The Crucible of Story
By Sue Monk Kidd
It was almost Christmas. I scurried up a ladder to decorate the mantle with cedar. As I arrived at the top rung, my chest began to throb with pain. An hour later I was attached to an electrocardiograph, watching the squiggly lines and trying to figure out how such an incomprehensible thing could happen. “The chest pains seem to be stress-related,” the doctor said. I winced at the words.
Now I would have to think about my life. About the disorienting speed at which I lived, the overload of activities. I would have to figure out why I could not say “no,” why my days seemed like the squiggly lines on the scrolling paper. Thinking brought a familiar ache of emptiness, the hunger that was always there beneath my busyness, the obscure longing for something I could not name.
I went home from the hospital baffled and afraid. My life seemed suddenly unpinned. It was coming apart. In desperation I opened my Bible. I read until I came to the passage about the lame and sick who lay among the porticos of Bethesda. “For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole…”
The image touched me in a profound way. I wondered if the water of Bethesda was a mystery that was happening inside me. Who was the angel that disturbed the water of my soul? Was I being asked to step down into my own troubled depths?
I had been lying on the porticoes of my life for years. Now I had come upon “a certain season,” some holy moment when I must wade into the empty hunger that swirled beneath the surface of my life. I knew there would be no wholeness unless I stepped down into my darkness and confronted the troubling angel within.
For weeks I sat in an agony of stillness. I reflected and prayed. I went for solitary retreats. I peeled open my soul and met my troubling angel.
She was the perfectionist who dwelled in me, a relentless achiever who won love and approval by doing and performing. She insisted that I define myself around the herculean roles and agendas that made up my life. “If you want to be loved, make yourself loveable,” she told me. “You are valued by what you do, not who you are.” At times her voice took on the piety of Scripture. “Be ye therefore perfect even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” I recognized her everywhere in time and memory: the times I forced myself to accept another job at church, the times I went to great lengths to please others and most of all to please God. In my head I knew about the divine love I did not have to ear. But in my heart I had no knowledge if it at all. Now, broken by my drivenness, reduced to blue tranquilizers to get through the day, I saw that beneath my frantic doing I was starving for the immediacy of God’s love, for a presence I had been too busy to cultivate.
Confronting the troubling angel in the waters of my soul began my journey toward wholeness, a journey that carried me into the fierce tenderness of God’s love. Through solitude and silence I began to find an inner music, a love song being sung in the spaces of my own heart. In the mystery of contemplative prayer I learned to enter God’s presence within and experience myself loved beyond reason. Slowly my perfectionist, relieved of her desperate need for love and approval, was transformed.
The pain I experienced on the ladder at Christmas became the sacred hinge of my life, a pivotal experience. I climbed down from the ladder into a new way of being and relating to God. I found that I could not climb my way up to God in a blaze of doing and performing. Rather, I had to descend into the depths of myself and find God there in the darkness of troubled waters. That is the story of how I came dripping-new into the spiritual life.
Discovering our personal stories is a spiritual quest. Without such stories we cannot be fully human, for without them we are unable to articulate or even understand our deepest experience.
Many of us left the storied approach to life at our nursery windows and crossed the threshold into adulthood to more logical, didactic ways of making sense of the world. Ina culture that is rational, scientific, and abstract we have lost touch with the intuitive, imaginative, and concrete dimensions that inform story. And as the church has made theology and doctrine the core of our religious expression, we have become unstoried in the spiritual life as well. We have lost the ability to probe the soul, to know and refine its
Once I asked people in a small group to tell a story from their spiritual journeys. Many people told not stories, but gave professions of what they believed—dogmas and propositions. Exiled from their stories and from forums where stories are told, these people had lost the narrative edge of their spiritual existence. They could no longer draw on the power of metaphors, symbols, and inner parables to express their faith. Those who fail to tend to their inner stories risk creating a rift between what they believe and how they live.
As I have worked with my own inner storey and helped others to do the same, I have seen a conversion take place in several ways.
First, the inner story creates identity, transforming our vision of who we are. Creating story is an act of self-knowing. Through the lens of story we see the mystery of ourselves more clearly. Knowing who I am hinges on remembering who I have been in the past and the hope of who I may be in the future. Story allows me to enter the tension between memory and hope.
When we enter our personal story, we embark on an odyssey of reconciliation, or reclaiming more of who we truly are, the selves that are dark and light, redeemed and unredeemed.
The self-awareness I gained through the story of my inner perfectionist enabled me to begin the work of transformation. The climactic moment came during a retreat at the monastery of St. Meinrad as I struggled with my pattern of creating identity based on what I accomplished and achieved. I came to know experientially that I am simply God’s beloved child and that my true selfhood depends on nothing else.
A second way in which the inner story converts and transforms is by sustaining us in the middle of suffering. I have often seen a story become a holy container in which an individual confronts and overcomes pain and fear.
My experience with chest pains and encountering the raw absence of God at my center was a time of intense darkness and fragility for me. But as I began to form the story—pondering it, writing it, telling it—I found the story supporting me like a pair of arms. The very process of kneading the events into meaning became a ritual of nourishment. M story became bread through which God mediated grace.
I once met a woman who had endured a bitter experience as a homeless person on the streets. Over and over she told me the story. Each time she relived it, she was enabled to come to terms with the pain buried there, to accept and own it. To fashion an inner story of our pain carries us into the heart of it, which is where rebirth inevitably occurs. Telling our story puts us in an inner room with our suffering and allows us to dialogue with it. We begin to see our difficulty in a new context and thereby find the comfort and courage to live it.
Thirdly, the inner tale transforms by reorienting us to new truth and insight, breaking open the hidden holy that dwells in our experience. The word story actually means “to know.” In the act of creating story there is always an event of coming to know. God surprises us with glimpses and truths we did not grasp until we tried to tell the story. As we shape the experience, and “aha!” emerges, a revelation.
Unearthing my story revealed truth upon truth. It led me from chest pain and stress, to a pattern of drivenness, to an attitude of perfectionism, to a stark hunger of the soul. In the end, the story led me to the immense heart of God.
Discovering my inner story reveals God in time and place, my time and place. It sharpens God’s voice n the common places where it so often goes unnoticed—between the lines of life, so to speak. Through story we draw connections between the happenings of life and the lessons of God. We catch God suddenly in the thick of our days, disclosures unraveling out of the mundane. Such awareness transforms life from a series of random events to the poetic realm of a sacred tale.
When we share our inner stories, we allow others to enter our lives and partake of our deepest truths. We discover that we share the same joys and tragedies, the same ambiguities and struggles. In the end we are all one story. My own tale of the troubling angel repeats in hearts everywhere. For who has not come upon a season when the water of the soul is disturbed? And does not God meet each of us as we brave the swirling dark in search of wholeness?
God, the sublime storyteller, calls us into the passion of telling our tale. But creating personal stories is an act of soul-making that does not happen automatically. It comes only as we risk stepping into the chaos of our lives and naming the angels that inhabit the shadows. It comes as we give expression to our struggle for individual meaning, identity, and truth, as we wrestle with angels, both light and dark, and celebrate the places where God stirs. In the crucible of story we become artists of meaning. There we meet God most surely.