Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Spirituality of Stories

"Joshua Tree"
- in the High Desert -

The other day someone asked me to recall my first childhood memory and I immediately called to mind a time when I was about 2 or 3 years old. It wasn't a memory of splashing in a pool or being taken to an amusement park; rather, it was a memory of sitting in our living room with my family and listening to their stories. 

At the time we lived as an extended family in a big old house back in Western New York- my grandma and grandpa, my parents, a few uncles, and me-the first little baby to be brought into the family. 

After dinner every evening, everyone did something rather amazing according to today's standards,  we just sat around and talked to one another;  and during these extended hours of conversation my family would tell their stories - stories about what happened in the neighborhood, oftentimes stories about ancestors, stories about my great grandmother or long-dead aunts and how they came to America, stories about my own dad and the silly things he did as a child. 

While I don't actually recall much of the specific content of the stories I heard, I do remember this time as being one of the most tender experiences of being loved and cared for I ever had as a child.  As I look back on it now, I realize that those stories drew me out of my emerging sense of self and helped me understand that I belonged to a larger family, a bigger history. Those stories were my first experiences of transcendence. In fact I first met "God" in the telling of those simple family stories told to one another while gathering in the living room and talking for hours on end.

Over the course of human history, the telling of stories has always been a vehicle for inviting one another into the transcendent. The Bible is, in essence little more than a lengthy collection of stories people have told about their journeys of faith; and when I think about the teaching ministry of Jesus I discover that for the most part, instead of delivering lengthy sermons or prolonged lectures, Jesus sat around a campfire with his disciples and told them stories. He told them stories about farmers who planted gardens and tended vineyards, stories about a prodigal son who was welcomed by a loving father, lost sheep, lost coins - stories, stories, stories. 

When I think about my early childhood memories I also remember that when I was about 6 or 7 my parents bought their own house and when the three of us moved into it, one of the first things my dad bought was an exciting new home entertainment invention called a "television set." It seems to me that around that time we stopped telling stories. For the most part, memories of those days are of my family sitting around and staring at the TV.

The Dali Lama once said:

The planet does not need more successful people.
The planet desperately needs more healers, restorers,
and storytellers of all kinds.

I so very much agree with these sentiments.

Ever since my childhood until this very day, telling stories and hearing the stories others tell have always been the sources of healing, inspiration and restoration for me and throughout my life I have  discovered that there are stories to hear and stories to be told everywhere I go in life. I walk into a coffee shop and see an innocent child on her daddy's lap and there is a story to be told, I see the homeless man asking for donations outside the market and I almost feel compelled to tell that story. 

A few weeks ago when we traveled back East to meet our newborn grandson, my wife and I carried on the family tradition of telling stories after dinner. After the baby went to sleep for a few hours my wife and I sat down with our son and daughter-in-law and we regaled one another with our stories-some of the funniest were the tales we told  about our own son and his childhood antics. It was a holy moment.

No matter how small or seemingly insignificant,  our everyday stories are among our greatest sources of wisdom, truth and inspiration. As I see it we need a lot more stories and a lot less lectures, sermons, scholarly books and op-ed pieces nowadays as we walk the spiritual path - our stories are the doorways into the divine. 

The ancient Chan Buddhist, Weng Wei, once told this simple little story:

When happy, I go into the mountains, such joy.
I walk until the water ends and sit waiting for the hour when clouds rise.
If I happen to meet an old woodcutter,
I chat with him,
laughing and lost to time. 


  1. I love this! Although I did see this quote a few weeks ago attributed to David Orr from his book Ecological Literacy: “The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it."

  2. Yes Megan--success needs to be redefined for sure.