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Stories make us Human

I'm telling you in advance. This is a loooong post. Super long. I have put it in 'chapters' to help ease the progress.
And it leads me onto topics of faith/spirituality/religion.
I have been putting off a post on this topic for a long time now, since I knew it would be a quite an undertaking. But I must write it. The past few days have handed me too much on the topic to ignore.
While this post is long, I do feel it is one of my more meaningful ones...

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Tale as Old as Time

As you have probably figured out by now, I am a bibliophile. While I try to live simply, I just can't resist a book. They leap into my hands whenever I leave the house. (Also when I am at home, but they are usually already mine, so it is not so dangerous). But while books can contain stories that are rollicking good fun, I take stories much more seriously than mere entertainment.

Stories have been around for as long as humans have. Our ancient ancestors sat around campfires sharing stories. They painted them on cave walls. They wove Dreamings or envisaged mythical creation stories. Since the dawn of time, stories have told us who we are.

Even in this modern age, when even books can start to look like a niche or antiquated idea, we haven't changed that much. What is Netflix for if not to transmit stories - more and more, whenever we want, as much as we want. We can't get enough of them! And that, I think, is of great importance. It tells us something about what it means to be human.

Seeking myself in books

I have always been in awe of books. I remember buying books and opening them with hopeful expectation that within its pages I would find... oh, everything. Pure magic, absolute truth, meaning, God, myself. I was constantly anticipating a book that would unlock all the mysteries, reveal to me all the hidden things. I knew even then that books were powerful, and I sought the most sacred book of all.

Naturally, a child like this, brought up in a Christian home, looked to the Bible for salvation, hoping to find transcendence through its tissue-thin pages. Maybe being part of a religion with a sacred book started this all off for me in the first place. But I will admit that I did not find transcendence there. I found many other things, some of them deeply troubling (but my journey with the Bible is another story for another day). So I widened my search to include more kinds of books.

There were some that came close to something magical for me. I discovered books whose authors seemed to be searching for the same thing I was, and so I fell in love with Traci Harding's The Ancient Future trilogies. I found characters that seemed to be haunted by the same ghosts as I did, and so found kin in Charlotte Bronte's works. I found messages that resonated deep in my heart, so Dickens' A Christmas Carol became one of my treasures. But no book could unlock all mysteries to me, and grant me enlightenment, even if they did fan the flame of my heart.

I turned to the idea that perhaps I could write this book of perpetual transcendence. I think I may have set the bar a bit high there, since I have never managed to finish any book, since I can see straight up it isn't the miracle book for which I had hoped.

And then, studying theology, in my course on the Hebrew Bible, I came across ideas that beckoned these thoughts back to the fore.

We learnt about the Hebrew Bible as the story of a people. It was history as shared memory, a story that told these people who they were, that gave them identity and meaning. If we don't have a story, we become as people without a memory - people who don't know who they are.

The idea of Story started haunting me with nagging persistence, playing on behind my everyday thoughts, surfacing in my mind through the humdrum chatter. Story... story... story...

Do we get to keep our stories when we die?

During our Lenten book study this year, we read Abiding, by Ben Quash. Allow me to share with you a passage that stirred my mind to flame (and for my non-religious friends, bear with me - this is just what got me thinking):

"... another question [that] haunts the modern mind [is] whether there are 'whos' in heaven at all. Does the very fact of being a 'who' - of being someone, a unique, particular person - mean anything after we die, except in the minds of those who are left behind?

"I was surprised by a recent conversation with a chuch-going friend who said that she did not expect in any way still to be 'her' after she died. She imagined herself returning to the ebb and flow of the cosmos. And this expectation may be a very widespread one in the popular imagination. An eloquent account of it [...] is found in the final volume of Philip Pullman's trilogy His Dark Materials, when the children Lyra and Will travel to the land of the dead, to release a numberless host of whispering shadows from perpetual darkness into a reunification with the vibrant cycles of material life. This release is, of course, a release into 'oblivion', in the sense that all personal consciousness comes to an end, but it is at least a form of living.

"[...] On what grounds can Christians sustain their hope for a heavenly abiding, in which the particular 'whos' that people are will find themselves safeguarded and treasured?"

Abiding, Quash, pp 228 & 236.

Quash answers his question by citing John 14:2, which says, "In my Father's house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?", along with the evidence he sees in Jesus' resurrection showing him still to be an individual, 'who', rather than some amorphous beingness indistinguishable from all other beingness.


But neither of these approaches satisfied me. The discussion here seems to me to be: do we get to keep our stories even after death?  One side says no, not at all, and the other says yes, absolutely. I think when it comes to God - to the Mystery, to the All, to the Truth-beyond-our-knowing - it is not a matter of either this or that, but always a matter of both this and that. I can't help but think that stories are more significant than something we live out and then shed. I am convinced that stories are more meaningful than 'entertainment'. They give us our meaning, and if I am to believe that life has any meaning at all, I have to believe that stories aren't tied simply to the material world, or to our homo-sapiens heads. If I am someone who believes in a beyond, then I am (intentionally or not) ascribing to the idea that there is a story bigger than us, bigger than our material life. And if there is such a story, where do our individual stories stand in comparison?

Are they obliterated by the sheer magnitude of "The Greater Story"? My friend and I used to fear the idea that after death we would lose our individuality and be incorporated into a great 'oneness', like a drop in the ocean. As much as the idea seemed rational, we resisted it, protective of our sense of self.

So are our stories so individually powerful as to stand in opposition to "The Greater Story"? If that were so, what would be so different between the beyond and right now, where we see stories coming into conflict, our sense of self standing in the way of peace?

I have another proposal: I suggest that it is both.

