Everyone has a story to tell and everyone keeps on telling it in hundreds of different editions! This is the age of story: in therapy, in spirituality, in everything. In psychoanalysis, for example, you tell your story; theologians embark on 'narrative theology'; and page one of a book on spirituality announces, "It's story time!" Folklore too is enjoying a renaissance. Everywhere it is story-time; and everyone wants to hear (and tell) a story.
     One of the most basic needs of every person is to be listened to. When someone listens to you, you begin to hear yourself; the frightening swirl of emotions - the fears, the insecurities, the shapeless things - begin to take shape and to be lit up with recognition. If it is not too much of a cliché, we have to be heard into personhood. It could be called 'socialisation', and when it does not happen, the result is crippling inadequacy or violence.
     We have not always been good at listening to one another in the Church - preaching to one another, yes -
and there was a heavy backlog to make up. The current emphasis on Story is perhaps part of that catching up, so badly needed. There are many more whose stories have seldom or never been heard. And there will always be a need for story-telling, and especially story-listening. But we are so heavily, and perhaps one-sidedly, into it now that for balance we need to look also at the other side. Let me just try and put the other side (for a trial).
     We do tell an awful lot of lies about ourselves (I've often caught myself at it): lies so deep that we don't see them as lies at all. We cherish illusions, story-lines so often imagined that after a time we don't know whether they are true or false . Nothing is gained by that kind of repetition. It is the ego maintaining its grip over us. "This is me, this is the package!" - to repeat the exact words I heard from someone who was announcing (not for the first time) his aggressive story of himself. My story can be my defiance, my limitation, my 'own goal'. It can be a closing of my account with reality.
     "'I don't have any personal history,' [Don Juan] said, after a long pause. 'One day I found out that personal history was no longer necessary to me and like drinking I dropped it....If you have no personal history, no explanations are needed; nobody is angry or disillusioned with your acts. And above all no one pins you down with their thoughts.'" (Carlos Castaneda, Journey to Ixtlan)
     What am I when I am not telling myself what I am? It is important to know that I am creating a world when I talk; I am either creating or maintaining an image of myself. Whenever I finish talking to myself, my world is just as I want it to be, and my position in it is vindicated, isn't it? I confirm that I have been right all along. That is the danger in telling my story - especially in telling it to myself.
     I don't suppose that dropping one's story is a simple matter. But when you sit in meditation that is what you are doing in a fleeting manner, perhaps for only split-seconds at a time. What freedom you have when you do it! You experience the ultimate freedom: freedom from yourself. The mystics are trying to tell us about it. "You must give up yourself, altogether give up self, and then you have really given up," wrote Meister Eckhart. "In truth, if someone gave up a kingdom or the whole world and did not give up self, he would have given up nothing."
     To keep up our courage while we meditate, we can always keep a story or two near at hand! - to fall back on during the countless split-seconds when we are not meditating....But in time we can wean ourselves off them. What will be our story then? Our story is like clothing, it is a coat.... What will happen to our coat? In such a moment of new freedom, a turning-point in his life and in his poetry, W.B. Yeats wrote:
                                      ...let them take it,
                                       For there's more enterprise
                                       In walking naked.


Donagh O'Shea OP

These are brief articles, one per month,
on a wide variety of topics concerning the living of the Christian life.