published in ANALECTA TERTII ORDINIS
REGULARIS (Rome, Italy),
Vol. 36/174 (2005) pp. 343-352.
About those who minister the Word of
God, Thomas of Celano points out that St. Francis used to say that
“the preacher must first secretly draw in by prayer what he later pours out
in sacred preaching; he must first of all grow warm on the inside or he will
speak frozen words on the outside” (2C 163).
This is enlightened
advice, as well, for catechists, religious education teachers and others who
have the opportunity to minister the Word of God. That is, before speaking,
teaching or preaching one needs to set aside adequate time for prayer to
draw in deeply God’s inspiration and listen to the Word.
St. Francis Spoke Life-Giving and Profound Words
According to Celano,
the beauty of the preaching of St. Francis flowed from his love of God and
an ardent desire to invite others to experience the same thing.
evangelist Francis preached to the simple, in simple, concrete terms, since
he knew that virtue is more necessary than words, still, when he was among
spiritual people with greater abilities he gave birth to life-giving and
profound words. With few words he would suggest what was inexpressible, and
weaving movements with fiery gestures, he carried away all his hearers
toward the things of heaven. (2C 107)
This is the heart of a Franciscan perspective regarding
storytelling in the ministry of the Word — to speak life-giving and profound words; to use words and
gestures in order to transport the hearers of the Word
toward the things of heaven.
St. Francis tells Pope Innocent a Story‑Parable
In exploring storytelling within the
Franciscan tradition, it is amazing to note that the origins of the
Franciscan fraternity began with a story‑parable that St. Francis received
from Christ while in prayer. This was prompted by Pope Innocent’s insistence
that Francis try to discern God’s will regarding permission for his rule of
[Francis] presented himself and his followers before Pope Innocent to
request a rule for his life, it seemed to the Pope that their proposal for a
way of life was beyond their strength. A man of great discernment, he said
to Francis: ‘My son, pray to Christ that through you he may show us his
will, so that once we know it, we may confidently approve your holy desire.’…[Francis] prayed intently and devoutly exhorted his companions to appeal
praying, the answer came to him and he told his sons the news of
salvation. Thus, Christ’s familiar speaking in parables is
‘Francis,’ [Christ] said, ‘Say this to the pope: “Once upon a time there was
a poor but lovely woman who lived in a desert. A king fell in love with her
because of her great beauty; he gladly betrothed her and with her had lovely
children. When they had grown up, having been nobly raised, their mother
said: ‘Dear children, do not be ashamed because you are poor, for you are
all children of a great king. Go joyfully to his court and ask for what you
need.’…They presented themselves boldly to the king: they were not afraid to
look at him since they bore his very image. When the king saw his likeness
in them, he was surprised, and asked whose sons they might be. When they
said they were the children of the poor woman who lived in the desert, the
king embraced them. ‘You are my heirs,’ he said, ‘and my sons; have no
fear!’…The king then sent orders to the woman to send all his sons to be fed
at his court.’’ This parable made the saint happy, and he promptly reported
this holy message to the pope.
was this woman…because he was fruitful and bore many children. The desert
was the world, which was wild and sterile, with no teaching of virtue. The
many beautiful children were the large number of brothers, clothed with
every virtue. The king was the Son of God, whom they resemble by their holy
The lord pope was
amazed at the parable presented to him, and recognized without a doubt that
Christ had spoken in this man. He remembered a vision he had seen only a few
days earlier, and instructed by the Holy Spirit, he now believed it would
come true in this man. He saw in a dream the Lateran Basilica almost ready
to fall down. A religious man, small and scorned, was propping it up with
his own bent back so it would not fall. ‘I’m sure,’ he said, ‘he is the one
who will hold up Christ’s Church by what he does and what he teaches!’
Because of this the lord pope easily bowed to his request…He quickly granted
what was asked and promised even more. (1C 16)
Stories Have Power
In her book Storytelling
from the Bible, Janet Litherland maintains that “stories have power.
They delight, enchant, touch, teach, recall, inspire, motivate, challenge.
They help us understand. They imprint a picture on our minds. Consequently,
stories often pack more punch than sermons. Want to make a point or raise an
issue? Tell a story. Jesus did it. He called his stories ‘parables’.”
In fact, Mark points out in his Gospel
that Jesus “did not speak to them without a parable” (Mk. 4:34). The
parable was a new method of teaching that Jesus chose to use. Parables and
stories teach a natural wisdom of morality, of healing, of compassion, of
values and ethics. Jesus wanted to imprint a picture on our minds that would
touch us with a lasting impression in the deepest part of our spirit. Jesus
wanted us to get the picture, the bigger picture.
