and that He loves it: He never tires of hearing us tell it. It reminds me of the scene from The Shack, where during dinner Mack has been telling the Holy Trinity about his family, and he comments that God knows all of this anyway. Sarayu (The Holy Spirit) replies by saying words to the effect of:
Yes, but we like to see it through your eyes.
In Ignatian Spirituality, one of the great gifts to prayer is imaginative contemplation. To enter into scripture as if we were there, to bring God into our bodies as it were, allows us to participate in God’s story and allows God to participate in our story in a way that is up close and personal. By using our memory and imagination, the first power of the soul, the story becomes real within us: it is no fantasy. God moves from being transcendent to being intimate, He comes alive within us. My story becomes His story, and His story becomes my story. It is the story of the Incarnation. To share our stories with each other is relationship and it is as true for God as is it for our family and friends. Far from getting in the way, stories draw us in, and God is to be found in the story.