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Saturday, June 24, 2023

TELL ME A STORY: The power to hear and understand

By:   Barbara Cleary
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TELL ME A STORY: The power to hear and understand

Recently my catechism class and I had a discussion about Father’s comments on the Good Shepherd (the Mass of the previous week), and what He does that a “standard shepherd” does not do. Father illustrated this by telling two stories: one about a shepherd whose flock was stolen, and how he was able to recover all of them from a pasture of sheep in numbers upward of several hundred (likely stolen as well) simply by calling to them. The sheep heard his voice in spite of the noises around them.

The second story pertained to a shepherd who, as he moved through his flock encountered an odor so foul it could make a person sick. He had a wounded and sick animal he needed to tend.

Isolating the infected sheep, the shepherd took great care to clean the wound, treat the infection, and then released it back into the fold. The process took a long time.shepherd and sheep

As the students were invited to share their thoughts about the sermon, the biggest takeaway from them centered on the stories Father shared. After a few minutes of typical comments about the stinking sheep and gross maggots, and “I have called my dog and no matter what name I use, it always comes” they settled down to the point.

They were able to recognize the ideas Father was making about hearing the Voice of Christ, the Good Shepherd (“I know My sheep and Mine know Me”), and how we need to pay attention because there are other voices (of the world, the flesh, and the devil) that attempt to drown out or even silence It.

They recognized from the second story how Christ cares for His flock, and sometimes He needs to have us go through difficult things in order to make us better. He is always there to give us what we need.

Stories connect us to memories, illustrate a point, teach, and yes, entertain. It is a golden moment when a story can do all four.

And sometimes hirelings, “whose sheep they are not”, will not care so much about what happens to the sheep in their care to the point of running away when a wolf attacks.

But the Good Shepherd loves his sheep so much that he would do whatever it takes to protect them and keep them.

What is so powerful about hearing stories, anyway?

As a grade school student, I relished the times (usually after the noon recess) when our teacher would have all of us in our seats and she (usually a nun) would bring out a book and we would listen to her read a story.

Sometimes it was a story about one of the saints; other times an adventure story or a mystery. It didn’t make any difference: We would come into the classroom waiting to hear the next chapter of whatever was the current read.

Topics that would have never interested me suddenly came to life. Not that I would ever put any time, money, or energy into it, but I can say that whatever it is I know and understand about mountain climbing I owe to a book I heard in sixth grade.

mountain climbing

Geoffrey Berwind, according to Forbes, is a foremost expert on how to use the power of stories to make beneficial connections to audiences. He believes that stories “uniquely build powerful emotional connections”. They make dry topics (for me mountain climbing) interesting. He says stories “tap primal parts of our brain to paint  pictures, establish rapport and inspire others to take action”. It is part of being human:

How long have humans been around? As long as there have been campfires, humans have gathered around them and conveyed their view of the world through the use of stories. Stories are a “shared experience,” and I believe we are hard-wired to receive information primarily through storytelling. Stories trigger the ancient human muscle of the imagination.

It makes sense. Stories connect us to memories, illustrate a point, teach, and yes, entertain. It is a golden moment when a story can do all four. My Catechism students, for example, will not forget that if they are unfortunate enough to spend eternity among the damned, it will be their own fault simply because of a story a Redemptorist priest told about himself and a “yellow Lamborghini”.

The Master Storytellers

Soon after I was married, we moved to a small rural town in western Kansas. Tim was to complete a year of general practice there in exchange for the year he spent training at the University of Kansas Medical School, and “wither thou goest, I will follow”.

The town had a population of about 1,800, and in 1983 there was not much to do socially speaking — especially when it was a cold and snowy January and no one ventured out except for essentials. I didn’t know anyone anyway.

But we had a radio. Every week we would dial in for Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” to be entertained with music, jokes, and especially his stories about Lake Wobegone.

They were marvelous. Coupled with Keillor’s unique storytelling voice we would get lost in this place where “the men are strong; the women are good-looking; and the children are all above-average”.

He continually seeks us out and guides us back into the fold of his love and care. Once back in the flock, he cleanses us when we are wounded by our poor choices. Sometimes the remedy is hard to take, but he never gives up on us unless we turn from him.

More contemporary master storytellers include people like Tony Robbins and Stephen King. TED Talks are filled with people who have the ability to tell a story to illustrate a point or sell an idea.

Think about the times in your life when a story you heard had a tremendous impact on your life. Whatever it was it changed you. Maybe not in a major life-altering way (although that is a possibility), but enough to move you forward a little in your life or change an attitude that is impeding progress toward a goal.

The Ultimate Goal

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, as of 1995, the Bible is the best-selling book of all time.

It makes sense. The themes covered in the Bible embody all the themes we see in story-writing:

  • Man v Man: Stories of protagonists and antagonists, heroes and villains, as shown in stories like Moses and Pharoah, David and Goliath, and the story of Judith.
  • Man v Nature: Stories where the protagonist has to overcome obstacles in nature, surviving a fire, flood, or famine; enduring hardships to attain a goal. Think Abraham, Noe, Lot, and St. Paul.
  • Man v Himself: Stories of men and women who had to overcome obstacles within themselves to complete a task they had been called to do. Moses doubted his ability to free the Israelites from captivity. Jonah didn’t want to complete God’s request to go to the Assyrian city of Nineveh to tell them to repent or they would be destroyed.

All of this is well and good, but the real hero of the Bible is God. He is the ultimate protagonist. It is the story of how he lives and works in the world of his creation and how he uses it to bring mankind — the “jewel” of his creation — to know, love, and serve him, and how in return he will keep us under his guidance and protection, giving us everything we need.

This brings me back to Our Lord comparing himself to the Good Shepherd. We all have heard this comparison with the hireling, but the stories my students and I heard deepened our understanding of how God really does care for us when we are lost in ourselves, “the world, the flesh, and the devil”. The Good Shepherd does “lay down his life for his sheep”.

He continually seeks us out and guides us back into the fold of his love and care. Once back in the flock, he cleanses us when we are wounded by our poor choices. Sometimes the remedy is hard to take, but he never gives up on us unless we turn from him.

barbaras crucifixThe Crucifix outside St. Michael’s Abbey, Silverado, CA (Photo by Barbara Cleary)

Finding Ourselves in Scripture

Stories have the power to touch us on a variety of levels. We see ourselves as we are, or as we would like to be in the characters we come to know in stories.

In God’s story, we can be faithful like Abraham, Isaac, and all the people in the Old Testament who held on to the Promise and the Law. We can be brave like David, Judith, Esther, or the Machabees; dedicated like Ruth, wise like Solomon; hopeful like Simeon.

On the other side, we can be as idolatrous as the Israelites (countless times), as treacherous as Joseph’s brothers; as unscrupulous as Herod and the Pharisees; weak as Pilate, or fall into hopeless like Judas.

The battleline between good and evil runs through the heart of every man. - Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

We all find ourselves somewhere in the middle of these extremes, I suppose, which is why when we silence the voices in our heads to hear and listen to the Good Shepherd when he calls and allow him to heal our souls as needed through the sacraments we will find ourselves among the fold of his sheep, and not isolated with the goats.

The wonder of the Scripture stories is that they have the power to connect us to memories, illustrate a point, teach, and entertain. We just need to hear and understand.

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Last modified on Saturday, June 24, 2023