Meaning in the telling

I’ve just finished reading a lovely book by Kerry Egan called On Living. The book is a series of stories about being a hospice chaplain, attending to the dying through listening to their stories, and the stories of their caregivers. There are many elements of the book that rang true to me, but one is a point about narrative that she makes. Egan writes about the deep human need to tell a story, to give meaning to suffering in life. Everyone suffers, but how we name it and give the meaning to it is essential to how we can incorporate traumatic or difficult events into our lives. When we want to support others through their difficulties, one of the best things that we can do is to listen to another’s story, to hold it in reverence, and not to try to offer or to impose our own meaning on it. Egan writes, “When people tell their stories, again and again, turning them over and over, they’re trying to make or find meaning in them. That meaning is something they need to discover for themselves…The meaning a person finds will almost never be the same one you can come up with. It will always be richer, more nuanced, more surprising” (180-181).

The Gospel authors were people who tussled and struggled with the meaning of their experience and encounter with Jesus. Whatever happened to each of them, however differently each of those authors experienced Jesus, they were transformed by the encounter. Their narratives are not identical, because they are so personal. For example, Luke’s gospel emphasizes the intimacy between Mary and Elizabeth and implies that John and Jesus would have known one another growing up. But in today’s gospel story, John does not know who Jesus is until the moment he baptizes him, when the sky opens up, and a dove descends upon Jesus, and John can say, “That’s the one. That’s the person that we have all been waiting for. It’s who I have been waiting for.”

Our experiences of God might be like either of these–a slow growing understanding that God is in the person that we always knew, growing up, in the family and love that surrounded us. Or it could be in a sudden, surprising epiphany, a moment when we least expected to find God there rather than in our safely constructed ideas of where God must be found. But the Gospel authors knew that until we tell the story of how we found, saw, experienced God, we don’t really know God. It’s in the telling of the story that the meaning becomes real, palpable, sacramentalized.

When we listen to others’ experiences of God, we allow them the space to encounter God again, in the telling of the story. This is why simple presence and listening can be so powerful. We don’t have to know how to fix, cure, or address another person’s suffering. But we can take the time to listen, to be present, and to let another person know, “I am here.” To trust that God is working through the very process of story telling itself.