Stories, parables, fables, anecdotes and
illustrations are thrown alongside the biblical word to help us to see the
“bigger picture” in life. They help us to understand there is more to life
than our own limited and narrow spheres of experience. They create pictures
in our minds and enlighten our imagination to comprehend a greater dimension
of life than we normally are used to experiencing. That is what Jesus tried
to accomplish with his disciples and with the crowds that flocked to hear
him speak: to take them to a place where there is new way of living, loving
and healing; a new world that these people never could have imagined on
their own. Such is the task for those who minister the Word to God’s
people — to open people’s imagination toward
the things of heaven.
In his reflections, Frank Seilhamer highlights the essence of
Jesus’ use of the parables in his teaching.
Parable is the
translation…of two Greek terms — parah meaning ‘near’ or
‘vicinity’ and ballo meaning ‘to throw’ — that mean ‘to throw along
side of.’ What is involved is a story created to be thrown along side of a
true‑life situation to drive home the central point the storyteller is
trying to make. As Jesus demonstrated, a good picture is worth a thousand
words…which a person can visualize, then pin to their memory.
Communicators Can Tell a Story
Joe Griffith in the
introduction to his book Speaker’s Library of Business Stories, Anecdotes
and Humor asserts that good story telling is an integral part of good
communication. He states that,
communicators have one common denominator: They can tell a story. More to
the point, they can use a good story to make a point and to fix that point
in their listener’s mind…
illustrations…throughout your presentation, you will grab the imagination of
your listeners in a way that films or television are hard pressed to
duplicate. Never forget that as a communicator you are appealing to the most
powerful image-producing mechanism on earth…the human mind. It thrives on
images. Good stories are triggers that release an explosive, powerful,
positive form of communication energy.
To quote the
late Dr. Carl Winters, for years a popular member of the prestigious General
Motors speaking staff, ‘If you want to be a successful speaker, you’ve got
to have a message with stories for people to remember your message by.’
This is wise advice for each of us who minister God’s word.
As catechists, teachers and preachers, we want
to make a point and to fix that point in our
listener’s minds¼for people to
remember our message by. To assist in this, a good collection of
stories, anecdotes and illustrations is an attractive and valuable resource.
Stories and parables ring
true to human life with fresh insights into truths that are taught by
the catechist or repeated from the pulpit. These truths can become so
familiar and well known that people no longer hear them. The creative use of
the imagination, as it were, “dresses up” these truths through storytelling
in new garments so that we take notice of them and a moral or spiritual
truth can be extracted.
A rabbi was once
asked, ‘Why does a parable possess such great influence?’
The rabbi replied.
‘I will explain this by way of a parable: ‘Truth was accustomed to walk
about as naked as Truth was born. No one allowed Truth to enter a home and
everyone who encountered Truth ran away in fright.
greatly embittered and could find no resting place. One day Truth beheld
Parable attired in colorful, expensive garments. Parable inquired, ‘Why are
you so dejected, my friend?’
‘Truth replied, “I
am in a bad situation. I am old, very old, and no one cares to have anything
to do with me.”
retorted Parable, “it is not because of your age that you are disliked by
people. Look, I am as old as you are, and the older I grow, the more do I
seem to be loved. Let me disclose to you the secret of my apparent
popularity. People enjoy seeing everything dressed up and somewhat
disguised. Let me lend to you some of my garments, and you will see that
people will like you as well.”’
this counsel and dressed in the garments of Parable. Ever since then, Truth
and Parable have walked hand in hand, and everyone loves them both’.
In my own preaching experience, I discovered this same
principle. By and large people do not hear, pay attention to or seek the
naked truth. However, when the same message is “dressed up” in the garments
of a story, of a parable, they not only listen, but also take the message
home with them.
For me, beginning to tell stories was not really a conscious
decision. It emerged from within me as natural as could be for a priest of
Irish heritage — as if there is some storytelling gene. This is not to say
that I have not spent considerable time researching storytelling as an art
form or that stories just pop up easily. For over 25 years I have collected
numerous volumes of storytelling books, and have hand‑written enough
stories, so far, to fill twelve composition books. I have also filled
thirty‑eight journals with quotations. The difficult part for me, however,
when I am asked about the how’s and why’s of storytelling, is trying to
describe my approach to using storytelling within ministry of the Word.
