Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Part 2 of TheAlogy: A Spiritual Method of Inquiry: Stories as Vehicles of Truth

First off, I apologize for the fact that this blog post was written just as it poured out of my head. Very fast. The grammar and punctuation is a mess. Let's call this "an organic piece."

I think it is clear that people's stories themselves are very rarely representative of truth. In fact, so often, our stories are anything but. One thing I work hard at is showing my history students how our narratives and witness are always biased and distorted according to our cultural filters, our gender, our lived experience, age, sexuality, etc. If "fact" is so hard to determine through the vehicle of the human mind and words, then imagine how much harder it is for human beings to convey a perfect "Truth" with their words.

But that's not really what I meant by the use of narrative as a vehicle. I didn't mean that our words themselves convey the message but that the message is conveyed in the act of the telling, in the will itself to tell, and in the will to listen.

Clear as mud! LOL

The phrase that comes to mind (probably inappropriately) is "ears to hear." I used to listen to my father reading the gospels and would hear the words "whoever has ears to hear..." and I knew that this was when what Jesus was saying was really deeply important but was not immediately clear in a mundane sense.

I want to address two important components of my sense of narrative as a vehicle of spiritual inquiry. The first thing I want to address is empathy and compassion. When I'm listening to others in a normal context, I'm often upset by how absurd and imperfect they are. However,when I listen with my spiritual ears, I find that my sense of them shifts.

Understand there is *no* way I can explain how I do this. It is not rational in any way I can determine. When I listen to people in this way, I can often know things about them, a truth beneath their words. People are always telling us about their lives if we are listening. I listen to the way they pause or how their voices catch. I watch their faces.

As a child, people often told me things that they probably ought not to have disclosed to me. But I was the preacher's kid, so they weren't always clear about boundaries. I did learn how to sit with someone and hear them without showing anger or disgust. Once as a teenager, I said something about the uselessness of Vietnam. My uncle, who was trained as a medic but never went to war, exploded in anger at me. It was a curious moment. I never heard him raise his voice before and I have never heard it since. I listened to him rant some ridiculous conservative war-mongering stuff, but what I heard was his sense of profound guilt that he was safe when so many others he cared for died and his sadness and fear for his younger brother who did go and who still suffers today for it. It was an extraordinary experience for me. He was telling me a story but I might have just mistaken it for stupid anger if I hadn't been listening.

Another example from my family is when we asked my grandfather what happened to his sister who died in the '20s. "She burned up," was all he would say. That was all he needed to say. The memory of that shortest of stories, the loss and the horror and the pain of it, makes me cry even today.

Very often, people have disclosed information to me that they had kept hidden and I find that I already knew it. The only way I can think to explain this is that the words themselves, the desire for one human being to be known and loved by another human being opens a conduit between them.

I also find that one can listen deeply to written narratives. I like to practice this with primary sources. My students and I practice a creative analysis. Beneath lies and misdirection, banality, politics and pedantry, I often find this exquisite...what is it? Truth? No. Let's just call it a Song. It is a human song of desire and fear...so much like the cry of an infant.

And this is the thing that calls me to answer that of God in others, even when I find them cruel, or ridiculous, or stupid. I hear their imperfection and need as one hears a baby's cry and I find I cannot hate them. It is their need for each other and for the Divine that is "the Clue", "the Message in a Bottle" that directs me back toward the Sacred every time. We *need* each other- not just to stay alive in our bodies but to stay alive in our souls. The worst injuries any of us can receive is to have our ability to connect to others injured or severed. Those who are thus soul-injured are those who are most likely to bring hell upon the earth.

I also find that people will tell the most amazing stories of survival and love and justice. These are good stories to hear and this tells me that the human soul is resilient and just as well as injured and searching.

The next thing I want to share is the idea of metaphor. Here in the west, we have used vision-oriented metaphors. Feminist theory and methodology suggests that we need to also use metaphors of listening. Visual metaphors have focused on light and dark. What we see is the object of our sight. We consume it with our eyes. We measure, assess, and judge it.

The sight metaphors have de-emphasized interactions with the objects of our observation. The words themselves limit the suggestion of reciprocity between the viewer and the viewed. In essence, we create "I" and "it" Subject and object.

Now with a hearing metaphor, we begin to have an I and a thou. Both the listener and the listened-to are subjects.

So when two people are telling their stories, where is God? Is the sacred in my story or in yours? It is in neither place. It is not in the stories (both are only relative expressions of experience), but it is in the telling and the sharing of the story where the Divine exists. When I listen to you deeply and my desire is to love you at the level of your soul, then I am following Christ's commandment that I love other human beings. Not what you think or do or believe or say, but who you are. That part of you that is immortal and beloved. And this love leads us to the Love of the Source my friend, Daniel so often speak of with such stirring eloquence.

Btw: Madeline L'Engle does the most amazing job expressing this ability to listen beyond the words in her book A Wind at the Door. She calls it "kything."


Morgaine said...

I find myself without any real comment and just listening, Hystery. I thank you.

Daniel Wilcox said...

Hi Hystery,

I am confused...why are you disappointed with Part 1? I found your Part 1 one of your best posts ever!

Your point in part 2 about choosing to carefully listen to stories that you oppose, also really spoke to me. I must admit, I find this difficult to do. For instance, when some Quakers share their story of how they have come to nontheism, I find it almost impossible to really hear them since their story is so utterly contrary to everything of Truth.
If you remember, we discussed this in the past. You shared of some of the bad experiences in church you and your family had; and how then your PhD study lead you toward nontheism (as your blog sidebar still says).

