We have often spoken of story and retold many stories in our weekly reflections. We might recall again that, in some sense, we see our life as a story, and we have a certain image of the kind of person we are and are becoming. And in living out our life, we follow a certain script.
On the one hand, the images and stories we are exposed to from childhood on, shape the image and script we at first follow. We interpret ourselves in the light of this script. A dominant script in our society is that of financial success. Yet it has been questioned for many ages, as in the Greek myth of King Midas and the more modern play, Death of a Salesman. In this latter play, the main character, Willy Loman, finds that, in the end, this script destroys him. King Midas is granted a wish that everything he touches turns to gold. When he tries to eat and then to hug his daughter, they both turn to gold. His gift can lead to loss of life itself and the loss of the love that gives it meaning. This theme is echoed in the key sentence in the story of Rumpelstiltskin: “Something living is more precious than all the treasures of the world.”
In effect, every story contains a way of looking at life. The script we have inherited provides the eyes through which we look at life. As we become aware of this pattern our life is following, we can reaffirm, modify or change it. What is crucial is to have a life-story that offers an image of ourselves as a person of sacred worth, and a script that takes into account all the complexities of life, its joys and sorrows, and the whole array of feelings, both positive and negative.The truth of a story concerns not so much the facts of the story–whether or not it actually happened. It concerns more deeply the vision of life the story contains: the picture of what a human being is and what life really means.
Our change in script may come through suffering. A friend once told me that we change only when we are hurts so much that we have to move. We can also change when we are given a better vision of life, a better set of eyes through which to look at life, or a better heart through which to experience life. Or we can simply outgrow our present stage of development, just as a crab outgrows its shell, and sheds it to grow a new shell. Our own growth can be a process of shedding shells that run counter to or at least do not reflect who we truly are or where we belong, where our true home lies.
In this regard, we spoke of the experience of fragmentation–of broken pieces in our life. This experience offers the challenge at once to grieve the brokenness and to seek a new wholeness. Sociologist and theologian, Gregory Baum, describes this experience in a striking way. “Life can be shattered. … Failures, sickness, disappointments, accidents remain part of life on this earth. It is possible to fall into situations where life is destroyed. It is possible to have one’s life shattered like a precious vase and despair over ever being able to rebuild it. We meet people … whose life has become a living death and we realize with fear and trembling that we too are vulnerable, we too could destroy our lives or have our lives destroyed by forces beyond our control. These deaths in the midst of life are what we are most afraid of.”
Yet, Baum adds that, even, out of the fragments left to us after the storm, there is the possibility and the summons for new life to emerge, for growth to a fuller humanness to occur. Another illustration is the Pastoral Symphony of Beethoven, in which the storm movement is followed by a gently triumphant re-emergence of light and life and activity. The early film, Fantasia, offers a beautiful visual illustration of Beethoven’s music. In a similar way, the stories of Oedipus the King and King Lear portray the emerging of a new deeper and truer vision out of the experience of physical blindness, as does the blind singer in the Odyssey. The only lame Greek God, Hephaestus, is the one who forges great beauty.
What comes from all of these sources is the conviction that there is both joy and sorrow, suffering and healing, in human life. Yet, in the story of Pandora, as we retold it last week, these may be contained in, embraced by, and grounded in, a hope and love that take into account, but reach beyond all grief.
This conviction is also echoed in the words of Karl Rahner, who acknowledges that there is in life enough darkness, as he puts it, to plunge us into despair. And yet, he goes on to conclude, is there not so much light, so much joy, truth, and love, as to foster a basic trust in the meaningfulness of life, and the meaningfulness our own life.
I think that the folk or fairy tales are a marvellous example of this perspective of hope deeper than despair, sacredness deeper than words, and light out of darkness I first heard these stories as a child. Later I told them, along with other stories, to children in a residential treatment centre. They were quite taken by them and had a real understanding of them. This experience prompted me to engage in an in-depth study of these stories. That endeavour was itself later enriched by the challenge of learning Greek Mythology and the joy of sharing it with my godson. In Sleeping Beauty, for example, it is acknowledged that we all have hedges of thorns around us. Yet the inner beauty remains and is awakened especially by love given and received.
I would like to cite a favourite example, that I’m sure to have used before, Rapunzel. In the Grimm Brothers’ version, the blinded young prince stumbles through the forest, and hears Rapunzel singing again, as she ekes out an existence for herself and their children. He gropes his way towards the sound of her voice. Rapunzel sees him from a distance and runs to embrace him. As she does so, two of her tears fall on his eyes and restore their sight. The symbolic meaning, the truth of the story, is that our own sorrow, borne creatively, can be a source of healing and vision for one another.
Writer, G. K Chesterton, says that it was good to be in the fairy tale. These stories evoked a sense of wonder and gratitude, a gratitude essentially for the gift of life itself. He adds that just as children are grateful for gifts place in their stockings at Christmas, he is grateful for the gift of legs in his own stockings.
May you find or deepen an image of your sacred self, and a story that honours the richness of your inner life, and leads you to a sense of gratitude that contains and goes beyond all sorrows, and that flows into a healing generosity for others.
Norman King, April 11, 2022
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