A retreat at a Benedictine hermitage means the opportunity to plug into the daily cycle of psalms and prayers that has been going on for over fifteen hundred years. I learned five years ago as I experienced this daily cycle for the first time that something deep in me resonates with its rhythms. One June morning last summer, at a Benedictine hermitage in Big Sur bright and early at 5:30 Vigils, Psalm 5 began as a cry for someone, anyone, to listen.
give heed to my groaning.
Attend to the sound of my cries,
my King and my God.
As so often with the psalms, the psalmist has a story to tell and insists that it be heard. And so it goes with all of us; the stories that define and shape us, that clothe the bare facts of our lives in fancy dress, are only the sound of one hand clapping unless there is someone to receive the story on the other end.
My early story was enriched by the presence of all four grandparents during my formative years. Visiting my paternal grandparents was always an event that took several days of careful and intense planning. We lived in northeastern Vermont; they lived on the outskirts of Erie, Pennsylvania, still in the house that my father grew up in. It was an almost six hundred mile trip, with the first two hundred on narrow two-lane roads before finally hitting the New York Thruway headed west, so some serious entertainment planning on my brother’s and my part and food packing on my mother’s part for the trip was always in order. My grandfather worked for General Electric, wrapping the coils in the back of old-time refrigerators by hand around a mold. He had forearms like Popeye—one of his favorite parlor tricks was to bet someone that he could make them close their hand just by squeezing their wrist in his vice-like grip. He never lost the bet.
Grandma was loving and had a great sense of humor, but also was noisy and abrupt, sort of like my Dad, and was a horrible cook. I don’t remember any item of food—meat, vegetable, fruit or starch—that my grandmother could not reduce to tasteless pulp after what seemed like endless hours sweating and complaining in the kitchen. But she sure could dish up ice cream. Her signature dessert, usually served in the early evening in front of some mindless thing on television, was to open a half-gallon carton of vanilla ice cream, cut it in quarters with a knife so large that my brother and I were warned upon pain of serious comeuppance (one of her favorite words) to stay away from it, then serve a quarter to each person in the room with so much chocolate sauce and so many peanuts slathered on top that one would forget that it was vanilla ice cream underneath. This, of course, was before healthy eating habits were invented. A dessert designed to make one forget the less-than-palatable meal that preceded it.
The Erie homestead was nothing special, just old with creepy and creaky bedrooms upstairs. My other grandparents’ home in the Finger Lakes region of southern New York State was far more interesting and “homey,” probably because that set of grandparents was more touchy-feely and grandparently than my Dad’s folks. But the fun of going to Erie was not the house—the fun wasn’t really even my grandparents. What made Erie a favored point of destination was that my grandfather, in addition to being a blue-collar factory laborer, was also a “city farmer.” Stretched behind their house on a busy road in what served as suburbia in the early 1960s was two acres of land upon which my grandfather ran a small farm, complete with a barn, horse, cow, chickens, tons of barn cats, an outhouse, a huge vegetable garden, a dozen long rows of grape vines, and a lower field where hay always seemed to be growing unnoticed. My other grandfather was the real farmer who made a living growing fields of potatoes, but my gentleman farmer grandfather in Erie is the man of the soil I remember most clearly. When I take delight in digging around in the flower beds, pruning bushes, watering things and watching them grow, I am channeling my Grandpa Morgan.
In addition to their farm animal menagerie, my grandparents had a dog named King. King died of old age before I was ten years old, but if he actually looked like my memory picture of him, he was probably a collie/shepherd mix of some sort. We had two dogs at home, a collie named Lassie and Rex our German Shepherd; if they had ever mated (which they didn’t), their offspring might have looked something like King. King could do two things that neither of my dogs could do. To begin with, King was the first dog I ever met who would chase a ball and bring it back to you over and over again until your arm got too tired to throw any more. At home, if you threw a ball for Lassie to chase she would look at you with a “You’re kidding, right?” sort of look as she laid down, and a ball thrown in Rex’s direction would most likely bounce off his head. I thought King must be a genius with his ball retrieval abilities and should be on the Ed Sullivan show; it wasn’t until much later that I learned that ball retrieval is a normal dog activity and that my dogs at home were just strange.
King’s other trick was vocal in nature. My grandfather or my Dad would say “Tell me a big story, King, tell me a big story!” in a certain tone of voice and King would immediately raise his snout heavenward and start howling up a storm. The story King told was sad and full of pathos, dramatic and primal, with the mournful tones of his wolf ancestors. But King was selective about who he would tell stories to. Only my grandfather or Dad would do. In response to such requests from my grandmother, my mother, my brother, me, or any of my aunts and uncles who lived in the area, King would stare in mute silence. King’s stories were meant only for the chosen few, those who knew how to ask properly.
Our best and most important stories should be, and usually are, saved for the ears of those who deserve it. Because woven into every story worth the telling is the intended listener. A story is far more than a linear reporting of facts; by fashioning facts into a narrative the storyteller reveals a great deal about who he or she is as well as about what he or she considers to be of ultimate importance. In Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, in response to a demand for nothing but the facts about what has happened, Pi responds that “a story always has an element of invention in it. . . . Isn’t telling about something—using words, English or Japanese—already something of an invention? Isn’t just looking upon the world already something of an invention? The world isn’t just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no? And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no? Doesn’t that make life a story?” Yes it does. And by sending his cries and groans heavenward, the psalmist is weaving a fascinating character into his story—a God who listens. This is the hope of the believer, that there is not only something greater than me, but something that knows me better than I know myself, that listens, and promises a response. Sound like a fictional character, someone from mythology? I hope so, because as Kathleen Norris writes, a myth is a story that you know is true the first time you hear it. By including God in my story, I create a space in which God can show up.