By Constantina Palmer
STORY FOR BODY AND SOUL
Storytelling is a characteristic feature of our Orthodox Tradition. It is an ancient and effective means of sharing high ideals, universal truths, with the common man through images and examples relative to his experience in daily life. Not only is our history replete with books full of stories about holy desert dwellers, repentant sinners, sayings and anecdotes of anchorites and hermits, but the Gospel itself, Christ’s own teachings, are dispensed in the form of story, in parables.
The parables Christ describes in the Gospels contain profound depths of spiritual insight and wisdom, only discernible to those who wish to seek the truth. Parables are straightforward enough that the carnal man (i.e., the non-spiritual person) would believe he understands Christ’s teaching because, on the surface, he does. However, in reality the mystery of their depth remains hidden from him.
And the disciples came, and said unto him, “Why speakest thou unto them in parables?” He answered and said unto them, “Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given.” (Matt. 13:10-11)
Every aspect of the spiritual life requires effort. And so, it should not surprise us that even grasping the deeper meaning of parables obliges humble-mindedness and spiritual insight. To him who makes the effort to dig deeper, Christ reveals hidden, divine truths: “He that has ears to hear, let him hear” (Matt. 11:15).
In a similar fashion, stories of Orthodox life, mindset, and spiritual realities provide two layers of insight. The first is the basic level of understanding: “That’s a nice story,” is perhaps (at best) the impression a non-spiritual person has. The second layer, however, is capable of penetrating the heart. The content of the story first enters the intellectual mind and then, for those well-disposed, proceeds to have an effect (whether or not the person is cognizant of it) on the inner man.
Like all spiritual things, there is the exterior and the interior. Like Christ’s parables, stories of spiritual depth offer both.
When asked which was more important for salvation, bodily asceticism or interior vigilance, Saint Agathon said, “Man is like a tree. Bodily asceticism is the foliage, but interior vigilance is the fruit. Holy Scripture says that ‘every tree which does not bring forth good fruit shall be cut down and thrown into the fire’ (Mt.3:10). Therefore, we should focus our attention on the fruit. But a tree also needs the protection of its foliage, which is bodily asceticism.”
Obviously, Abba Agathon is speaking here of external good works and internal spiritual works, but the idea is the same. Man is of two natures: bodily and spiritual. Stories and parables that provide two layers speak to man as consisting of both body and soul.
STORY AS MOSAIC
Another element of spiritual stories is the communal nature inherent in them. A story is something to be shared. What good is a storyteller if she has no one to whom she can relay the story? Like love, the greatest Christian virtue, it is worthless unless we share it with others. Spiritual stories are a means by which a person supports and edifies his neighbour and is himself supported and edified in his own spiritual journey.
My own stories – stories of Christian trial and victory, of lessons learned and spiritual conversations with holy ones – do not merely involve a storyteller and her listener. They are themselves communal. They are not merely my own; they are also the story of others. They describe the spiritual warfare and spiritual riches of others. They are an exchange, a mosaic; they are both my story and their story. Like St. Nikolai Velimirovich, I too,
…am searching for those who have listened, my Lord, and I share my joy with them. I tell them about Your ways and Your wisdom, and they confirm what I relate. And we multiply our joy and share it. I listen to the tale of those who have listened, how You removed the stumbling blocks before their feet, and I add my own story, and our room is filled with heaven.
The Sweetness of Grace: Stories of Christian Trial and Victory is a mosaic of all the things I learned, saw, and heard as an Orthodox Christian striving to live the faith in South Korea, Greece, and here on the Atlantic-encircled island of Newfoundland. It contains examples of the sweet and difficult aspects of Christian life. These stories, my own and those of others, are a petition to take life in Christ seriously; they are a challenge to put into practice the Gospel precepts exactly in the life circumstances in which we find ourselves. They are a sharing of stories, intended for the whole person – body and soul – intended to inspire good works in the reader.
STORY AS MOTIVATION FOR ACTION
Spiritual stories, Christ’s parables, the sayings of the desert fathers (please God, even my own simple stories) differ from secular stories in that they are intended to motivate the listener to flee from vice and acquire virtue. When we hear a spiritual story the proper response is to learn and express this learning through our actions.
“I applied my heart to what I observed and learned a lesson from what I saw” (Proverbs 24:32).
Spiritual stories are like a feast, the storyteller a gracious host. A host decorates his banquet hall, offers the finest foods and wine, and invites all he knows to eat and drink so that they may be filled. Having a story fall on deaf ears is like a person who is invited to the beautiful feast, arrives, sees the sights, smells the aroma, but does not ingest the food. What good is there in a feast if it is not eaten? The same is true of spiritual stories. They must be digested. We must grind them in the mill of our hearts, extract a lesson and apply it with zeal. In this way we are ever vigilant, ever learning, ever applying the commandments of Christ. This is what it means in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers when it states the visitor “went away greatly edified” (Sayings, p. 52).
When we hear or read a spiritual story, when we receive “the words of life”, the fruit of these words ought to be born in our hearts. This fruit becomes wisdom, understanding, forgiveness, self-reflection, courage, patience, endurance, fortitude. The benefits of spiritual stories are unfathomable if only we are not passive when we hear them. We must greet them with an open and eager heart and display our gratitude through action.
This is true both of he who hears (or reads) spiritual stories, and he who relays them. As a storyteller, I myself must strive not to be a “teacher who teaches but doesn’t practice what she preaches” (as the ever-memorable Gerontissa Makrina of Portia was wont to say). I, like all listeners, must “produce fruit worthy of repentance” (Matt. 3:8). Repentance is, in the truest sense, an action. It entails turning away from sin and toward God; this occurs first in one’s mindset and afterward is reflected in one’s deeds.
Often, when St. John Chrysostom would preach, his divinely-inspired words would evoke rapturous applause from the listening crowds, and his response would often be (in essence), “Don’t clap; rather, put my words into action.” The same can be said of every parable, every spiritual story, we hear or read. Let’s not merely clap our hands in enthusiasm, let’s show forth good works, let’s go away “greatly edified.”
Some of my favorite spiritual stories are contained in the following books:
Practical Teachings on the Christian Life by Abba Dorotheos
Athonite Fathers and Athonite Matters by St. Paisios the Athonite
An Athonite Gerontikion by Priestmonk Ionnikios Kotsonis
The Sayings of the Desert Fathers translated by Benedicta Ward
The Dialogues by St. Gregory Dialogos
Everyday Saints and Other Stories by Archimandrite Tikhon
The Prologue of Orhid by St. Nikolai Velimirovich
About Constantina Palmer
Constantina R. Palmer is from New Brunswick, a quaint province on Canada’s Atlantic coast. She lived in Thessaloniki, Greece for almost six years, during which time she received a Master’s degree in theology from Aristotle University, studied Cretan style iconography, as well as Byzantine chant. Not one to simply learn from books she also spent significant time at a number of women’s monasteries throughout northern Greece. Currently, she lives with her husband, an Orthodox priest, in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada, serving the only Orthodox parish on the island of Newfoundland. She is also a social worker. Constantina is the author of two books: The Scent of Holiness: Lessons from a Women’s Monastery and The Sweetness of Grace: Stories of Christian Trial and Victory.