Catechesis and Storytelling:
a Franciscan Perspective
Brian Cavanaugh, TOR
© January, 2005
originally published in the January–March, 2005 issue of
THE SOWER: The Teaching Journal for the Home, Parish and School
Maryvale Institute, Birmingham, England
This is an expanded version.
In this article I want to explore how effective storytelling
can assist in the work of catechesis, and also examine the roots
of storytelling within the Franciscan tradition.
Let us begin with St Francis. About those who minister the Word of God, St. Francis said: ‘The preacher must first secretly draw in by prayer what he later pours out in sacred preaching; he must first of all grow warm on the inside or he will speak frozen words on the outside.’1 This is enlightened advice, as well, for catechists, religious education teachers and others who have the opportunity to minister the Word of God. That is, before speaking, teaching or preaching one needs to set aside adequate time for prayer to draw in deeply God’s inspiration and listen to the Word.
St. Francis Spoke Life-Giving and Profound Words
Thomas Celano, an early biographer of St. Francis, wrote of the efficacy of Francis’ sermons:
Although the evangelist Francis preached to the simple, in simple, concrete terms, since he knew that virtue is more necessary than words, still, when he was among spiritual people with greater abilities he gave birth to life-giving and profound words. With few words he would suggest what was inexpressible, and weaving movements with fiery gestures, he carried away all his hearers toward the things of heaven. 2
This is the heart of a Franciscan perspective regarding storytelling in the ministry of the Word—to speak life-giving and profound words; to use words and gestures in order to transport the hearers of the Word toward the things of heaven.
Francis tells Pope Innocent a Story-Parable
In exploring storytelling within the Franciscan tradition, I was amazed to learn that the origins of the Franciscan fraternity began with a story-parable that Francis received from Christ while in prayer. This was prompted by Pope Innocent’s insistence that Francis try to discern God’s will regarding permission for his rule of life. Thomas Celano, an early biographer of St Francis, wrote:
When [Francis] presented himself and his followers before Pope Innocent to request a rule for his life, it seemed to the Pope that their proposal for a way of life was beyond their strength. A man of great discernment, he said to Francis: ‘My son, pray to Christ that through you he may show us his will, so that once we know it, we may confidently approve your holy desire.’ … [Francis] prayed intently and devoutly exhorted his companions to appeal to God.
…In praying, the answer came to him and he told his sons the news of salvation. Thus, Christ’s familiar speaking in parables is recognizable.
‘Francis,’ [Christ] said, ‘Say this to the pope: "Once upon a time there was a poor but lovely woman who lived in a desert. A king fell in love with her because of her great beauty; he gladly betrothed her and with her had lovely children. When they had grown up, having been nobly raised, their mother said: ‘Dear children, do not be ashamed because you are poor, for you are all children of a great king. Go joyfully to his court and ask for what you need.’…They presented themselves boldly to the king: they were not afraid to look at him since they bore his very image. When the king saw his likeness in them, he was surprised, and asked whose sons they might be. When they said they were the children of the poor woman who lived in the desert, the king embraced them. ‘You are my heirs,’ he said, ‘and my sons; have no fear!’…The king then sent orders to the woman to send all his sons to be fed at his court.’’ This parable made the saint happy, and he promptly reported this holy message to the pope.
Francis himself was this woman…because he was fruitful and bore many children. The desert was the world, which was wild and sterile, with no teaching of virtue. The many beautiful children were the large number of brothers, clothed with every virtue. The king was the Son of God, whom they resemble by their holy poverty.…
The lord pope was amazed at the parable presented to him, and recognized without a doubt that Christ had spoken in this man. He remembered a vision he had seen only a few days earlier, and instructed by the Holy Spirit, he now believed it would come true in this man. He saw in a dream the Lateran Basilica almost ready to fall down. A religious man, small and scorned, was propping it up with his own bent back so it would not fall. ‘I’m sure,’ he said, ‘he is the one who will hold up Christ’s Church by what he does and what he teaches!’ Because of this the lord pope easily bowed to his request…He quickly granted what was asked and promised even more. 3
Stories Have Power
Janet Litherland writes in Storytelling From the Bible, ‘Stories have power. They delight, enchant, touch, teach, recall, inspire, motivate, challenge. They help us understand. They imprint a picture on our minds. Consequently, stories often pack more punch than sermons. Want to make a point or raise an issue? Tell a story. Jesus did it. He called his stories "parables".’ 4
In fact, the Gospel of Mark (4:34) states that Jesus ‘did not speak to them without a parable.’ Parable was a new method of teaching that Jesus chose to use. Parables and stories teach a natural wisdom of morality, of healing, of compassion, of values and ethics. Jesus wanted to imprint a picture on our minds that would touch us with a lasting impression in the deepest part of our spirit. Jesus wanted us to get the picture, the bigger picture.
