On a recent Sunday, the visiting priest stepped down from the pulpit into the aisle to give his homily. He began by telling us that the meaning of our faith is often best conveyed, not by theological statements, scholarly arguments, or even the catechism, but by stories. And he had one for us.
I like this priest very much. He offers Mass with great reverence, and his counsels are usually apt, always gracious. But this time, he sent me wandering off. The Gospels are themselves stories, written two thousand years ago in the idiom of their times. Informed discussion of them—insight into the meaning of time-bound details and rhetorical tropes—is not beyond the means of ordinary congregants.
Besides, canned anecdotes from some edifying Sourcebook for Dummies are most often condescending and banal. And banality is a sin against the Gospels. I stopped listening and, instead, read from one of the books I always carry on Sundays for homiletic emergencies. (This time, Louis Bouyer’s Lord.) Nevertheless, our priest was onto something.
In the hands of a gifted storyteller, prose becomes parable. It can rise high to convey the word of God to the people of God. It quickens the imagination, drawing from it a spirit of worship, prompting it to prayer. One of such tales is the preface to Elie Wiesel’s dream-like novel The Gates of the Forest. (It is, I think, the only preface in modern literature to earn a Wikipedia entry all its own, completely separate from an entry for the novel.)
Wiki drains the soul out of it with a deadening summary of Wiesel’s opening fable about four historic—and storied—Hasidic masters. So let me recount it. Here it is in its entirety:
When the great Rabbi Israel Baal Shem-Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted.
Later, when his disciple, the celebrated Magid of Mezritch, had occasion, for the same reason, to intercede with heaven, he would go to the same place in the forest and say: “Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer.” And again the miracle would be accomplished.
Still later, Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say: “I do not know how to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient.” It was sufficient and the miracle was accomplished.
Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: “I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer; I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is tell the story, and this must be sufficient.” And it was sufficient.
God made man because he loves stories.
I love this particular story for what it tells about the substance of prayer, the living heart of it. None of us can distill our thoughts and yearnings into prayer without trust in our ability to address the infinite, merciful, everlasting God. Those pre-scripted prayers of petition we say at Mass are barren things, mere monologues, without an intuition that God Himself desires our prayer (“. . . he loves stories”). His loving involvement with the created world is the source of our capacity to pray.
Abraham Heschel, poet that he was, phrased it this way: “Man’s most precious thought is God. God’s most precious thought is man.”