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Keepers of the Story
Oral Traditions in Religion
By MEGAN McKENNA
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2004 Megan McKenna
All rights reserved.
A Word about Words and Sounds
* * *
Even your silence holds a sort of prayer. (Apache) Earth with her thousand voices praises God. (Samuel Taylor Coleridge)
There is an ancient story that keeps reappearing in each age:
* Once upon a time it was that Tibetan monks spent their entire lives chanting the names of the Holy One, God. They believed that, when they had finished the chanting and the naming, all would be said and done. It would be finished and earth would have reached its end time. For time begins with God's voice, God's words, and so time will end with our sounding, chanting the names of the Holy, the unspeakable: God.
Two men, visitors to the ancient roof of the world high in the Himalayas, had heard of this theory and stopped a monk on his journey to inquire about this idea. They stood in the wind, prayer flags snapping in the stiff breeze, and asked him if this was actually what monks believed and did. He looked at them intently and in the silence they could hear the chanting, droning coming from the monastery walls. He didn't answer immediately and so, while waiting for his response, they began a discussion of the theory. Soon they were laughing at the idea, even with a hint of contempt for the very thought of it. But the chanting continued in the background and, as they spoke, the earth began to disappear, to be erased: grains of sand, soil, leaves, rocks, animals, birds, the prayer flags shredded and torn, even the clothing on the men as they spoke. The air thinned out even more, the sky emptied, the world turned in upon itself, and the shining eyes of the monk spoke softly: it is happening even now. We are reaching the end of the names, of what can be said.
It is said by old ones in every generation that the names of God are like the names of the stars. All words, all sounds spun from small atoms, from the alphabets of imagination, whether stuttering or magnificent, are expressions of the Creator. Each one is a fragile, tiny incarnation—an a-ha. The scientists claim we are made of Stardust, nondescript dust mites, but together saying something spectacular and meaningful. And of course, we are not just talking about stars, or sounds, or even just about us. We are talking about the Holy, about communions and correspondences, about the universe. The ancient Hindu Scriptures (Vedas) of India tell of the generation of the material universe out of the "full void," an emptiness of infinite intelligence that makes everything out of silences and sounds, the fundamental energetic vibrations of divine thought. Only in recent years has Western science begun to catch up to this fundamental metaphysics of creation through the advances of quantum physics and mind-body medicine.
The stars are in motion. They are moveable feasts—like words, like notes in music, like us. We are all of a piece, one piece of the universe, one unending piece of poetry, rhyme, rhythm and heart beat. Whether we are made of Stardust and the music of the spheres or of skins stretched across frames to make drums or of quivering flesh and blood and bone, we are singing. Whether our words stick in our throats or move into our stomachs like butterflies, we are about saying something, expressing ourselves and connecting with others.
Even before there are words, sounds and silences already tell stories. Those stories lurk in everything: the creak of a rocking chair, footsteps on stairs, the breathing of our sisters or brothers in the same bed, snow falling, the gasps and moans of a fever of 105, whispers between parents, the crack of a bat and a ball thudding into a glove, the land being dug for a tree planting, the amaryllis sitting in the closet waiting to rebloom, the refusals to speak or looks that "could stop a clock." They are endless: the owl's cry before swift descent, the grasp and the kill and the mouse's pounding heart throbbing in fear before the claws close around its body. Or a comet visible for weeks as it moves—eventually out of range into the vast silence of the universe. If we were out "there" we would be dumb, mute, speechless, without words.
When I was young I was fascinated by stars. I would lay in the grass as it grew wet and damp and watch them come out. Pinpricks, tiny eyeholes where perhaps others and/or angels peered through at us here below. The first time I stood on a chair and telephone book and looked through a keyhole in the double-bolted door I was sure that was what it was like from the other side of night. I was sure there was another space-place out there beyond the stars. I longed to look back or to see earth the way it might look from there. When I first saw El Greco's pictures with their slanted perspectives and elongated objects I wondered, did he hear sound like that—stretched out, tensing the silence? For eyes are connected to ears, seeing to hearing, looking to listening.
What do our silences sound like? What are the colors of our sounds? And the sound of my own voice? Angels sing; do they hear? Do the tremors that show in our voices and so subtly reveal us to others entertain God? Some koans (loaded questions, usually encapsulated in one line) to play with: What is the sound of one hand clapping? What is the sound of a soul praying in agony? What is the sound of a heart beating? What is the sound of one person contemplating sin? What is the sound of evil looming? What is the sound of hope erased? What is the sound of a child born dead? What is the sound of waking in a tomb and being summoned to resurrection and home, at last? The first sound, the sound of God creating, does it still echo in the universe and has it seeped into every stone, tree root and piece of skin?
