Drawing Others to Celebrate God’s Mercy Through Storytelling

The Return of the Prodigal Son by William Holman Hunt (mid-to-late 1800s)

“Read me just one more story!” Maggie lay snuggled beneath the pink floral quilt, her brown eyes imploring me to continue reading from the big book of fairy tales.

“You should be asleep already,” I replied. I gave a half-hearted sigh, turning the page, and then began, “Once upon a time…”

It may be a well-worn bedtime stall tactic, but young children take genuine delight in stories. Make them the hero or heroine of the story, and the excitement is almost palpable.

As we grow up, we may shun the fanciful fairy tales of youth, but the delight in experiencing a good story still exists, albeit in a slightly different form perhaps. We enjoy picking up a good novel, catching the latest adventure movie, or binge watching our favorite soap opera, or TV drama. Stories are enjoyable because they take us outside of our everyday drudgery, and the real problems we must confront. A good story allows us to lose ourselves in another world.

Telling the story of our own personal experiences with mercy, and hearing others’ encounters with the mercy of God, allows us to understand the richness of God’s love for us more fully, and encourages us to continue to seek his merciful forgiveness and love.

Jesus: The Storyteller
It is no surprise that Jesus Christ, who understood our humanity, relied on storytelling to teach us truths about the Father; some forty different parables are found in the Synoptic Gospels. Jesus utilized these stories to make an important point, particularly where there was an unexpected twist, a turn in the outcome from what his listeners expected. For example, remember the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). In squandering his inheritance, the son returns to the father, thinking his father might not even hire him as a worker on his property. Instead, he finds his father watching for him, and running to greet him with open arms.

These parables stick with us because they are ordinary events that transcend time: a woman who loses a coin, a traveler who fell into the hands of robbers, a man sowing seed. It is easy to picture what is happening, and because they are common experiences, we can picture ourselves in the story. In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, we have likely alternately pictured ourselves as the prodigal son, the forgiving father, and the jealous older brother. Like any good story, the parable teaches us vicariously through the characters presented. While it never explicitly mentions the word “mercy” or “justice,” the parable paints a vivid image of the essential qualities of these concepts. As St. John Paul II points out, the parable “enables us to understand more fully the very mystery of mercy, as a profound drama played out between the father’s love and the prodigality, and the sin of the son.”1 It teaches us about the infiniteness of divine mercy, and of the need for interior conversion. The parable truly teaches us how to live as sons and daughters of God.

Jesus takes simple events and uses them to teach something profound. Renowned screenwriter, Frank Cottrell Boyce, noted in his online journal, “Thinking Faith” that “Conventional storytelling is all about consequences, about the merciless chains of cause and effect; but the great religious stories— The Prodigal Son, for instance—are about how mercy and grace will cut you free from those chains.”2 The twist of the parable points us to something beyond the expected cause-and-effect reaction. They point us to God, who reveals himself to us precisely, and perhaps most profoundly, in the unexpected experiences of our lives.

The Power of a Personal Story
Our personal experiences have the power to lead others to God—if we believe that our lives are stories being written by God—for they reveal his love, faithfulness, and mercy.

In college, I had the privilege of being asked to give a 45 minute talk during a weekend retreat for our Catholic Newman Center. The topic, however, was on forgiveness; it was not a topic I would have selected myself. Who really enjoys sharing one’s intimate experiences of failure and weakness with a hundred strangers? How do I accurately share God’s abundant love for, and forgiveness of, myself?

Yet, that was the task I had. In preparing the talk, I had to stop and ponder my personal experience receiving, and giving, forgiveness. I had to look back and see how God had worked in my life. It was a blessing in disguise. It forced me to explore parts of my past that I hadn’t looked at in a long time. I was able to see how God had brought me through some of those difficult moments, and how there were blessings brought about because of those experiences.

On the retreat, I shared with the 120 retreatants how I had been wounded in the past. I told them how an experience of grace in Confession while I was attending World Youth Day helped me begin the process of forgiving those who had done wrong to me. I shared with them the peace that I had experienced in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I told them how the Sacrament allows me to no longer be haunted by my past failings and, instead, freely rejoice in God’s great love for me.

Through the grace of God, my story inspired so many of the retreatants to partake in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Priests heard Confessions for several hours afterwards—even with dozens of priests present—and it was the highest number of confessions heard during a single retreat.

Telling Our Story: Finding God
In giving that talk during the retreat, I discovered that there is a lot of power in sharing one’s experiences. There is something strangely powerful in hearing another’s lived experience, even more than a fictional story by a talented writer. A fictitious story has behind it a human creator. However, no matter how brilliant the human writer, he or she cannot measure up to the craft with which God writes the story of our lives. As G.K. Chesterton remarked, “I had always felt life first as a story: and if there is a story, there is a storyteller.”

Our challenge, therefore, is to detect the story being told through our daily experiences by the storyteller, God. It requires a firm conviction that God is truly present in our everyday lives. It means wholly trusting that God dwells in us, and with us, always out of his profound love for us.

Once we become convinced of that, a desire arises in us to find where he is at work. The question then becomes how we discover where Christ is. The story of Mary and Joseph’s finding of Jesus in the temple provides us a model of this searching. Upon realizing that they did not know where Jesus was, Mary and Joseph searched first among their relatives and friends.

For us, too, when we struggle to find Christ in our lives, turning to those closest to us—our family and friends—is often a good starting point. Since their lives intertwine with ours, they can help us see how God has been at work in our lives. They have, hopefully, also experienced God’s grace working in us when we interact with them.

The ability to see God at work in our lives, both in the moments of joy and the moments of struggle, is at the heart of the spiritual life, for it shows us the very closeness of God to each one of us in every minute of our lives.