Stories, parables, fables, anecdotes and illustrations are thrown alongside the biblical word to help us to see the ‘bigger picture’ in life. They help us to understand there is more to life than our own limited and narrow spheres of experience. They create pictures in our minds and enlighten our imagination to comprehend a greater dimension of life than we normally are used to experiencing. That is what Jesus tried to accomplish with his disciples and with the crowds that flocked to hear him speak: to take them to a place where there is new way of living, loving and healing; a new world that these people never could have imagined on their own. Such is the task for those who minister the Word to God’s people—to open people’s imagination toward the things of heaven.
Frank Seilhamer writes, ‘Parable is the translation…of two Greek terms—parah meaning "near" or "vicinity" and ballo meaning "to throw"—that mean "to throw along side of." What is involved is a story created to be thrown along side of a true-life situation to drive home the central point the storyteller is trying to make. As Jesus demonstrated, a good picture is worth a thousand words…which a person can visualize, then pin to their memory.’ 5
Gifted Communicators Can Tell a Story
Joe Griffith in the Introduction to his book Speaker’s Library of Business Stories, Anecdotes and Humor writes:
…[G]ifted communicators have one common denominator: They can tell a story. More to the point, they can use a good story to make a point and to fix that point in their listener’s minds.…
By sprinkling illustrations…throughout your presentation, you will grab the imagination of your listeners in a way that films or television are hard pressed to duplicate. Never forget that as a communicator you are appealing to the most powerful image-producing mechanism on earth…the human mind. It thrives on images. Good stories are a triggers that release an explosive, powerful, positive form of communication energy.
To quote the late Dr. Carl Winters, for years a popular member of the prestigious General Motors speaking staff, ‘If you want to be a successful speaker, you’ve got to have a message with stories for people to remember your message by.’ 6
This is wise advice for each of us who minister God’s word. As catechists, teachers and preachers, we want to make a point and to fix that point in our listener’s minds for them to remember our message by. To assist in this, a good collection of stories, anecdotes and illustrations is an attractive and valuable resource.
Stories and parables ring true to human life with fresh insights into truths that are taught by the catechist or repeated from the pulpit. These truths can become so familiar and well known that people no longer hear them. The creative use of the imagination, as it were, ‘dresses up’ these truths through storytelling in new garments so that we take notice of them and a moral or spiritual truth can be extracted.
A rabbi was once asked, ‘Why does a parable possess such great influence?’
The rabbi replied. ‘I will explain this by way of a parable: ‘Truth was accustomed to walk about as naked as Truth was born. No one allowed Truth to enter a home and everyone who encountered Truth ran away in fright.
‘Truth felt greatly embittered and could find no resting place. One day Truth beheld Parable attired in colorful, expensive garments. Parable inquired, ‘Why are you so dejected, my friend?’
‘Truth replied, "I am in a bad situation. I am old, very old, and no one cares to have anything to do with me."
‘ "Not so," retorted Parable, "it is not because of your age that you are disliked by people. Look, I am as old as you are, and the older I grow, the more do I seem to be loved. Let me disclose to you the secret of my apparent popularity. People enjoy seeing everything dressed up and somewhat disguised. Let me lend to you some of my garments, and you will see that people will like you as well." ‘
‘Truth followed this counsel and dressed in the garments of Parable. Ever since then, Truth and Parable have walked hand in hand, and everyone loves them both’. 7
In my own preaching experience, I discovered this same principle. People, by and large, do not hear, pay attention to or seek the naked truth. However, when the same message is ‘dressed up’ in the garments of a story, of a parable, they not only listen, but take the message home with them.
For me, beginning to tell stories was not really a conscious decision. It emerged from within me as natural as could be for a priest of Irish descent—as if there is some storytelling gene. This is not to say that I have not spent considerable time researching storytelling as an art form or that stories just pop up easily. For over 25 years, I have collected numerous volumes of storytelling books, and have hand-written enough stories, so far, to fill twelve composition books, and also have filled thirty-eight journals with quotations. The difficult part for me, however, when I am asked about the how’s and why’s of storytelling, is trying to describe my approach to using storytelling within ministry of the Word.
