The Power of the Story

Today I am concluding my series of blogs about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in honor of the anniversary of his death, April 4th. I have been exploring what his life can teach us about the experience of the Divine Mystery.

I don’t understand the mechanics of experiencing the divine presence. I wonder if, as for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it has something to do with the commitment to give oneself to a sacred calling, or to do the work of justice. I don’t know why some people call for help, and never seem to hear an answer. There is no formula that I can teach you, except to say that trouble can sometimes be a doorway, too, if we knock.

It makes me think about something my grandfather wrote in a little black notebook that disappeared for many years. April 4th, the anniversary of King’s death, is also the anniversary of the death of my grandfathers, one in 1964, and one in 1967. My grandpa Johnson died when I was not quite 11 years old. He was not a Catholic, which was a big deal in my family. But I am told he had been a spiritual man, and had even considered a call to ministry as a Unitarian or a Lutheran. The story I remembered from the notebook was this: My grandfather said that my young cousin Michael at the age of three had gone into a church building and was looking for God. My grandfather commented, “If you can’t find God outside of the church, you will never find him inside the church.”

But just before Easter a few years ago, while my uncle was dying, another cousin sent me a message on Facebook, about going through papers of her father, and finding a copy of Grandpa’s note. It turned out the actual quote was slightly different than I remembered. He had written, “I hope you keep looking. And when you find him don’t keep him confined in church.” But it speaks to the same impulse—that God is beyond what happens in church.

Grandpa's Notebook

Grandpa’s Notebook

Even without a formula, even without a sure way to find this God who helps the lowly, I believe the stories of such a God can give us hope and courage. I am reminded of an old Jewish legend recounted by Elie Wiesel. Whether it is true or not, I do not know. But that is the thing about stories. The truth to be found in stories is not about whether or not they are factual. Some of the most helpful stories happen only in fiction.

This is a story about a Jewish community who had a very wise and powerful Rabbi. When the people were in trouble, their Rabbi used to go into the woods, to a special place, where he prayed a very special prayer, with ritual and song, and the people would be helped. But eventually the rabbi died, and his successor did not know the full ritual with all its songs. So when the people were in trouble, he went into the woods, and prayed the special prayer, and it was enough, and the people were helped.

Eventually, he too died, and the next Rabbi who came to them did not know the place in the woods. But he did know the special prayer, and so when the people were in trouble, he prayed the prayer, and it was enough, and the people were helped. Finally, he too died, and the next Rabbi didn’t know the rituals or the songs, he didn’t know the place in the woods, or even the special prayer. But he knew the story. And it was enough. And the people were helped.

Leslie Marmon Silko writes, in her novel Ceremony:

I will tell you something about stories,…
They aren’t just entertainment.
Don’t be fooled.
They are all we have, you see,
All we have to fight off
illness and death

You don’t have anything
if you don’t have the stories.

Lessons from a Small Bird

Cardinal

Photo by Margy Dowzer

The cardinal has been the species that has most taught me connection to the earth. It began unexpectedly in the winter of 1985, when I was going through a difficult transition. My marriage had ended at the close of 1984, and I was deep in grief about that loss. One winter afternoon, sunk in sadness, I heard a curious sound outside my window. When I looked out to investigate, I saw the bright red plumage of a male cardinal. Its song was distinctive and joyful, and its color shown brilliant against the gray Chicago snow. My heart was lifted by its melody.

Ever since that moment, the cardinal has signaled for me beauty and hope in the midst of suffering. So you can imagine my chagrin when, early in the summer of 2011, my partner Margy found a dead cardinal beneath one of the windows of our house. We always feel sad when a bird flies into a window—but this was a young female cardinal, and Margy knew I’d be very downhearted about it. I wondered what sort of message it was bringing, or even what bad omen it might portend. I know that sounds superstitious, but after we have associated one of our fellow creatures with a sense of blessing, it is unnerving when something like this happens.

A friend reminded me that death is a part of life. She said, pay attention for the blessing here. So I blessed the cardinal’s small body with incense, and buried it in the composting leaves at the back of our yard. I thanked the cardinal for the joy her species had brought into my life, and wished her well in the great cycle of life. I decided to put hanging streamers around our windows, to help deter future bird accidents.

During this time, I had begun reading Leslie Marmon Silko’s book, The Turquoise Ledge. It was a memoir of her days walking the arroyos near her home in Arizona. I found it a strangely quiet book. She writes about going for walks, and the creatures around her house. She talks about making peace with the creatures who live in the same place she lives—in her case, that included rattlesnakes and grasshoppers. Sometimes creatures died near her house, too, and she felt sad about it, like I felt about the cardinal. In our yard, we have chipmunks and birds and squirrels and toads. Sometimes deer or turkeys wander through, and neighbor cats. One has to slow down and be quiet to notice the creatures of the earth.

It seemed to me that the dead cardinal might be saying: Stop! Stop pushing, stop trying, stop doing, let go. Be still. Be outside. Listen. Everything is a blessing. Everyday you can go out among the trees right here. Stopping is a way to pray.