SPIRIT OF PLACE — Mudge Bay of Lake Huron was the perfect location for a storytelling and spiritual direction workshop held in August. (Hengen photo)

Spirit of Place

By Shannon Hengen

“Spirituality is, in briefest description, a way of life — a way of being” (Experiencing Spirituality: Finding Meaning Through Storytelling, Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham, Penguin, 2014, p. 25).

In retirement I am bringing together two of the most important influences in my life, stories and spiritual direction. What kind of stories do we tell? How do we listen to others’ stories? As part of their summer programs on Manitoulin Island, Ont., Four Elements Living Arts sponsored a storytelling and spiritual direction workshop in the town of Kagawong, Ont., on Mudge Bay of Lake Huron, on Aug. 22, 2014. The first of its kind, it attracted two participants who engaged fully with me in this trial event. What follows is a description of the workshop itself and how it evolved.

When still teaching English, I came across a book that changed how I view stories: Life Lived Like a Story: Life Stories of Three Yukon Native Elders, by Julie Cruikshank in collaboration with Angela Sidney, Kitty Smith, and Annie Ned (U of Nebraska Press, 1990). Cruikshank learned the women’s languages and lived among them in order to record their autobiographies, only to discover that the women did not share her idea of what a life story should be. In mainstream Canadian culture, an autobiography lists major events in a person’s life — challenges, goals, achievements. Not so in native culture in the Yukon. Try as she might, Cruikshank could not elicit from any of the women any life story that was immediately recognizable to her as such. Instead, she writes: “The more I persisted with my agenda, the more insistent each was about the direction our work should take. Each explained that these narratives were important to record as part of her life story” (2).

The narratives Cruikshank refers to are traditional stories from the women’s culture, repeated orally through centuries as guides to people’s lives — how to care for oneself, others, and the land; how to respond to pain and loss; how to pray. What is central to a “life lived like a story” in this culture is deep knowledge of the values that have preserved the culture and sustained the people over time. Individual achievement is not central to “autobiography” in the culture of these Yukon elders.

What are the founding stories of mainstream culture, I asked myself after reading Cruikshank’s book? What values do they teach us?

Returning to the subject of the August workshop: I asked participants to think of a story that describes their highest values. Before telling the stories to one another, I described for them the second most important influence in my life: a two-year program in spiritual formation and spiritual direction that I recently completed, the Ontario Jubilee Program (jubileeassociates.ca). Drawing on the centuries-old practice of Christian spiritual direction, Jubilee is now interdenominational, teaching ways of listening and discerning that cross boundaries of faith.

A foundational belief of the Jubilee Program is that the Holy Spirit speaks in and through us when we truly open ourselves and truly seek. We do so in contemplative practice. The belief that gradually arose in me is that the Spirit often reveals our deepest values to us in the form of stories — scriptural, personal, cultural, familial, historical, comical, and so on.

Like the Yukon elders, we in mainstream culture also use stories handed down over time as guides in how to live. In what contexts do we share those stories? Overwhelmed as we are by many less important, distracting noises, where and how do we find occasions to pass on the narratives that fundamentally shape and direct our lives?

The Manitoulin Island workshop provided such an occasion. Agreeing to strict confidentiality at the start, we listened thoughtfully to one another in a way that I described as “holy listening,” a requirement in the context of spiritual direction. Holy listening asks of us that we do not judge what we hear, that we do not attempt to fix or advise.

Instead, when one person spoke, the others paid careful heed, noting significant points in the narrative. A period of silence followed each story, after which the listeners described what they heard the storyteller say and, if necessary, asked clarifying questions. Following another brief silence, each listener relayed what the storyteller’s narrative evoked in him or her. The storyteller then responded as he or she felt moved, the emphasis always being on the many ways in which experience informs us.

We voiced a number of shared concerns during the workshop, concerns that arose also in the narratives of the Yukon elders: the great importance of spirit of place, ties of family, growth in wisdom and grace, how and what to teach the young. As Eben Alexander writes in Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, “A story — a true story — can heal as much as medicine can” (Simon and Schuster, 2012). We learned in the workshop that ultimate values do persist in our stories when we relate those stories explicitly as spiritual teachings, as life lessons. Those narratives and those deep, enduring beliefs can heal our sense of aimlessness or despair.

Hengen is a freelance writer from Sudbury, Ont.

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