I love listening to stories. I always have. Ever since my grandfather told us the Uncle Remus stories of Brer Rabbit at bedtime. Ever since my dad read the Chronicles of Narnia and the Hobbit in front of the wood stove on snowy evenings. Ever since I went to the Storytelling Festival in Jonesboro, Tennessee and heard some of the greatest American storytellers share their craft. I have always loved listening to stories.
I love telling them too. That’s why I enjoy telling Godly Play stories to the children at Old St Paul’s and why I enjoy preaching and celebrating the Eucharist. To be a priest for me is to be a teller of the very best kind of stories.
But mostly, I love listening to stories. It’s my favourite part of what I do, hearing the stories that others tell me about themselves, about their loved ones, about God. Visit after visit after visit, I walk out thinking I must be the luckiest person in the world to get to spend so much of my time listening to stories.
But that changed when the Fog rolled in. (I think looking back, it actually started as long ago as Lent.) I heard wonderful stories, stories of joy and celebration, and sad stories, stories of pain and terror. And as I walked away, I could feel the words of the people I had been sitting with swirling around in my head. The months wore on, and they began to sink down into my heart. There they sat, merging with my own words, my own stories, my own joys and terrors. Until I could no longer distinguish what was mine and what belonged to others. And it was if my whole being was suddenly weighed down by words and stories and emotion I no longer knew what to do with.
Maybe that’s part of the reason I’ve been so quiet on here. The pleasure of words slowly faded as they grew heavier and heavier. The veil, the delicate gossamer silk of silence that I place around the most precious, the most holy stories I am told gradually became a shroud, until the words it covered became so brittle they crumbled into dirt.
I was at a funeral yesterday, and one of the sons of the man who had died invited everyone who was there to turn to their neighbour and share a story about his father. And there was a great cacophony of talk and laughter, and stories filled the church.
Later, at the graveside, I thought about the stories as I threw earth on the coffin and said: ‘In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life … we commit his body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.’ And in the silence that followed, I knew that this family, these friends, this world had lost a truly remarkable, truly loved and truly loving person.
But on the car ride back to the church with the family, the stories started again. As is so often the case, tears and laughter mingled, grief at a life lost intertwined with joy at a life lived.
Afterwards, as I walked back home, I realised that the dust and debris that had gathered in my heart during the past months had been cleared away. And over the stories I had just listened to, that sacred feather-light silk of silence descended. I am the luckiest person in the world to hear such great stories, I thought to myself.