This isn't as strange or even as imaginative as it may seem. There is an ancient tradition among the Jews that when YHWH (certain words you do not speak aloud or even write down) spoke and gave the law on Mt. Sinai, the words were heard not just by all who were present; the words have echoed down through the ages and every human being can hear them. In fact, it's impossible not to hear them.
We have our stories in the Christian tradition that are filled with underlying sounds, past words. Lazarus was in the tomb (John 11) and Jesus cried out, summoning him forth from death, from the tomb. That voice, the Word made flesh, commands even flesh that has been rotting in a tomb for four days to surge forth, fresh, with bones knit together. What did that voice sound like? Did Lazarus ever hear anything the same way again? Or we are told that John, the child of Elizabeth and Zachary, leapt in his mother's womb and danced for joy at the sound of Mary's voice already laced with the Word made flesh (Luke 1). Did John spend all his life waiting for that voice again? This God is behind all our words. We pray repeatedly, borrowing another's words: "O Lord, I am not worthy, only say the word and I shall be healed" (sprung from the story of a man seeking healing for his son). And the holy ones of our traditions tell us that in the presence of the Holy it is we who are sounded, like tuning forks, and read, entered and sung through to glory or to endless mourning.
All stories are made of words. It is surprising how many creation stories from far-flung civilizations and geographies share a fascination with words, sounds and breath as the beginning, as that from which air, light and water have sprung, as though all were the same "stuff" rearranged in different patterns. Emily Dickinson even describes the resurrection as "a strange slant of light." And "in the beginning," even according to the astronomers, was a time of light. There are about one hundred atomic elements, the "stuff" of the universe. We have twenty-six letters in our alphabet as the "stuff" that we work with and a score of sounds to accompany our matter. The mix of matter and spirit seems to issue forth in sounds and words.
The universe is expanding, we are told. In religious or theological terms, God, the maker and keeper of all creation, breathes, sighs, expands. Everything, it seems, swells like a child in a womb. And all these words are about one thing: revelation—the uncovering and unveiling of what's already there. When we talk about stars we say they shed mass (they die). The sun has a solar wind (it breathes) and stars burn out and give birth. Matter is indestructible, though never at a standstill.
A Jewish rabbi once said: God is always revealing himself to the soul, but, like sunrises and sunsets, he never repeats. Stars fall or become shooting stars and we treasure the story of the star that rose in the east to herald the birth of the newborn king of peace, the star that led astrologers on a journey to wisdom. We count stars and live with our heads in the sky (like Galileo). And yet scientists tell us that we know only about 3 percent of the stuff in the universe! That other 97 percent—ahhhhh. And storytellers, beginning with my Nana, tell me that stars don't really fall or go shooting across the sky at random: they decide! They choose death so that someone on earth can choose life and goodness and they hurl themselves across the sky, throwing their soul and life away, siding with the weak so that they may live. In scientific terms they cast off matter.
It is all about revelation, whether we are peering through telescopes and counting stars or being accosted by burning bushes on holy ground. It is we who cannot stand the intensity of such burning light, such purity. Scientifically it is hydrogen, carbon and oxygen, but the spirit hovering, moving and stirring with something like the wings of a dove or tongues of fire, reminds us that we too are the stars of the universe, made of old molecules of Stardust, and we return, we live, and pass it on somewhere. Words, matter and spirit, we ourselves exist to take the veils away from what is.
We are told:
In the beginning, when God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth had no form and was void; darkness was over the deep and the Spirit of God hovered over the waters.
God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. God saw that the light was good and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light 'Day' and the darkness 'Night.' There was evening and there was morning: the first day. (Genesis 1:1-5)
Five lines and the universe is set in motion. (Notice: God began to create, so it must still be happening!) But in these few lines and equally few words there is light, history, the beginning of time, geography, naming, separation, and goodness. There is form and something now in the void. It is all beginning.
Much later in the Old Testament, in the book of Job (chapter 38) this God has a few more words to say about creation and the work it takes to begin and to continue the work. In fact Yahweh speaks about creating for four whole chapters!
Where were you when I founded the earth?
Answer, and show me your knowledge.
Do you know who determined its size,
who stretched out its measuring line?
On what were its bases set?
Who laid its cornerstone,
while the morning stars sang together
and the sons of God shouted for joy? (Job 38:4-7)
Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades,
or loosen the bonds of Orion?
Can you guide the morning star in its season,
or lead the Bear with its train?
Do you know the laws of the heavens,
and can you establish their rule on earth?