I try to "hear" your story, but must admit, I am not good at listening to "nontheistic" stories
(or Calvinistic stories).

If the cosmos is indeed absurd--without God of Love in the sense that word meant to Jesus, Fox, Kelly, etc.--
then why be involved with
religion at all? It would seem that the "spiritual" is delusional, then.

Thanks for sharing your heart and mind.


Hystery said...

I'm not disappointed with part 1. I wanted to further address what I meant by listening. It felt important to point out that narratives themselves are not necessarily the truth-carriers since people are so awfully imperfect. Some stories, as you point out, will not have value for us. Hearing the story behind the story may very well get us closer to the truth of a person's life.

You may not be able to relate to nontheism because it is so far removed from your personal experience. I see sometimes that the differences between us have most to do with differences in our educational backgrounds.

However, I find that you are very good at hearing the story beneath my words. In fact, your careful listening has been very sustaining and healing for me. You heard my faith strong and clear beneath my intellectual discussions and I can't tell you how important that has been for me. My "non-theism" is more about my uncertainty about alliance with the lion's share of theistic practices and beliefs than it is with my lack of connection to what you have called the Source. Because you were so patient with me and kept asking me questions, you brought me back toward that deeper level of my experience. This is what we should all be doing for each other.

Anonymous said...

Amen! Both to the post and the comments. Thank you.

Mary Ellen said...

Someone has taken the "kything" practice from L'Engle and has written a book of practice about it - how to "kythe" - which involves a very Quaker-like (but more visual-based) practice of pulling that person's whole actuality, quirks and all, into consciousness and bathing them with intentionality, with blessing. I find myself connecting deeply to members of my family in Meeting for Worship when I do this. It's not the story, but the wholeness of the person, the dearness, that I hold. I can see that, when I'm not distracted or caught in my own busyness, I do the same thing in listening deeply. Thich Nhat Hahn speaks of this "listening deeply" to others as well. So - your unspooling thread of thought has connected to me in many ways. Now I'll go back and read part I.

Quaker Gem said...

It's delightful to read of different ways of hearing: To listening for the undercurrent. Sometimes there's a soft breeze and sometimes there's a whirlwind that runs beneath the overt but it's always there. Acknowledging it and learning to open to it opens another way of "knowing"; of Loving. I believe that there are also alternate ways of seeing and feeling. Acknowledging and opening our senses deepens our relationships with one another and with the Divine. Thank you for lifting this up.

staśa said...

Hmmmm. I started a comment, and then realized it probably ought to be its own blog post. Thanks for the inspiration, I think (Hystery and Daniel).


staśa said...

(And it was very hard to resist posting it here when the word verification was "light"!)

Hystery said...


I totally wouldn't have minded if you posted here as well as on your own blog. I like long comments.

staśa said...

LOL. Here it is...

I often hear people trash both theism in general, and Quaker non-theism in particular, as something that just cannot possibly be true at all, if it cannot be true for the speaker or if the speaker cannot understand it. Yet, as a broader society, and as a Religious Society, we don't have that standard for, say, Christianity. (If someone can't understand Christianity, or if it's not true for them, society locates the problem with them, not with Christianity.) Why can't non-theist Quakerism (or Pagan Quakerism) be true and valid for someone else even if I just cannot grasp it?

Perhaps I have more humility here because I'm already used to that experience with other things that plain don't make sense to me, but obviously have great meaning, and work in real-life practice, for other people. And therefore I accept them, even if I don't understand them, or agree with them, or even if I think they're kind of (or way) out in left field.

This is part of the reality of life for folks who are minorities.

Whereas, the belief, the fundamental assertion that if I can't believe it, or if it doesn't make sense to me, then it's just plain not true in an essential, basic sense, often comes from a position of some kind of dominance, privilege, or power-over that needs to be protected. It's part of the experience of being a member of dominant culture.

Jeremy Mott said...

I must correct a comment I made earlier on this blog somewhere. I know this isn't the right place, but I can't find the right place now.
In 1649, when the victorious Puritan army put English King Charles I on trial, he refused to take off his hat to the 59 judges, as might be
expected, as a sign of his disrespect for them. Not the other way round. At any rate, though I have never seen
this in writing or in print, this
simply must be the origin of the Quaker testimony against hat-honor.
When the son of Charles I, Charles II, came to power in 1660,
he had those judges who had voted
for the execution his father and who were still alive to be drawn and quartered and hanged. By good fortune, no Quaker was among them. If a Quaker had been among them, our
declaration of our peace testimony in 1660 would have had a very hollow
ring, and no doubt would have been made fun of by our opponents.
At any rate, this is a good example
of Quaker narrative theology----the
best kind of theology we have, I think. Even Robert Barclay at his most memorable, and Francis Howgill, express themselves in powerful narratives about their experiences in meetings for worship, not in what I
call "theologizing."
Jeremy Mott

Iz said...

Reading your post Hystery, brought to my mind this quote I'd like to share if I may. The listening you speak of and practice seems to be arising from that place of love described here.

"Love can only be there when you are connected to the source of life, who you are beyond form, stillness, spaciousness and from there you perceive, you relate, you operate and do what you do and there is a sense of oneness, no longer a sense of separation, you are one with the present moment, you are one with who you meet because the separation comes through mental concepts. That sense of oneness is love. It’s a recognition that you share with every life form, you share the same consciousness. So it is always a self recognition, your sense relevance, you see yourself in the other, that is love. " Eckhart Tolle

Thank you for writing this post, I enjoyed it very much so. It brought love to my heart.