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."