Now the story of creation, in the form of questions, expresses deeper realities—those of relationships and attitudes, of distance and unknowing, of mystery. The creation itself reveals that there is an Other separate from creation yet bound to it intimately, and that there is meaning to the existence of the universe and what dwells in it. After being questioned, Job answers:
I know that you are all powerful;
no plan of yours can be thwarted.
I spoke of things I did not understand,
too wonderful for me to know.
My ears had heard of you,
but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I retract all I have said,
and in dust and ashes I repent. (Job 42:2-6)
And yet after interrogating Job and telling him to reconsider his words, it is God who turns to Job's friends and announces that it is Job who has spoken of him rightly. Yahweh calls Job his servant and tells them that he will accept Job's prayer for them (Job 42:7-9). And Job is just, careful of all in his care, treating the poor, the orphan and the widow, the stranger, the sick and the injured with tenderness and concern. He has treated the sojourner, the wayfarer, and even his enemies with equal dignity. And he is thankful and aware of his land and crops and their relatedness to his life and family (Job 31). All of creation, of life, of history is of a piece. The story evolves and deepens and there are many versions of it (see Job's friends' versions in the many chapters prior to Job's long cry to God to answer him). We are all telling the story, using our words to shuffle our experiences and knowledge and put them in a form that we distill and accept. The story is always being retold, reinterpreted and recast, but it is the same story.
Our tradition will grow out of this story that culminates in John 1:
In the beginning was the Word
And the Word was with God
and the Word was God;
he was in the beginning with God.
All things were made through him
and without him nothing came to be.
Whatever has come to be, found life in him,
life which for humans was also light.
Light that shines in the dark:
light that darkness could not overcome. (John 1:1-5)
Another five verses! While echoing the original version of the story, this story is inside, underneath, seeping through and radically altering the earlier story of creation. The word that God originally spoke to bring form to the world was, believe it or not, the Word that would become flesh and would "pitch his tent among us." This Word was coming from the Father and was the "fullness of truth and loving-kindness" (John 1:14). This story says more, and—some would say—says it better and alters our understanding of the first one. Now we go back and hear and read the original with hindsight, understanding, insight, awe and wonder at what else we might have missed! What else is hidden in there?
Every tradition, every people seeks to tell the story, to say it their way, to give it a new twist, a turn based on their place in the universe, their time, and their ways of expressing their relationship to the Maker and Keeper of all things.
Ken Feit, an itinerant fool and clown who first introduced me to stories through the meandering way of mime, clowning and puppets, told an old Native American creation story from the Plains tradition. As I remember it:
* Once upon a time when the earth was young, Coyote was out walking. It was night and dark. Coyote ran into his friends, the wolves. It was a company of five wolves, all brothers, and they often shared their hunt and kill with Coyote. This night they were all gathered together, looking up at the dark night sky. Coyote greeted them and turned to the sky too. But it was empty; there was absolutely nothing there. He peered and strained his eyes to see what they were looking at, but there wasn't anything there.
"What are you looking at, my brothers?" And the first one, the eldest, wouldn't say. Coyote went away.
The next night he met them again and found them gazing into the dark above them. Again he arched his head and looked, finding nothing there. "What are you looking at, my brothers?" And none of the wolves answered him. Coyote went away. This went on for nights and Coyote became disgruntled with his friends the wolves.
Finally the wolves gathered together and said, "We have to tell Coyote what we're looking at, what we've found up there. After all, what can he do? It's so far away, unreachable." And so they decided to include him in the sighting.
The next night Coyote came and found his friends gazing at the night. He asked again, "What are you looking at, my brothers?" And this time the youngest said, "Coyote, we see two large animals up there. But we don't know what they are. It's too dark and too far away."
And it was Coyote who surprised them then. "Let's go see them and get up closer."
"How?" they asked.
"Easy," said Coyote. "Watch me!" And Coyote took his bow and arrow and started shooting into the sky, arrow after arrow straight up. The first one stuck and the second latched onto that one; the third hooked onto that and so on, until there was a path, a ladder into the night. "Now," said Coyote, "let's climb." And up he went, followed by the five brothers. The oldest wolf had a dog and took him with him. They climbed and climbed all night, all day, all night, all day. It was a long journey.
Finally they drew near the animals. They were two bears! The wolves approached cautiously, all except for the oldest wolf with his dog, who watched more carefully from a distance, with Coyote. He knew that Coyote didn't trust bears and wouldn't come any closer. The wolves looked at the bears and the bears stayed still and looked back! They sat and looked at each other for a long time.
Excerpted from Keepers of the Story by MEGAN McKENNA. Copyright © 2004 Megan McKenna. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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