Two of the biggest obstacles, I think, in moving from simply telling a story to becoming a storyteller are risk and fear. Yes, it is a risk to get into a story so that it becomes real or somehow rings true to human life, with all the nuances of voice inflections, posture and facial expressions that emerge from the story. Marshall McLuhan once said so well: ‘The medium is the message.’ As storytellers in ministry of the Word we are the medium through which the biblical message is communicated. Communications experts tell us that 7% of communication occurs through the words used, 38% through the way the words and the voice are used, while 55% of communication occurs through non-verbal body language. Indeed, the medium is the message.
Are you afraid people will laugh at you? Or, maybe, is it that they are laughing with you, within the setting of the story? This was a big hurdle for me when I first began the preaching ministry. I was so concerned about what the congregation thought that I hesitated to take many risks and venture into ‘deep’ waters. I was suffering from what could have been called ‘paralysis of perfectionism.’ If one takes no risks then one cannot fail, but, alas, neither can one succeed. Face your own obstacles; take the necessary risks to overcome your own fears. If you haven’t heard it already, fear can be understood as an acronym: False Expectations Appearing Real.
What changed my preaching style actually changed my future ministry as well. What began as personal, journal-writing therapy, collecting positive quotations and stories quickly assumed a new perspective when I took what was then a big risk and shared some stories and quotations from my journals in my preaching.
People would come up and ask for a copy of this quotation or that story. It amazed me! These were my ‘personal’ stories and quotes, and other people found them helpful too! Gradually I took more risks and told more stories; now people seem to expect me always to come up with a good story. A bonus to storytelling ministry, from my experience, is that people tend to listen more attentively and enter into the story with the catechist, teacher or preacher, enabling him or her to make the connection with the biblical word, the stories of their lives and the kingdom of God.
The Golden Legend
In researching religious storytelling, I came across interesting historical background material on the use of stories and parables in preaching. In The World of Storytelling we read:
The exemplum is a classic fable or popular anecdote to which has been added a moral…They were used in sermons, much as parables were used by Christ. The oldest known Christian examples occur in the homilies of Saint Gregory the First (c.600).…In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, certain monks developed the narration of the exempla into an art that was very successful. This was in large measure due to the example set by the Dominicans and by prelates such as Jacques de Vitry; known to have compiled a number of collections of sermons with stories. 8
Jacques de Vitry was a translator of a major collection of sermon stories written in the thirteenth century by another Dominican, Jacob de Voragine. De Voragine’s collection became known as The Golden Legend, the most popular book of the Middle Ages next to the Bible.
Therefore, we may be reassured, as catechists, and others who engage in the ministry of the Word, that when we use stories, parables, illustrations and anecdotes, we are not being faddish or simplistic, but stand in good company with a rich heritage.
Inviting People to Faith
William R. White writes in Speaking In Stories: "…The goal of preaching [catechetics] is not to inform…[it] is about inviting people to faith.…to help people make connection between the biblical word and the stories of their lives." 9
Ministry of the Word, be it catechetics, teaching or preaching, seeks to invite people to faith…to make a connection of the Word with their own life…to open people’s imagination to picture a new way of living, of loving, of healing. Our task, then, is to involve people in a personal way to find a key to their own stories of faith and struggle.
Now I will try to answer a couple of questions that I am often asked: Where do you find these stories and parables to use in catechesis or preaching? What kinds of resources are available?
In fact, God is continually sending us stories, illustrations and modern-day parables, so many that it is a wonder that we miss seeing this. Remember St. Francis’ admonition to ‘first secretly draw in by prayer, to grow warm on the inside’. We have to learn to listen to our own inner voice that nudges us to take notice; then take the next step and write the story or illustration into our own collection. In this way we develop our own collection of resources, our own exempla, from which we can invite people to faith and open their imagination toward the things of heaven.
Fr. Murray Bodo, OFM, in Tales of St. Francis writes:
‘I began to choose only those stories that have that mysterious, archetypal quality that speaks to something profound within us, some deep desire of the human heart.
