September 5, 2023
‘Between the Listening and the Telling: How Stories Can Save Us’
In this excerpt from his recent book, a writer and spiritual director describes the transformative power of sacred stories and why they are important to our individual and shared lives.
Chapter 11: Sacred Stories
The hard work of life is remembering. Remembering who you are, remembering how you want to be in the world, remembering where you last left the kids. Down through the centuries our ancestors have told and retold stories to help us find our way. Sacred stories that remind us of our true identity. Soul stories to encourage us to pursue our deepest yearnings for freedom. Told from one seeking heart to another, these sacred stories function like a lighthouse — guiding us away from the shallows, leading us toward the more gracious depths of who we are.
When asked why he spoke in parables, Jesus told his followers (as paraphrased by Anthony de Mello): The shortest distance between truth and a human being is a story. All wisdom traditions entrust stories to embody their deepest truths. The Bible is full of stories. The Bhagavad Gita is a story. The Buddha’s life teachings are embedded in story form. The life of Muhammad is transmitted through story. Jesus’s life and teachings are communicated through story.
Science is also a story that seeks to unveil reality and dispel illusion. Behind the doctrine, the rules, the rituals, and the institutions of all wisdom traditions, you find stories that not only seek to transmit teachings but invite a deeper, more liberating experience of the self and the world.
The power of stories to free us, whether religious or secular, depends on the integrity and compassion of the tellers and the openness of the listeners. The sacred stories of religion are often at first glance amusing relics, utter nonsense, even potentially destructive — unless they are shared by people who are knowledgeable and trustworthy. Only within the sacred bond of compassionate teller and seeking listener can we know a story’s worth. It is within that trusting container where we can give ourselves to the story. There we can expose our hurt and longing to its plotlines and allow the story to read us. There we can allow ourselves to enter the story. Not as fact. More than fact. As a way of seeing, as a gateway to peace, as a pathway home.
There we can allow ourselves to fall into the story’s rhythms and feel its truths. The same way we might give our body to the steps of a dance in order to feel its joy. Slow, slow, quick-quick, slow, quick-quick, slow, slow.
I was in a lost, longing-for-meaning place in my midtwenties. For about six months I could hardly sleep more than a handful of hours. All the repressed wounds of my childhood were radiating out from me like a high-grade fever. There was a terrifying emptiness gathering within me, a gnawing sense of worthlessness, and the only way I knew to address it was to stay busy and distract myself from the anxiety by working and working and working. I became mindlessly driven, physically ragged, deeply sleep deprived. My marriage suffered and my health deteriorated. I began to obsess about finding a new job, certain that different employment would give me some sense of peace.
It took a good friend and colleague to recognize my crisis was more than vocational. Tenderly, persistently, he convinced me to join him on a contemplative retreat at a Franciscan convent. I agreed — but only under the ridiculous stipulation that I could commute home each night to catch up on work.
There are parts of ourselves that can’t be known, places within us that can’t be accessed without a story. The week at the Franciscan convent was destabilizing. Full of silence, prayer, long periods of solitude, I was forced to feel the stark, despairing state I was in. I was lost and hurting and had no idea what to do. Every morning the retreat teacher gave a talk and then offered a spiritual practice. Each talk was based on a story that sought to uncover our deeper nature.
One morning he told us the story of the prodigal son, one of the parables of Jesus.
A man has two sons. The younger son is restless, impatient. He goes to his father and asks for his half of the inheritance. The father agrees. The son takes the money, heads into the nearby city, and eventually spends it all on parties, prostitutes, dissolute living. A famine descends upon the land. Broke, desperate, working for a pig farmer to feed himself, the young man decides to return home, apologize, and see if he might be hired as a farmhand — a much better life than his current state. While walking the road home, the father sees his son and takes off running. Before the younger son can fully apologize, the father embraces him, places his rings on his son’s fingers, and instructs the servants to prepare a celebration.
Meanwhile the elder son is out working in the fields. He hears music and revelry. He asks one of the field hands to investigate. “Your brother has returned,” the field hand reports. “Your father is throwing a celebration.” The elder brother is greatly triggered by this news. Filled with resentment, he refuses to join the party. The father hears the response of his eldest. He leaves the festivities, goes out into the fields, and begs his son to join the party. The elder son is indignant. He reminds his father of his loyalty, frugality, and hard work. How could he celebrate a son who has been so self-serving, disrespectful, and wasteful? The father feels compassion for his eldest boy. He reminds him everything else he has belongs to his eldest. The father adds, “But we had to rejoice because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life, was blind but now he sees.”
The retreat teacher invited us to personally interact with the parable. We were sent out to find a solitary place to meditate on the story, with instructions to try and see, hear, taste, smell, and feel the story as if we were there. He encouraged us to go wherever the meditation took us — allow ourselves to become one of the characters, place the story in a modern setting, or change the characters from a father and two sons to a mother and two daughters if helpful.
I found an empty basement classroom in the convent, sat alone in the dark, and as instructed, gave my imagination over to the story of the prodigal son. I saw the dust of the road, heard the goats and sheep in the nearby field. I saw the sons, the eldest responsibly and dutifully heading out to the fields, the younger son pacing, dissatisfied. As if it were an old home movie, I watched the story take place within me.
