Empowering the Voice Within
by Mark Novak
People of faith understand the power of storytelling. We know that the meaning of our traditions are often best conveyed not by theological statements or scholarly arguments, but by telling stories. Through storytelling, the “other” becomes real, human, and knowable, and barriers between seemingly separate individuals are erased. Stories can open our hearts in a way that few things can.
This is why, two years ago, I co-founded The MultiFaith Storytelling Institute: The Home for Sacred Storytelling (MFSI). Our mission is to teach the art of storytelling for use in sermons, pastoral counseling, spiritual direction, life cycle events, and performance – for clergy, lay leaders, and anyone interested in immersing themselves in the art of storytelling.
Regrettably, storytelling is often overlooked in the education and formation of spiritual leaders. While homiletics and preaching are part of a seminary education, storytelling is rarely taught on its own. There are occasional courses in biblical storytelling, which is a very stylized way to read the scriptures, but it hews to the written text, and is very performative. Being mindful of this unmet need, we developed a four-day retreat that would provide participants the skills needed in how to find, select, hone, and tell stories in an effective way.
To paraphrase writer Elie Weisel, from the preface to his book The Gates of the Forest: “Why were human beings created? Because God loves stories.” Weisel later adds, “What remains of a story after it is finished? Another story.”
Delicious – story becomes prayer. By telling our story, whether it be adapted from a folk tale, sacred text, or a personal experience, we draw upon what I call “the Torah of our lives” – the sacred text that lives within us all. Storytelling, like music and other creative endeavors, is a way to break through analytical modes of understanding. It gets right to the (sacred) heart.
How do we accomplish this in four days time?
First, we create a container for the Divine. Each participant is asked to bring an item of significance to them when they come to the retreat. Introductions are made through the brief stories they share about these objects, which are then placed on an altar we build together. That altar remains our centerpiece throughout the week.
Using ecumenical prayer, song, poetry, and silence, we build a safe environment that allows creativity, intellectual honesty, and leaps of faith to flourish, as well as a surprising amount of fun and laughter. One graduate noted, “I was surprised by the spiritual element of the work – everything was elevated by it”
Each experience is led by one of MFSI’s three teachers. On the first full day, storyteller Renée Brachfeld, using folk tales from multiple faith traditions, guides participants through a unique process that teaches them how to lift a folktale or sacred story from the page and make it their own. No memorization is involved. Rather she offers imaginal techniques in which the storyteller sees the story unfold before him/her in pictures.
This is done first as a group activity filled with shared ideas, play, and laughter. Later, participants use the same process to identify, learn, and tell a story of their own choosing. After each telling, the group has the opportunity to respond. Providing feedback with kind words from a listening heart is a foundational component of the work.
The second day focuses on how to identify and tell a personal story, acknowledging that all of our stories are part of the larger human and global story. Rabbinic Pastor Shulamit Fagan guides participants through this process by first modeling how she identifies and develops her personal stories, and then telling one of her own.
Participants often enter into this exercise with a lack of confidence that they will be able to identify something important to share. But to the contrary – and their own surprise – each person has always successfully sculpted a personal tale that resonates deeply in every one of us.
One participant, Rachel, shared this fragment from her life:
They called it “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” (Jerusalem the Golden) because at dawn and dusk the walls of the Old City literally glowed. There was an energy there, a humming, almost a whispering,
“This is a place like no other place, a place shimmering outside of time.”
I lived inside the walls of the Old City, in the Armenian Quarter, near the Jaffa gate. I had a tiny room in the enclosed courtyard of a wonderful Armenian woman, Areknaz Bedrossian. It was an ancient room, with thick stone walls and a domed roof. To bathe, I drew water in buckets from the well in the courtyard. I poured the buckets into the big copper tub in a corner of my room and lit the gas flame underneath to heat the water for my bath.
I remember lying on my bed in that room reading by the soft filtered light coming from a high small window above my bed. There was a real feeling of peace in that room. My boyfriend, Avi, would sit in a chair across from me, writing… It was a wonderful time in my life, rich with adventure, fun, new experiences, interesting people, learning and loving.
I remember the feeling of being deeply satisfied, as I would be falling asleep with Avi’s eyes on me as he wrote me love poems. It was a very sweet time in my life....and then, I was busted for drugs.
Now that was an unexpected turn of events! Needless to say, Rachel felt she could safely share her story without being judged. The creation of this kind of environment is one of MFSI’s top priorities. Why would she feel compelled to tell this story? Because, as author Roger Schank writes in his book Tell Me a Story, “We need to tell someone else a story that describes our experiences because the process of creating the story also creates the memory structure that will contain the gist of the story for the rest of our lives. Talking is remembering.”