Telling Our Story: Sharing Courageously
Once we have come to understand how God is at work in our life, we should share that with others. One of the mottos of the Dominican order is “Contemplare et Contemplata Aliis Tradere,” or “To contemplate, and to hand on the fruits of contemplation.” From our contemplation, and finding Christ in our lives, we should be impelled to share what we have discovered. Think about it this way: if something really great and exciting happened to you, you’d likely call your best friend, or close family member, to share the joy. So, too, we should have the same urgency when sharing how Christ has been active in our lives with our family and friends.

It may seem foreign to our experience as Catholics to talk about our experiences of God’s mercy and love. We may struggle because we do not want to admit that we need the Sacrament of Reconciliation, or that we have failed to do what we ought. We may grapple with finding God in the mundaneness of daily life. It is precisely the nitty-grittiness of life, the reality of our foibles, that make our stories valuable. By sharing our real encounters with God, not a picture-perfect version, we tell of God’s infinite mercy and power, instead of cheapening it. We avoid cheap sentimentality, which is neither believable, nor up-lifting to experience.

Sharing with others where we have found God, and His merciful love acting in our lives, is needed. Through sharing how we see God at work in our lives, particularly in the moments of joy, and the moments of struggle, we help others appreciate how God might be at work in their own lives. It provides them with a lens to begin viewing their lives in a way they may have not previously considered.

In truth, we are witnesses to the existence of God’s love and mercy because we have experienced it for ourselves. It is the difference between reading about a far off, foreign country in a text book and hearing about a friend’s recent visit to that nation. Both provide us with information about that place but there is a richness in a personal testimony that brings to life the experience that facts unto themselves cannot convey. So too is it with our faith and, in particular, with our experience of God’s mercy. We can read the Catechism or the great treatises of the saints on the topic of mercy and forgiveness. While true and illuminating certain aspects of the faith, they pale in comparison to a personal story, told well, full of action, drama, and meaning.

Telling Our Story To Draw Others to God’s Mercy
If we want to catechize about God’s mercy, we need to do more than just talk about the theology or the doctrine of forgiveness and the Sacrament of Reconciliation. While doctrine is important, it alone is unlikely to draw one to approach the Sacrament. Correct theological doctrine, while important, is not sufficient to overcome the cultural resistance against seeking mercy and admitting one’s faults. As Saint John Paul II observed, in Dives in Misericordia: “The present-day mentality, more perhaps than that of people in the past, seems opposed to a God of mercy, and in fact tends to exclude from life and to remove from the human heart the very idea of mercy. The word and the concept of ‘mercy’ seem to cause uneasiness in man…”3 We are simply not in a culture which conditions us to desire reception of mercy for mercy presumes that one is in a position of weakness or failure. No one likes to admit that they are not in control. Instead, our society trains us to always have our “game face” on, to appear put together and in control at all times.

In light of this cultural resistance to the idea of mercy, we need something stronger than merely doctrinal explanations. To overcome the inertia against seeking mercy, we need to share personal stories of how we’ve experienced God’s mercy in our lives. It is these stories which are going to help people return to God and the Sacraments. It is easy for Catholics, despite an understanding and belief in the doctrines on mercy and forgiveness, to be overcome by fear and turn away from the confessional. Personal stories help to overcome the emotional temptation to stay away from the Sacrament. In sharing our authentic encounters with divine mercy are we able to witness to the Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In announcing the Jubilee Year of Mercy in 2015,4 Pope Francis stated, “The Church is commissioned to announce the mercy of God, the beating heart of the Gospel, which in its own way must penetrate the heart and mind of every person… It is absolutely essential for the Church and for the credibility of her message that she herself live and testify to mercy.” Our stories of encounter with divine mercy have an important part to play in drawing people to the Sacrament where they can intimately and personally experience God’s love and mercy.

Stephanie H. To About Stephanie H. To

Stephanie H. To works for the Archdiocese of St. Louis’ Respect Life Apostolate. She holds a BA in psychology from Washington University in St. Louis, a MA in Bioethics & Health Policy from Loyola University in Chicago, and a JD with a certificate in health law from Saint Louis University.

Comments

  1. Ted Heywood says:

    I believe that emotional or relational stories/experiences can be effective in teaching a point but that lasts only until a more/better emotional/experiental event comes along. In this way one is moved from pillar to post by a series of human influences that are usually fleeting with no direction to the path being followed. Commitment comes from the exercise of Reason (a gift from God) and diligent pursuit of Truth in pursuing the topics normally associated with serious religious growth. Without the steady rudders of Reason, Free Will, and Perseverance we have what Pope Frances is pushing.

    • Stephanie To Stephanie To says:

      Ted, discernment of God’s work in our lives must necessarily be tempered by doctrine. If one believes he or she is “divinely inspired” to commit an objective evil, it cannot truly be God at work. In no way is this article attempting to minimize the importance of sound theological teaching. Our Catholic faith, however, is also a lived experience and we can come to see, in a small way, how God’s grace works in our lives. Those experience are important to share as well as Catholic dogma.

  2. Leighton Drake says:

    Having worked in the mission field for many years, I would say that this article is right on the mark. I’ve observed the inability of many Catholics to speak of Christ present in their daily lives. “Stories of grace,” to borrow a phrase from Notre Dame professor, Leonard DeLorenzo, have the power to penetrate the heart in a way that the exposition of doctrine doesn’t. In evangelizing adults, for instance, in our sacramental preparation process for their children, we use personal witness as a means to help the parents make the connections between doctrine (which is essential) and their daily life (which to them is the substance of their reality). This is the genius of Catholicism: ours is a religion that recognizes and affirms the extraordinary within the experience of the ordinary. Stories help people recognize the Lord as one who is present, and concerned.