I have no idea how much time passed, but then something happened. Like a lucid dream, I fell into the story. I could smell the dry earth, feel the sun on my back, hear the distant laughter and music from a party. I was the elder brother. I felt depleted, isolated, hopeless, full of resentment — and then surprisingly, in the midst of this story-dreaming, I felt a visceral sense of overwhelming welcome, a sense of being held. An unburdening, a release, a compassionate embrace. I wept, and the aloneness and fear and sense of failure I had been carrying dissipated.
When I finally pulled myself together, I immediately wondered if I was having some kind of psychological breakdown. The experience was so powerful I thought I might be losing my mind. I went to find the retreat leader, Morton Kelsey, who was not only an Episcopal priest but also a trained psychotherapist of forty years. I assumed he would offer a diagnosis and recommend medication or therapy or possibly even some time in an institution.
Troubled and disoriented, I found Morton in the cafeteria and asked if he would meet with me. After evening prayer we found a quiet place to talk. I told him my experience of the meditation, fully expecting him to become alarmed. Instead he told me a story, one about growing up with a father who could be quite remote and demanding. He then asked me about my own upbringing, my relationship with my parents. I answered as best I could.
Then he told me a story about his first job. Back and forth we went, like village bells answering one another across a valley, with various experiences from our lives. Whatever note I struck in my story, he would strike a similar note, allowing me to feel heard and understood. For almost three hours we sat facing one another, telling stories, back and forth, back and forth, until there was a deeply felt connection. Eventually the hour became late, our words spent. Morton stood to leave, and I suddenly realized he had not answered my question.
“But what about the meditation? Was it a breakdown?”
“Well,” he said thoughtfully. “What do you think? We’ve been talking for hours. You seem calm. You’re speaking coherently. Your body seems relaxed. You don’t seem agitated in any way. It doesn’t appear to me you are having a psychotic break. Maybe it was something else? Maybe it was Divine Love. Maybe it was God.”
“There must always be two kinds of art,” writes poet W. H. Auden. “Escape art, for humans need escape as we need food and deep sleep, and parable art, the art which shall teach us to unlearn hatred and learn love.” My experience at the Franciscan convent is the sacred story of how I began to live from a deeper awareness of love and truth. It was the beginning of a healing season for me that included therapy, long talks with my wife, a commitment to spiritual practice, a different approach to work.
My friends who are secular humanists would tell it another way. They might describe my experience as a breakthrough of the unconscious or of transference of care from teacher to student. I’m okay with that. But since it is my sacred story, I tell it in the way that feels most true for me.
Your sacred story may have a different setting. Maybe it takes place at a bowling alley, a community center, a mountain lake, a grandmother’s kitchen, a desert plateau, a detention center, a Girl Scout camp. Maybe your story begins in divorce, the wake of grief, the ecstasy of nature, a quest for truth, a near-death experience, a restless longing for love. And in your story you might replace the Episcopal priest with a molecular biologist, a Holocaust survivor, a cognitive therapist, a Buddhist nun, a Native American elder, the old guy who lived next door. And in your story, instead of a Jesus parable, there might be a conversation about galaxies, a pilgrimage to your mother’s home village, a letter from a trusted friend, a mindfulness practice, a month of solitude in a Minnesota cabin, a heartfelt conversation with your best friend’s father, a stranger’s confession in an AA group.
There is a depth to story that we rarely take time to ponder, let alone to tell and hear. Story is how we transform pain. Story is how we make something useful out of the absurd. A sacred story is a love letter expanding your heart with kindness. A sacred story is a treasure box filled with images of what matters most. A sacred story is a map, passed down through generations, directing you toward a fountain of truth. A sacred story is a medicine, a balm to relieve your fear and suffering. A sacred story is an angel in the night. A sacred story is a window that offers perspective. Sometimes a sacred story is a shield, a protector, a source of courage and love. Sometimes your sacred story is what gives you strength to face the real and present dangers of our world. Sometimes your sacred story spends years searching for you, trailing you through all your harried days, cornering you in some blue fluorescent rehab center, looking you in the eye, and saying, “Okay, here’s the truth.”
What are the images, the moments, the stories on which your soul meditates? What are the stories that remind you to unlearn hatred and receive love? Nigerian author Ben Okri declared, “We live by stories. We also live in them. One way or another, we are living the stories planted in us early or along the way, or we are also living the stories we planted — knowingly or unknowingly — in ourselves. We live stories that either give our lives meaning or negate it with meaninglessness. If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly, we change our lives.”
Are the stories that shape you death dealing or life giving? Do the stories you hold as sacred heal, or do they exacerbate the suffering? Do they bring out your loving nature, do they cultivate freedom? Or do they bum you out, make you more afraid, anxious, resentful, and bitter? What are the stories you hold as sacred, the ones you tell your children, the ones you want remembered at your funeral? And are they any good?
Reprinted with permission from “Between the Listening and the Telling: How Stories Can Save Us,” by Mark Yaconelli, copyright © 2022 Broadleaf Books.