Another participant, Joran, wrote about re-experiencing a childhood memory of a monastery in Marathon City, Wisconsin:
Carved out of white marble and encased behind glass — at eye level — was clearly the figure of Jesus surrounded by his accusers. This delicate vignette was set into a tall structure made completely of large, round stones. I could see them now, scattered along the trail throughout the woods. These were not shrines, these were not burial mounds. They were the fourteen stations of the cross.
The fourteen depictions of Christ during his final days. Observant Christians will sometimes make an actual pilgrimage to Mount Calvary to retrace his steps, or walk these stations in prayer and contemplation of Christ’s passion.
And they had been here, exactly like this, for years. They were exactly as I had remembered them, but not how I had seen them…
And in that moment, I prayed aloud, “Thank you. Now what would you have me do?”
Stories are sacred because they encompass who we are and, as the participants came to realize, everyone has a sacred story, and the sharing of these stories facilitates relationship and understanding.
I lead the teaching on Day 3. Jewish legend makes repeated reference to the white spaces between the black letters in the Torah scroll. We refer to this as black fire written on white fire. Violinist Isaac Stern once said that music is what goes on in between the notes. What then is the white fire? It is wordless and silent, existing, as psychotherapist and storyteller Estelle Frankel writes, “in a timeless realm.” Drawing upon wisdom that arises from the gift of silence, we develop “stories within stories,” referred to as midrash in Jewish literary tradition.
In my class, I open this tradition to our multi-faith gathering. I use, for example, the words spoken by the matriarch Rachel as she cries out to God, suffering as she is from the existential crises of Jacob and Esau wrestling in her womb: “Eem keyn, lama ze anochi” - If this is so, what is the meaning of my existence? So she went to inquire of the Lord” (Genesis 25:22)
Inspired by this line from the Biblical text, I give myself the artistic freedom to play with the text, carefully listening to the wisdom revealed within the silence contained in the white fire. A new story, a midrash, arises. This particular creation ended up including the text itself, a Rumi poem, a Stevie Wonder song (“Have a Talk with God”), and an imagined conversation between Rachel and God.
Afterwards I have participants identify a piece of sacred text that resonates with them, and use the same process to create their own midrash. Sharing these reimagined stories from the sacred texts of our various traditions has a profound affect on the entire group.
One participant, Meg, did a modern retelling of a story inspired by the Gospel of John 4:4-42. It describes an encounter that she had with a young man in a convenient store parking lot:
“…Can you give me something to drink?” he asked, in a quiet, gentle voice with no demand in it. Since I had refused a bag to hold my package, it was obvious I was carrying water. “Sure,” I replied, but as I attempted to extract a bottle of water from its plastic covering, he surprised me by saying, “No, thanks. I’m looking for something that will really quench my thirst”… Then he turned to face the mountains on the eastern horizon and said quietly, “My ancestors worshipped in those mountains.” Okay, I wasn’t expecting that, I thought to myself, but I was intrigued. It wasn’t every day someone walked up to me in a parking lot and began speaking about their ancestors!
“Your ancestors worshipped in buildings,” he continued, “but my people encounter the Great Spirit everywhere. One of these days, we will all worship together – in spirit and truth – the way the Great Spirit originally intended us to … The only way we can come together as one is by acknowledging that we all have Truth and Spirit within us, and that this is meant to be shared so that we all might grow into one. Actually, we are already one, we simply don’t realize it.”
The seeker smiled at me as he turned away to continue his journey, leaving me with the question: “What will satisfy my thirst forever?”
Painter and critic Maureen Mullarkey sums up what participants experience in our retreats: “In the hands of a gifted storyteller, prose becomes parable. It quickens the imagination, drawing from it a spirit of worship, prompting it to prayer.”
Participants learn how to lift a story from a book and make it their own; how to take a section of sacred text and create a story that imagines what is “between the lines”; and how to draw upon one’s own life experience to share what is ultimately sacred and universal.
This is our work. To remember that the story we are living is only a part of a much bigger Story. And to trust that this Story and our story are intimately connected.
Each of the stories offered has been edited for brevity.
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MFSI’s next retreat will be held at the Franciscan Center in Tampa, FL, March 3-7, 2019.
MFSI is also available for multiple day retreats and single day workshops,
Header Photo: Pexels