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Liturgy of the Story

by Michael McGirr

You can't call yourself a Catholic until you've been to storytime at your local library. This small festival of chaos normally takes place a couple of mornings a week and, for the brave, it's free. If you have children, you will know all about it. If you don't have children but there's a cold morning in winter when you feel like an injection of energy to get you through a grey day, you should take yourself along. Be prepared to be overrun by three and four year olds and to subject yourself to candid observations such as 'my mummy got a new bag yesterday' followed by 'my daddy pranged the car the day before.' The astute observer will have no trouble putting these two remarks together and realising that the child is being brought up in the ancient ways of domestic diplomacy, a tradition in which small acts of bribery and corruption have always had their rightful place.

It won't take long to notice the way that a group of young children get into and out of stories. Storytime is different from stories at bedtime, when a child has the story all to herself and can let her little mind run wherever it wants until it finally collapses from exhaustion. At storytime in the library, kids clamber all over each other. The story is a bodily experience. If the children are bored, nothing in the library will be safe. But once the children are engaged, they will reach out for the book as if it is something they want to eat. It is amazing to watch. They listen with their mouths, hungry for what happens next.

It doesn't take much imagination at storytime to realise why Jesus chose stories to get his message across and why he said that his most receptive audience was comprised of children. Jesus did not want an audience which would sit still. He didn't want people to think he was interesting and applaud politely at the end before rushing home to get dinner on the table. He wanted people to wriggle and writhe with excitement and anticipation. He expected us to make a mess when, after the story was over, we cut out paper masks and hats and did drawings, trying to make the story our own and retell it in our own way. He knew that none of us was going to stay neatly within the lines when it came to colouring in the story in our own way. Life is too big a crayon for keeping tidy.

There is an unfortunate contrast between storytime at the library and the Liturgy of the Word in most Catholic parishes on most Sundays. For many people, this is the time when they read the parish newsletter. The readings are often presented in a lugubrious manner by people who don't seem to be very interested themselves, let alone hoping to get a rise out of their audience. Other denominations tend to have a much better idea of what could be happening when we open the Bible together. It is not uncommon for other groups to focus the Liturgy of the Word on the children present. They know that once the young people start calling out their ideas, the old ones will be engaged as well. And children will remind them of the difference between knowing the answer and being excited about knowing the answer.

The other thing about storytime is the storyteller. Occasionally it is somebody young who looks like they almost made it into High 5 or The Wiggles. They kids will love their clothes and especially their shoes. But the best storytellers are often a bit older and less snappily dressed. These ones don't seem to have much wow factor. But somehow or other they are able to take the kids to another world and bring them safely home again. There is a simple magic in their work and, when the session is over, these librarians go back to the thankless task of trying to keep the library's photocopier in order and fixing torn covers. Yet, in the meantime, they have opened doors for little people.

The storyteller at the library can teach us a bit about ministry in the church. The days have come and gone when the church thought it could compete in the adrenaline stakes. For a time, we thought we could make a difference with TV and film and all the other latest glamourous gizmos. We can't. We just end up making ourselves look a bit silly when we try. The advertisers will always have more to spend. And we are trying to reach people who are over stimulated and bored by hype. What most of us want are storytellers who know when to turn the page for us.



Previous Columns:

  • Issue 1: The Catholic Fold
  • Issue 3: The Fridge Door
  • Issue 5: A Call to the Faithful



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