I imagine the 'beyond' to be a place where we discover that we truly are One. One with the One. United, one body (in the terminology of my faith: 'united in Christ', or 'the body of Christ'). This, however, does not imply losing our sense of self, our story, but having our story grow! Realising that everything is our story. Your story, my story, they complete each other. We will discover, that after all, they are one story. I don't know how that idea makes you feel, but it makes me feel inspired. It makes me feel connected. And I listen to that feeling, because (lover of Ignatian spirituality that I am) I interpret this sense of awe as being from God -  a smile of sorts.

Our story

Now that I have this idea developed to this point, I can't escape it (and nor do I want to, because it is captivating, compelling, and asks of me to rewrite how I read the world).

Yesterday I received a book in the post as a gift from my friends in the Danthonia Bruderhof Community. It is called Called to Community: The Life that Jesus Wants for His People edited by Charles E. Moore. It contains writings from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Joan Chittister, Dorothy Day, Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, Mother Teresa, Jean Vanier, Jonathon Wilson-Hartgrove, Benedict of Nursia, and many lesser-known others. All these people have known what it is to live in community. And I don't just mean a neighbourhood, but an intentionally-lived expeirence of community with others, sharing meals, work and leisure - life, really.

I opened the book yesterday and read the Forward, by Stanley Hauerwas. He is another who knows what it is to live in community, and whose ideas I studied during my Christian Ethics subject, and whose ideas I loved the most, since they argued that our best ethics can only function in true community. Without it, we have little choice but to compromise to survive.

Anyway, he writes on the first page, "It is quite understandable that many people today feel the need for [community]. After all, we live in a social order that has confused freedom with the isolation of the self. We may think we know one another, but our 'knowing' only intensifies our isolation from one another. This is because, although we bump up against one another, we share no common story and no corresponding judgements about what is true, good, and beautiful. As a result, we become strangers to ourselves and to those we call friends. In such a social order, people too often confuse community with being in a crowd."

There is so much more worth reading in this book, but I shan't continue. I am pretty sure you can get is for free as an ebook, so if you want to read it, you can decide that.

Common life, common story

Having had this experience of community myself while at Taize, I understand the wholeness that can come when living with others in this way. I understand how in community life like this, individual stories can become one shared story, like music, each with your own unique part of course, but all integral to the beauty of the whole. Each individual. Each needed by the others. I remember realising at the time that the girls I lived with, even the ones I wasn't close to, had become part of me. My own self was augmented by their selves. The individual 'me' we tend to be focused on these days seemed so meagre. Yes, it was integral, and I didn't want to lose myself, but I realised that by sharing my life with these people I found that there was only more and more of me, not less.

My passion for community, and the being haunted by 'story' was all a continuum. But I only recently managed to put it together.

If my idea is that after this life we gain more story, like more parts in music, then the experience of community life can bring us closer to that now, in this life. Of course not all communities are healthy, and I certainly am not advocating cults. But community, done well, is a way of living even now in the kingdom of God. For me, heaven is other people. (For those who know Sartre's 'Hell is Other People' - I think it is a brilliant portrayal of what Hauerwas was meaning when he wrote, "our 'knowing' only intensifies our isolation from one another." In such a case as Sartre presents, it would be hell).

The Story continues

But I don't think my being haunted by Story ends here.

Even tonight, I opened a link on a friend's facebook feed (to an article entitled More Evensong, Please) and in it I find this: "To paraphrase Alisdair MacIntyre, we can only know what to do and who we are if we know what story we inhabit. Everyone is searching for a meaningful story."

I think when all these synchronicities occur together it is something I am being asked to listen to. Even if you would like to argue that we only notice these repeated things because we are already sensitive too them, then sure - but even then, I think we are made sensitive to them for a reason.

So, seems like I could do with reading some of Alisdair MacIntyre. Even a quick google search of him tells me he's my man just now.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 24th, 2016 06:15 pm (UTC)
What a wonderful entry! Thank you. And, thank you for not trying to come up answers all neatly tied in a bow!
Aug. 25th, 2016 12:09 am (UTC)
Thank you for you comment, nun_sense. And indeed, I also find neatly tied-in-a-bow answers are seldom satisfying (and, I suspect, seldom accurate :P). Thanks for persevering through this lengthy entry.

Aug. 25th, 2016 01:58 pm (UTC)
I'm not particularly well-equipped for heavy spirituality discussions, but I'd suggest that the type of 'truth' you were looking for is quite a personal thing. So it seems quite unlikely that any one person can completely satisfy your needs by having a similar enough experience/understanding of spirituality AND be able to communicate their journey through the written word.

I guess that would make it impossible for you (or anyone) to write the miracle book you may have hoped for in the past. Nonetheless, you should be writing the story of your own truth, because that could be of great value to other people, just as the books you mentioned were of great (but incomplete) value to you.
Aug. 25th, 2016 11:29 pm (UTC)
Oh, well said, Banks!
You are quite right, I think. I have typed out this comment so many times but all I end up doing is saying right back to you everything you just said.
So right about that unlikeliness.
And also about nonetheless writing our own stories.
And of other people's stories being of value, albeit incomplete.
In fact, that last bit there is hugely the underlying point, I think...

Thanks for reading my long post, Banks. And for commenting. :D
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

A little 'ello

Just a little about me...
I'm a girl in my mid-20s. I adore reading and writing and music, but most of all I love exploring the Spirit.

I have been brought up an Anglo-Catholic Christian, but I love the beauty of all forms of spiritual expression, even atheistic expression. "God" isn't the only name for that great something behind everything.

I currently am studying Tibetan Buddhism, reading heavily about Universal Sufism, and undertaking my novociate to enter the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis.

This is the path I walk. May you all be blessed on yours.


Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart Be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord.

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