Saturday, 28 July 2012

Telling Stories

A while ago I had reason to look up a prayer to St Michael for protection against evil on behalf of a parishioner. There is quite a well-known one from Roman Catholic sources and whose authorship is ascribed to Pope Leo XIII. But it has an interesting story behind it, involving a gradual inflation of the drama allegedly surrounding its composition. Originally it was simply promulgated by the Pope without comment. Then in the 1940s one of Leo’s secretaries claimed the prayer originated from a vision the Pope underwent at Mass one morning, in which the Church’s spiritual enemies were revealed to him. In its most developed form, the story has Leo collapsing, passing out and remaining insensible for days before coming round and revealing the details of his vision. That, of course, is complete fiction.

Then a few days later a former parishioner from Lamford sent me an email. ‘Greetings from the Shrine of Our Lady of Yankalilla!’ he said. Our Lady of where? Yankalilla turns out to be in New South Wales. In 1995 a damp patch mysteriously appeared on the wall of a very unremarkable Anglican church in this unremarkable Australian town, and, with some imagination, you can see how it resembles the traditional pieta image of Mary holding the dead body of Jesus. And so up popped the Shrine – endorsed by the Anglican bishop of The Murray, complete with a holy well and all the accoutrements of an albeit relatively minor sacred place.
In both these examples you can see very old patterns re-emerging, stories escalating and ideas gathering as imagination gets to work and tales get re-told. I can’t exactly forget these patterns as I re-tell the older stories in the Biblical texts, especially to the children at school. We’re careful to couch them in terms of being stories, and even fairly small children are aware that some stories are real and some aren’t. I wonder what exactly they think about the Bible’s, though, and how easily they distinguish between the categories.

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