Sunday, 7 July 2013

The shortest distance between a human being and Truth is a story."

Anthony DeMello wrote...

The Master gave his teaching in parables and stories, which his disciples listened to with pleasure — and occasional frustration, for they longed for something deeper.

The Master was unmoved. To all their objections he would say, "You have yet to understand, my dears, that the shortest distance between a human being and Truth is a story."

Another time he said, "Do not despise the story. A lost gold coin is found by means of a penny candle; the deepest truth is found by means of a simple story."

Every Sunday during worship I like to share one or two stories from the different spiritual traditions of the world. I love stories, life is all about stories. Muriel Rukeyser has said "The universe is made of stories, not atoms." Now I'm sure many will argue, but I can see the truth in what she says. Life is made up of more than its physical components, or so I have begun to discover.

We all love a good story. It is not just for children, it is for all people, all ages.

On Monday I received a phone call from one of my neighbours. She rang to ask me about a "Wayside Pulpit that had recently been replaced from the front of Dunham Road Chapel, where I live. The woman couldn’t remember exactly what it said but wanted to write it down and use it in a speech she hoped to deliver at her son’s wedding. She said her son and his partner were academics and were really competitive and thought this little gem of wisdom would benefit them. She then thanked me for the messages and said they often helped her.

The Wayside Pulpit read:

“Life is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be experienced” by Joseph Campbell

Now of course Campbell loved stories, especially the great stories. He saw in them universal qualities that could speak to everyone regardless of time and place. They revealed something of the mystery that is life. He taught comparative religion for four decades and authored a series of books on the archetypes that shape our human psyche and our relations to the cosmos. That said it was not his academic genius that he is best remembered for. Instead he is best known for being the consultant of George Lucas who helped him envision Star Wars as a myth for modern times.

Stories and story-telling have been distilling wisdom throughout the generations and I have no doubt that this will continue on into eternity. They have revealed universal truths, they have spoken deep into the soul of those who have cared to listen, introducing them to magic, mystery and the possibility of otherness. These stories have expanded the imagination and have been windows onto something beyond the confines of pure reason. Life is far more than the sum of it's parts.

The following story is an adaptation of a Sufi tale by the same name. It comes from Bill Darlison’s excellent anthology “Concentration and Compassion: More Stories from the World’s Spiritual Traditions” In this story Bill has transported the tale from a Persian river over 1,000 years ago to an Irish beach in contemporary times. That said the truth that it reveals and the message it teaches is universal.

 “Written on Sand”

Two friends, Sean and Patrick, were walking together on the seashore when they started to argue. The argument became so heated that Sean slapped Patrick across the face. Patrick didn’t retaliate. Instead he took a stick and wrote in the sand, “Today Sean slapped me.”

They made up, of course, and some months later they went for a swim in the sea. Patrick’s foot became entangled in some seaweed and he couldn’t free himself. The sea was becoming rougher, and Patrick started to panic. ‘Help!’ he called, ‘I’m drowning!’ Sean, who was much the stronger swimmer, heard his friend’s cries and swam over to him. He disentangled Patrick’s foot and then pulled his half-drowned friend safely back to shore.

When he had recovered, the grateful Patrick took a hammer and chisel and carved into a rock, ‘Today Sean saved my life’.

‘After I struck you, you wrote about it on the sand but today you chiselled words on a rock. Why?’ asked Sean.

‘When someone hurts us we should record it on sand where the winds of forgiveness can erase it. But when someone does something good for us it should be recorded on rock from which it can never be removed.’

Jesus carried his message of universal love through telling parables. Lukes Gospel Ch 10 vv 25-37 recounts one of his most famous, "The Parable of the Good Samaritan"

25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.* ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 26He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ 27He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’28And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’
29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ 30Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35The next day he took out two denarii,* gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” 36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ 37He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’

The great sages such as Jesus and the Buddha excelled in storytelling. They knew that through a story they could reach every aspect of the person receiving their truth; they knew that the listener could relate to a story and it could open them up to new and deeper truths. A story really does put flesh on the word. Shaman and elders of every tradition also shared their wisdom through telling the tale around camp fires and other gatherings. They drew their listeners to deeper visions of life with imagery and symbolism. So you see the story teller has always been with us and is with us today. In fact you could say that perhaps today there are so many stories it is difficult to discern what is useful and what is not.  

Post-modernism would claim that today there is no longer one narrative. The French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard has defined post-modernism as ‘the death of metanarrative’. He claimed that we no longer have nor need the big stories ‘that tell us who we are, where we come from, and what we are called to do.’

Personally I am not convinced by this argument as I do see universal qualities in these tales. Whether it’s the one I’m told of in a coffee shop, or the one I see on the big screen, or the one I read in some ancient text. The stories may be told in different ways but they still connect us, with one another, through time and space. They do more than connect us though, they heal us, they renew us and spur us on to greater things. Regardless of when they were first told and by who they still have the capacity to tell us who we are, where we come from and what we are called to do. Well they do if we have ears to hear them; if we listen with the 'ears of our hearts.'

The beauty of our modern age is that these stories, these truths come from so many sources. There is no longer the single authoritative source, in this sense I believe that the "Post Modernists" are correct.We all tell our stories today. We can communicate them instantly and throughout the world. This is the beauty of modern media, it enables us to share and spread these stories instantly and universally. Ok there is an awful lot of junk out their but you can still discern the gems. All that you need to do is sift through the muck; you just need to pan for the gold.