Two of the biggest obstacles in moving from simply telling a
story to becoming a storyteller are risk and fear. Yes, it is a risk
to get into a story so that it becomes real or somehow rings true to
human life, with all the nuances of voice inflections, posture and
facial expressions that emerge from the story. Marshall McLuhan once said so
well: ‘The medium is the message.’ As storytellers in ministry of the Word
we are the medium through which the biblical message is communicated.
Communications experts tell us that 7% of communication occurs through the
words used, 38% through the way the words and the voice are used, while 55%
of communication occurs through non‑verbal body language. Indeed, the medium
is the message.
Are you afraid people will laugh at you? Or, maybe, is it
that they are laughing with you, within the setting of the story? This was a
big hurdle for me when I first began my preaching ministry. I was so
concerned about what the congregation thought that I hesitated to take many
risks and venture into “deep” waters. I was suffering from what could have
been called “paralysis of perfectionism.” If one takes no risks then one
cannot fail, but, alas, neither can one succeed. Face your own obstacles;
take the necessary risks to overcome your own fears. If you haven’t heard it
already, fear can
be understood as an acronym: False Expectations Appearing
What changed my preaching style actually changed my future
ministry as well. What began as personal, journal‑writing therapy,
collecting positive quotations and stories quickly assumed a new perspective
when I took what was then a big risk and shared some stories and quotations
from my journals in my preaching.
When people would come up and ask for a copy of this
quotation or that story I was amazed! These were my “personal” stories and
quotes, and other people found them helpful too! Gradually I took more risks
and told more stories; now people seem to expect me always to come up with a
good story. A bonus to storytelling ministry, from my experience, is that
people tend to listen more attentively and enter into the story with the
catechist, teacher or preacher, enabling him or her to make the connection
with the biblical word, the stories of their lives and the kingdom of God.
The Golden Legend
In researching religious storytelling, I came across
interesting historical background material on the use of stories and
parables in preaching. In The World of
Storytelling we read:
exemplum is a classic fable or popular anecdote to which has been added
a moral…They were used in sermons, much as parables were used by Christ. The
oldest known Christian examples occur in the homilies of Saint Gregory the
First (c. 600).…In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, certain monks
developed the narration of the exempla into an art that was very
successful. This was in large measure due to the example set by the
Dominicans and by prelates such as Jacques de Vitry; known to have compiled
a number of collections of sermons with stories.
Jacques de Vitry was a translator of a major collection of sermon stories written in
the thirteenth century by another Dominican, Jacob de Voragine. De
Voragine’s collection became known as The Golden Legend, the most
popular book of the Middle Ages next to the Bible.
Therefore, we may be reassured, as
catechists, and others who engage in the ministry of the Word, that when we
use stories, parables, illustrations and anecdotes, we are not being faddish
or simplistic, but stand in good company with a rich heritage.
Invite People to Faith
White points out in Speaking In Stories that “the goal of preaching
[catechetics] is not to inform…(it) is about inviting people to faith…to
help people make connection between the biblical word and the stories of
The ministry of the Word, be it catechetics, teaching or preaching, seeks to invite
people to faith…to make a connection of the Word with their own life…to
open people’s imagination to picture a new way of living, of loving, of
healing. Our task, then, is to involve people in a personal way to find a
key to their own stories of faith and struggle.
I will try to answer a couple of questions that I am often asked: Where do
you find these stories and parables to use in catechesis or preaching? What
kinds of resources are available?
In fact, God is continually sending us stories, illustrations
and modern‑day parables, so many that it is a wonder that we miss seeing
this. Remember St. Francis’ admonition to “first secretly draw in by prayer,
to grow warm on the inside.” We have to learn to listen to our own inner
voice that nudges us to take notice; then take the next step and write the
story or illustration into our own collection. In this way we develop our
own collection of resources, our own exempla, from which we can invite people to faith
and open their imagination toward the things of heaven.
In reflecting on his own
experience, Fr. Murray Bodo, OFM, writes:
I began to choose
only those stories that have that mysterious, archetypal quality that speaks
to something profound within us, some deep desire of the human heart.
…Like prayer, they
took me along with them and somehow effected in me inner transformations not
unlike those experienced by Francis and his companions…Whoever told the
first stories was not only remembering but reliving, as well. And what he or
she remembered was conditioned by what had happened within, those
unforgettable changes in attitude and behavior that reveal the Spirit’s
presence in our lives. The stories, then, are the incarnation of the
efficacy of God’s Word… and their very retelling itself becomes an effective
So the first resource is so obvious that most
people miss it — observation.
