One of the things I love about the ecclesiastical calendar is it tells time by telling a story. Our story. The Story. We begin at Advent by preparing for Jesus’ birth and then move through the following weeks and months as the Incarnation unfolds and we see Jesus with people as he walks with them and talks with them, and tries to tell them about his death and resurrection. To number our days with the language of Epiphany and Pentecost, rather than January and May, is to not only tell the story but to become a part of it. I was thinking along these lines as I read again from John Berger’s wonderful new book (which has been inspiring me all winter):
When we are impressed and moved by a story, it engenders something that becomes, or may become, an essential part of us, and this part, whether it be small or extensive, is, as it were, the story’s descendent or offspring.
What I’m trying to define is more idiosyncratic and personal than a mere cultural inheritance; it is as if the bloodstream of the read story joins the bloodstream of one’s own story. It contributes to our becoming what we become and will continue to become. (84)
Katherine Hankey must have understood what Berger is talking about (though he hadn’t written it in 1866) when she wrote one of my favorite hymns:
I love to tell the story for those who know it best
seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest.
In the chapter of Berger I reread yesterday, Berger told of going into a suburban Paris library to check out a copy of The Brothers Karamazov to reread. Both of the library’s copies were checked out and he began to wonder,
. . . who’s reading The Brothers Karamazov here today. Do the two of them know each other? Unlikely. Are they both reading the book for the first time? Or has one of them read it and, like myself, wants to reread it?
Then I find myself asking an odd question: if either of those readers and myself passed one another – in the suburban market on Sunday, coming out of the metro, or on a pedestrian crossing, buying bread – might we perhaps exchange glances that we’d both find slightly puzzling? Might we, without recognizing it, recognize one another? (83-84)
I can remember days in the subway in Boston looking across to see the cover of a book I had read and loved and then exchanging the kind of glance Berger describes, sometimes even a word of solidarity. One of the joys of teaching is initiating students into the coteries that know Scout and Gatsby and Mary Shelley’s misunderstood creature. There is a strong connection between Those Who Know The Story and a profound sense of joy at getting to be the one who makes the introduction. Expand the definition of stories and we can include the giant families, if you will, bonded together by Monty Python and the Holy Grail or The Princess Bride who willing share looks and laughs and movie lines.
Anybody want a peanut?
One of my favorite books to read with students is Frankenstein. Many years ago when I was teaching at Charlestown High, a Latina student who understood all too well what it meant to feel outcast and misunderstood became particularly attached to the Creature. Reading didn’t come easily for her, but she devoured the book. The morning we were to finish the book she came by my room early. She was visibly troubled.
“Mister B-C,” she said with sadness in her voice, “the Monster died!”
She didn’t need me to explain or even to comfort; she just needed to tell the story to someone who knew what she was talking about, that could share the experience, that knew it mattered to grieve a character who had lived so vividly among us.
As Lent begins, the story we love takes an ominous turn. Not so many weeks ago we were singing of herald angels and following stars. Yet, as we get closer to Spring, the shadows grow longer and the darkness more profound. We know where the whole story is going and these are not the easy chapters. Still, we are at our best when we tell the story in all its darkness and struggle. It is our story, as Berger said. It’s in our DNA. We tell the story, and we live the story, as we seek to incarnate God’s love in a harsh and beautiful world. Because we know the story passed down to us and we know the story unfolding in our lives, we understand what makes a great story, which is to say we understand a great story takes the darkness as seriously as the light. As David Wilcox sings,
look, if someone wrote a play
just to glorify what’s stronger than hate
would they not arrange the stage
to look as though the hero came too late
it’s almost in defeat
it’s looking like the evil side will win
and on the edge of every seat
from the moment that the whole thing begins
it is love that mixed the mortar
and it’s love that stacked these stones
and it’s love that sets the stage here
though it looks like we’re alone
In the last line of his chapter on stories, Berger said:
Hope today is a contraband passed from hand to hand and from story to story. (87)
I love that sentence. Telling the story – our story – is an act of solidarity, of subversion, of community, of compassion, of revolution. Of hope. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot put it out, neither can the cynicism shout it down.
Gather in close and listen.