In many ways social media is just an extension of the garden fence. Is it really any different to those two Les Dawson characters Cissi and Ada, those immensely comical gossiping Lancashire housewives?  There is a place for gossip in its right context, it is a way of distilling knowledge, passing on information, telling the tale. It only becomes a problem if the information passed on is designed to cause damage, is a deliberate lie or is breaking a confidence. As in all aspects of life it is the spirit in which the tales are told that really matters.

In “The Man Who Loved Seagulls” Osho  said:

“Human beings give meaning to existence; that's what a myth is all about. Man is a gossip-creating animal. Small gossips, just about the neighbourhood, about the neighbour’s wife ... and big gossips, cosmic, about God.”

Kathleen Norris in “Dakota” explains this further in the following passage on living in a small community.

“We are interrelated in a small town, whether or not we are related by blood. We know without thinking about it who owns what car; inhabitants of a town as small as a monastery learn to recognize each other’s footsteps in the hall. Story is a safety valve for people who live as intimately as that; and I would argue that gossip done well can be a holy thing. It can strengthen communal bonds...

Like the desert tales that monks have used for centuries as a basis for a theology and way of life, the tales of small town gossip are often morally instructive, illustrating the ways ordinary people survive the worst that happens to them; or, conversely the ways in which self-pity, anger, and despair can overwhelm and destroy them. Gossip is theology translated into experience. In it we hear great stories of conversion, like the drunk who turns his or her life around, as well as stories of failure. We can see that pride really does go before a fall, and that hope is essential. We watch closely those who retire, or who lose a spouse, lest they lose interest in living. When we gossip we are also praying, not only for them but for ourselves.”

The point Norris is making is that when we pass on these stories and observe one another we are learning from each other and we are connecting to each other on a deeper level. We are realising that we are one; we are the one undivided whole.

 “The Perfect Woman”

Nasrudin met an old friend whom he had not seen for twenty years. They sat down together in the cafe and talked over old times. "Did you ever get married Nasruddin?" asked the friend.

“No I’m afraid I didn’t.”

“Why not? I’ve been married many years and I’ve never regretted it.”

“Well”, said Nasruddin, “I was always looking for the perfect woman. I wanted my wife to be beautiful, intelligent, and sensible.”

“And you never found her?”

“I thought I had, when I was twenty. Her name was Ablah.
She was beautiful, just the kind of woman I like, but I’m afraid she wasn’t very intelligent, and her language was atrocious! I was embarrassed to be with her! She certainly wasn’t the perfect woman.”

“Was she your only girlfriend?”

“No. When I was twenty-five I met a woman called Bahira. She was good looking and intelligent, but she wasn’t very sensible. She spent all my money on frivolous things, and she couldn’t even boil an egg! She wasn’t the perfect woman either.”

“Were there any more?”

“Only one. At thirty I met Haddiyah and she was truly a gift from God! She was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen, and the most intelligent. What’s more she was prudent and sensible, a good cook, and a brilliant conversationalist.”

“She sounds like the perfect woman you were looking for.”

“Then why didn’t you marry her?”

“Unfortunately, she was looking for the perfect man!”

I love Nasruddin, the holy fool. I love the un-commonsense that his stories reveal. You will find characters like him in most cultures. Through humour they reveal deep truths, ones that are too often hidden.

So many of the great stories have laughter and humour within them. Sadly humour can at times be absent in the spiritual life, it ought not to be. There is something lacking in a spirituality that takes itself too seriously. The spiritual life can at times be perceived as an arid and serious world, utterly devoid of humour and lightness. Many of us look at the spiritual, the religious life, as if were a dose of rather distasteful medicine. We may well see the benefits of it, but aren’t sure we would like the way it tastes. We are frightened that it might actually reduce our experience of life. We can easily become too intense and earnest in our approach to spirituality; by doing so we can view laughter as sacrilegious and end up apologising for the freedom that it can breed. We should never apologise for experiencing joy and laughter. The spiritual life needs humour. There is humour in the ancient tales, so surely there is a place for it in our age. There is always room for Divine humour. As I often remind myself “life is too serious to be taken too seriously.”

When we listen to the great stories and when we listen one another’s stories we connect not only to each other but to all people at all times, past, present and future and of course to that greater reality present in all life. These stories bring a zest to life; these stories help us to see ourselves reflected in a different light. Through identifying we also see our own absurdities and we can laugh at our own holy foolishness. This helps us see a new, a different, perspective. A great story builds a bridge from our particular life to the timeless, the universal, they connect us to the whole. They are windows that give us a glimpse of something way beyond ourselves.

These stories nourish us. They reveal profound spiritual and psychological realities. They illuminate the inevitable difficulties that every human life faces. Great stories reveal new vistas, they shine a light on a new path, a new way and they teach us how to see this new path, they remind us that there are always new possibilities. They open up our hearts, our minds and our souls. These stories are an invitation to laugh, to awaken, to journey with others. These stories have the power to touch us deeply, to move us intensely and to inspire us to fully live our lives.

These stories are also our stories!

In “Crow and Weasel” Barry Lopez said

“The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other’s memory. This is how people care for themselves.”

I will continue to listen to the stories as they come to me and I will nurture them. I will take care of them and I will continue to give them away. I believe that that we all need them, to share them, to keep on passing them on. Why you may well ask? Well because by doing so we will take better care of ourselves.

These stories are our stories!

I have glimpsed the truth that "the shortest distance between a human being and Truth  is a story."

Can you see it too?


  1. You at least do not live behind the boundaries of what Robin Williamson called the "barren normalcy of fact and concrete".

  2. I was released from that affliction some time ago...Thanks be