One of my favorite Irish ballads, “Dublin in the Rare Auld Times,” begins:
“Raised on songs and stories,
Heroes of renown,
The passing tales and glories,
That once was Dublin town.
The hallowed halls and houses,
The haunting children’s rhymes,
That once was part of Dublin
in the rare auld times.”
As often as I have heard these lines about Dublin long ago, my mind has lingered on the opening phrase, “raised on songs and stories.” There is something romantic, yet obviously true, about the idea behind it — that children are not only entertained by tales passed from one generation to the next, but nurtured and “raised on” them as well. Family stories in particular become part of who we are, an irreplaceable birthright.
As an only child, I spent a great many hours listening to my parents. My father was famous for his stories, with a poet’s flair for language and keen sense of humor to enliven every telling. I met an endless stream of characters from his Brooklyn courtroom (Dad was a criminal court judge), all thanks to the power of the spoken word and my own imagination. My mother could recount her childhood stories so vividly, her youth seems almost as real to me as my own. Thanks to her, my grandmother will always be a young woman in my mind’s eye, with “dark, wavy hair down to her waist and cheeks as red as apples.”
Perhaps one of the blessings of family stories is that, when told by a loving storyteller, we are able to grasp something better and more real than could be conveyed by film or photograph — we see the impression etched upon a heart. If we are fortunate enough to find love and loyalty, sorrow and courage, faith and determination there, it is that much easier to find it in ourselves.
It has been reported for decades that television (not to mention the computer) has replaced the hearth as the gathering place in modern homes, yet how often do we consider that it has also replaced the storyteller? The truth is, if we do not tell the stories, someone else will. Our children’s need for story is as insatiable as any other hunger, and it will make do with a diet of cartoons or reality shows. The result is a break in a chain and an opportunity lost. When we look at our children and get the feeling we do not know them, it may be because they do not know us.
Jesus Christ, the ultimate storyteller, well understood the human need for stories and taught His people in parables, feeding them with words just as surely as He fed them with loaves and fishes. His words and the story of His life were cherished by His disciples and passed along faithfully even when the telling led to martyrdom. How well the early Christians understood and lived the teaching, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
Just a few days from now, the greatest night of storytelling of the year will take place throughout the world. Our Lord, loving and perfect Father, through His bride, our holy mother the Church, will unfold the story of Himself at the Easter Vigil. He will tell His children how He created the world, kept His promises to Abraham and Moses, and rose from the dead to free us from sin and death. He will remind us of the importance of sacred story through the words the prophet Isaiah, “All your children shall be taught by the Lord, and great shall be the peace of your children” and “My word shall not return to Me void, but shall do My will, achieving the end for which I sent it.”
Years ago, my older daughters and I read about an old German custom of bringing the light from the new Paschal candle home in a lantern to symbolize the Light of Christ entering the home. We were new to our parish at the time, and I wondered what our pastor, Father Clerkin, would think if he saw us trying to take flame to light a homemade lantern. When Mass was over, we sheepishly approached him for permission, armed with a stub of candle in a plain glass jar that had lately been used to hold wheat germ. Far from looking askance at this proposal, Father not only gave us his blessing, he also lit our candle himself. This may seem like a small thing, but whenever Easter rolls around, one of the children will always say, “Remember the time Father Bob lit our candle for us?” It has become a family story, and no doubt my grandchildren will hear of it one day.
When they do, it will become a little part of who they are.
[Originally printed in The Long Island Catholic]
2010 Alice Gunther