Live to tell the tale

by Frances Novillo
Posted at 04:50am on 11th January 2013

At Cecil Sharpe House, home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, I met a professional story-teller.  As she told me about her craft, I appreciated within it similarities with my ministry as a cantor.  Both animate the assembly with time-honoured words, engaging the people in listening again, and all are invited to join in interacting as something known is woven together with something beyond the familiar.  When we recognise a song or story, we reminisce, and the emotions triggered in the present listening create memories for the future.  Thus the experience can feel timeless.  It is also emotional, connected as it is to something we learn by heart.  Story-tellers operate within an oral tradition.  They commit their stories to memory, in order to retell them in all places.  This is also true of the customary prayers and songs of liturgy.  Most Catholics do not learn the liturgy by study and reading, but by hearing and participating.  It was observed that the new translation could not be judged fairly outside of its liturgical context.  Criticisms when it was merely printed words on the page had limited validity. 


Ministers who tell the stories of our faith in liturgy - clergy, ministers of the Word and of music - have the privilege of experiencing them in a special way, complementary to private Bible study or Lectio Divina.  The benefits extend to the whole assembly.  Children’s attentiveness to story-telling is an example of effective participation in liturgy.  When I met with leaders of children’s Liturgy of the Word in Cardiff last summer, I read to them the story of the Water Beetles and the Dragonflies, not to recommend they use this in liturgy, but rather that they might recapture something of the awe and wonder experienced by children listening to stories.  Those who were familiar with the story expressed delight to hear it again, even though they already knew the characters and the ending, while many who had never heard it before requested a printed copy to take away to read again.  The repetition that children demand in story-telling – you reach the last page and they ask to hear the same story again straight away – is a crucial element of liturgy.  We know we need to hear it again, to find out more, and to be consoled by what we know is coming.  The excitement to step into a story again which has nourished and inspired us before is part of our motivation to worship in a repetitive liturgical form, although in some of us, this child-like impulse may have been obscured.  But I am glad that the childhood experience of listening to stories is a life-long gift to adults who participate in liturgy. 


Story-telling is one means by which the liturgy engages the whole being – not only the intelligence and understanding, but also the spirit and the imagination.  The imagination is a symbolic world from its inception.  From infancy the common meaning of basic symbols is established – light and dark, the need to drink and be fed, growth and intimacy – and Christians of all ages reconnect with this in liturgy, understanding through repetition how God uses simple signs to sanctify daily life.  When we participate fully in liturgy, we bring our life stories to be offered and transformed.  When our lives are fractured, sharing them within the coherent enduring story of salvation which is told at every Mass is restorative.  Something which is ‘telling’, has by definition, a deeper meaning. 


Jesus told stories as a central feature of his earthly ministry.  In each parable, the ordinary life of the listeners becomes the place where God is found and where the kingdom of God is being built.  In several cases, Jesus leaves the story to speak for itself, allowing space for various interpretations by contemporary listeners and Biblical scholars through the ages.  I suggest that this is an example of the Lord inviting us to follow, but neither expecting nor forcing our obedience.  Rules and regulations demand compliance; stories provoke questions.  Sometimes Jesus addressed these questions, and explained a parable, but only to one person, or one group of disciples, tailored to their benefit.  This seems to justify the role of the homilist who revisits the same passage of Scripture interpreting it differently according to the particular place and time and congregation. 


We may fear the semantics of the story, concerned to define the distinction between truth and myth as if these were synonymous with fact and fiction.  The story-teller may be dismissed as a jester or mere entertainer, but similar criticisms did not invalidate the rectitude of the prophets.  Jesus’ teaching flowed freely from instruction to metaphor to parable to action and back again allowing his hearers to find truth in this as they were able.  Some departed in confusion and disappointment and others feared the challenge of the meaning of these words.  Even those who remained did so despite perplexity and doubt.  They needed to hear the story again and again, and to witness its fulfilment before they could recognise it as their own story, the promise of their salvation and resurrection.  They lived to tell the tale, and the liturgy teaches us that so do we. 


Reproduced from Issue 346, Volume 38, Number 3 of Music and Liturgy, November 2012, by kind permission of the Society of Saint Gregory


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