Early in my teaching career I learned that stories usually made more of an impact than the ‘bones’ of a lesson. For example, I offered my students a parable-like (fictional) story to explain one of Jesus’ main points in the Sermon on the Mount and days later quizzed them on this point. Almost all of them re-told the entire fictional story rather than providing the actual, much shorter Scripture passage I sought. I was disappointed until realizing that my students had gotten the intended point of the Scripture. This experience highlights the reason Jesus used parables in His preaching: ‘story’ is more memorable because it brings to life the heart of a message. Stories that involve people like us or which come from situations that are similar to our own, speak to our hearts. This is why we can best connect with people we meet by learning a part of their story, something from their lived experience. We all have a story; rather, we all are a story which needs to be shared because all story is sacred, holy ground, created as such by God.
Because our stories are so important, it is essential that we do not assume anything when we meet a stranger; in fact, it is an act of love to let the person reveal themselves as they wish. Think of how annoying and even alienating it is when we meet someone and they begin to talk at us rather than to us. The person is so wrapped in themselves that they don’t stop to think that we have something to offer also; or they might ‘educate’ us about something we know quite well, assuming that we are totally ignorant about it. It becomes demeaning and invalidating given that the person has inadvertently, (or perhaps advertently), set themselves above us, implying that we are somehow not worthy of our own experience. There is no connection, and we might even be repelled, feeling empty or disappointed. People generally don’t intend to be repellent, but it seems that in our ‘me-centered’ culture the art of listening to one another is waning. Perhaps there is good intention, but without allowing the other to reveal what they know, or to share a bit of their own story, we have an encounter, but not a connection. Such encounters are fleeting, but connection is lasting and can change a heart, even if just a little. When we invite the other to share, when we listen to the story they desire to tell in some way, and mutually share a bit or ours, we go away enriched, more blessed than we were before… and so do they. Mutually sharing our stories is a type of intimacy; even if we met ‘randomly,’ never to see each other again, it provides a moment of grace and blessing which can move our hearts. The listening that comes from an open heart is a form of love, and love is always holy ground.
Jesus was fully God, so He already knew the story of every person He met. He was also fully human, desiring to hear a person’s story from them, thus providing an opportunity for Him to offer mercy, love, and whatever healing they needed. We all want to be heard, to be acknowledged, to be validated, to be loved as we are, something Jesus does without exception. We see this, for example, when He met the Samaritan woman at the well. (John 4) Through dialogue with her, (not a monologue or sermon), Jesus allowed the woman to reveal who she was, that is, to tell her story, and thus enabled her to enter into His. Story does not necessarily mean a narrative about our lives; its only ‘requirement’ is that we are authentic and honest in our sharing. When the woman responded to Jesus, she truthfully and freely expressed what was in her heart, including her spirituality and her current lifestyle. She seemed to enjoy the dialogue with Jesus, perhaps because He was the first person to be interested in her in a way that was not superficial or judgmental. Their dialogue was mutually inclusive of both of their stories, so therefore it changed her life. Jesus treated her as the holy ground she was, as she simultaneously experienced holy ground in Him.
Each person is a living, breathing, beautiful story that reveals a complex tapestry of experiences, emotions, knowledge, and events that have been woven together over time. The story of some people, however, has become encrusted with rejection, suffering, and loss so that they might be reluctant to connect with another in fear that more burdens might be added. But once we invite their story to slowly and safely unfold, we can be an instrument of God’s healing. Others may present a story which they may deem ordinary and uneventful, but within it wisdom and experience are waiting to be shared. And still others may have a story which is obviously exceptional in some way. No matter which it is, regardless of how much healing is needed, or how ordinary or extraordinary the person, every story within every person is precious to Jesus. All stories will reveal extraordinary beauty if we treat people with reverence and love, asking for eyes to see and ears to hear just as He does. God sees us as ‘sparks darting through stubble’ (Wisdom 3:7)* and so our story gives Him glory no matter how it is ‘written.’ It is love alone that can reveal what is at first hidden, and it is love alone that will let our light shine through.
May we revere each person as holy ground, willing to listen intently as we mutually share our stories! May we recognize the beauty of our own story, precious in God's eyes! And may we imitate the patience, mercy, and care of Jesus when we connect with stranger and friend alike! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
* This is the week of All Soul's Day which inspired the usage of Wisdom 3, often chosen as the first reading of the Liturgy for this day.
1. Fresco painting, Sermon on the Mount by Blessed Fra Angelico.
2. My photo, taken in the little village of Anaktuvuk Pass, Gates of the Arctic National Park, Alaska, in 2003. It is so small that this photo almost captures the entire town. (At the time the town was 5 blocks by 6 blocks.) The population was 315 in the 2019 census, up from the 282 when we were there. I chose this photo because there are great stories attached to our visit there; also because we heard wonderful stories from the Nunamiut Inupiat people who we met during our brief visit. For more go to https://www.travelalaska.com/Destinations/Communities/Anaktuvuk-Pass.aspx
3. Painting, The Woman at the Well by Duccio di Buoninsegna.
4. Painting, The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh.
5. Painting, Lazarus' Tomb by Fr. William Hart McNichols. Our stories, when shared, often allow people to come out of darkness, and sometimes bring renewed life. If you would like to obtain a copy of this painting in any of a variety of mediums, you can find it at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/lazarus-tomb-william-hart-mcnichols.html
Note: In compliance with GDPR rules, I wish to make it clear that I do not gather any information on any of my readers at any time.
Heart Speaks to Heart