…Like prayer, they took me along with them and somehow effected in me inner transformations not unlike those experienced by Francis and his companions…Whoever told the first stories was not only remembering but reliving, as well. And what he or she remembered was conditioned by what had happened within, those unforgettable changes in attitude and behavior that reveal the Spirit’s presence in our lives. The stories, then, are the incarnation of the efficacy of God’s Word… and their very retelling itself becomes an effective word. 10
So the first resource is so obvious that most people miss it—observation. Life abounds with delightful stories, anecdotes and modern-day parables if only we pick up on them. They are in the people we meet, in the newspapers we read, in the television programmes we watch. Yes, indeed, we can learn a lot by observing life. This is more than just casual observing. It is what Jesus spoke about when He asked us ‘to see, not just look; to listen, not just hear’. It is attentiveness, alertness to life, seeking to see the hand of God in events, searching actively for the significance of what is taking place around us.
Stories Contain a Dynamic Life-Force
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus tells the parable, ‘A man scatters seed on the ground. He goes to bed and gets up day after day. Through it all the seed sprouts and grows without his knowing how it happens’ (see 4:26-29).
Storytelling in catechesis and ministry of the Word is like the scattering of seeds. The stories contain within themselves a dynamic life-force that is capable of sprouting, growing and bearing fruit in the lives of the listener’s without the storyteller knowing how it happens. Therefore, it is the primary task of a storyteller simply to keep telling the stories, just like the farmer who scatters the seed.
There is a delightful story by Jean Giono that illustrates how being faithful to the scattering of seeds in storytelling ministry can bring forth an abundance.
In the 1930s a young traveler was exploring the French Alps. He came upon a vast stretch of barren land. It was desolate. It was forbidding. It was ugly. It was the kind of place you hurry away from. It had been devastated during World War I.
Then, suddenly, the young traveler stopped dead in his tracks. In the middle of this vast wasteland was a bent-over old man. On his back was a sack of acorns. In his hand was a four-foot length of iron pipe.
The man was using the iron pipe to punch holes in the ground. Then from the sack he would take an acorn and put it in the hole. Later the old man told the traveler, ‘I’ve planted over 100,000 acorns. Perhaps only a tenth of them will grow.’ The old man’s wife and son had died, and this was how he chose to spend his final years. ‘I want to do something useful,’ said Elzeard Bouffier.
Twenty-five years later the now not-as-young traveler returned to the same desolate area. What he saw amazed him. He could not believe his eyes. The land was covered with a beautiful forest two miles wide and five miles long. Birds were singing, animals were playing, and wildflowers perfumed the air.
The traveler stood there recalling the desolate area that once was; a beautiful oak forest stood there now—all because someone cared. 11
All because someone was faithful to sowing the seeds. Storytelling can plants seeds of faith and hope in people’s lives that will take root and grow in abundance. If you are faithful to sowing the seeds of God’s Word, the empty wastelands of desolation and despair can be transformed.
And so, let me encourage you to use stories, parables, fables, anecdotes and illustrations. You will find that people will begin to get the bigger picture as you help them envision the kingdom of God; to imagine a new way of living, loving and healing. They will enter into the story with you and take something home with them.
The master gave his teaching in parables and stories, which his disciples listened to with pleasure—and occasional frustration, for they longed for something deeper.
The master was unmoved. To all their objections he would say, ‘You have yet to understand that the shortest distance between a human being and Truth is a story.’ 12
Yes, and the shortest distance from the Gospel to people’s lives is through a story. So tell them well and tell them often.
1. Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, Vol. II, The Founder. Thomas Celano, ‘The Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul: The Second Book,’ NY, NY: New City Press, 2000, p. 352, §163.
2. Celano, ‘The Second Book.’ p. 318, §107.
3. Celano, ‘The First Book.’ p. 254-256, § 16.
4. Janet Litherland, Storytelling from the Bible. Colorado Springs, CO: Meriwether, 1991, p. 3.
5. Brian Cavanaugh, TOR’s personal journals, source unknown.
6. Joseph Griffith, Speaker’s Library of Business Stories, Anecdotes and Humor. NY, NY: Prentice Hall, 2000. p. ix-xi.
7. Brian Cavanaugh, TOR, The Sower’s Seeds: 120 Inspiring Stories for Preaching, Teaching & Public Speaking, Revised & Expanded. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2004, p. 74.
8. Anne Pellowski, The World of Storytelling. NY, NY: H.W. Wilson Co., 1990, p. 57.
9. William R. White, Speaking in Stories. Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1982, p. 24.
10. Murray Bodo, OFM, Tales of St. Francis: Ancient Stories for Contemporary Living. NY, NY: Doubleday, 1998, p. 12-14.
11. Cavanaugh, The Sower’s Seeds. p. 7.
12. Cavanaugh, The Sower’s Seeds. p. 1.