Life abounds with delightful stories, anecdotes and modern‑day parables if
only we pick up on them. They are in the people we meet, in the newspapers
we read, in the television programs we watch. Yes, indeed, we can learn a
lot by observing life. This is more than just casual observing. It is what
Jesus spoke about when He asked us to see, not just look; to listen, not
just hear. It is attentiveness, alertness to life, seeking to see the
hand of God in events, searching actively for the significance of what is
taking place around us.
Stories Contain a Dynamic Life‑Force
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus tells the
following parable, “A man scatters seed on the ground. He goes to bed and
gets up day after day. Through it all the seed sprouts and grows without his
knowing how it happens” (Mk. 4:26‑29).
Storytelling in ministry of the Word and catechesis is like
the scattering of seeds. The stories contain within themselves a dynamic
life‑force that is capable of sprouting, growing and bearing fruit in the
lives of the listener’s without the storyteller knowing how it happens.
Therefore, it is the primary task of a storyteller simply to keep telling
the stories, just like the farmer who scatters the seed.
There is a delightful story by Jean Giono that illustrates how being faithful to the
scattering of seeds in storytelling ministry can bring forth an abundance of
In the 1930s a
young traveler was exploring the French Alps. He came upon a vast stretch of
barren land. It was desolate. It was forbidding. It was ugly. It was the
kind of place you hurry away from. It had been devastated during World War
the young traveler stopped dead in his tracks. In the middle of this vast
wasteland was a bent‑over old man. On his back was a sack of acorns. In his
hand was a four‑foot length of iron pipe.
man was using the iron pipe to punch holes in the ground. Then from the sack
he would take an acorn and put it in the hole. Later the old man told the
traveler, ‘I’ve planted over 100,000 acorns. Perhaps only a tenth of them
will grow.’ The old man’s wife and son had died, and this was how he chose
to spend his final years. ‘I want to do something useful,’ said Elzeard
later the now not‑as‑young traveler returned to the same desolate area. What
he saw amazed him. He could not believe his eyes. The land was covered with
a beautiful forest two miles wide and five miles long. Birds were singing,
animals were playing, and wildflowers perfumed the air.
The traveler stood
there recalling the desolate area that once was; a beautiful
stood there now — all because someone cared.
occurred because someone was faithful to sowing the seeds. Storytelling will
plant seeds of faith and hope in people’s lives that will take root and grow
in abundance. If you are faithful to sowing the seeds of God’s Word, the
empty wastelands of desolation and despair can be transformed.
And so, let me encourage you to use stories, parables,
fables, anecdotes and illustrations. You will find that people will begin to
get the bigger picture as you help them envision the kingdom of God, to
imagine a new way of living, loving and healing. They will enter into the
story with you and take something home with them.
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
that the shortest distance between a human being and Truth is a story.’
Yes, and the
shortest distance from the Gospel to people’s lives is through a story. So
tell them well and tell them often.
Fr. Brian Cavanaugh, TOR, works
at Franciscan University, Steubenville Ohio. He is the author of numerous
books and articles on storytelling, and most notably
The Sower’s Seeds
series of storytelling resources published by Paulist Press. This article
expands and refines ideas presented in two previous articles,
“Storytelling as Ministry” and “Picturing the
Kingdom of God:
Storytelling in Preaching,” both published in
The Priest, December, 1994
and September 1996, respectively. These articles are also available on his
website at http://www.appleseeds.org.
Joseph Griffith, Speaker’s Library of Business Stories, Anecdotes and
Humor. NY: Prentice Hall,
2000. p. ix‑xi.
Brian Cavanaugh, TOR, The Sower’s Seeds: 120 Inspiring Stories for
Preaching, Teaching & Public
Speaking, Revised & Expanded. Mahwah,
NJ: Paulist Press, 2004, p. 74.
Anne Pellowski, The World of Storytelling. NY: H.W. Wilson Co.,
1990, p. 57.
William R. White, Speaking in Stories. Minneapolis: Augsburg
Press, 1982, p. 24.
Murray Bodo, OFM, Tales of St. Francis: Ancient Stories for
Contemporary Living. NY: Doubleday,
1998, p. 12‑14.
Cavanaugh, The Sower’s Seeds. p. 7.
Cavanaugh, The Sower’s Seeds. p. 1.