Why Stories Trump Statements

“A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate.” – Flannery O’Connor

Eighteen years ago I fell madly in love. Her name was Cari. She had long, auburn hair, high cheekbones, dancing blue eyes and a smile that could light up the room. Her laugh was infectious, her demeanor poised, and her confidence was deeply attractive. It was Christmas break and we had returned to college to take part in a peer advising training seminar. Though we traveled in similar circles, we had never met before. And I was smitten.

We became friends and “colleagues” in various college endeavors. We volunteered together, emcee’ed a campus-wide show together and went to no small number of parties together. Our winding road, ostensibly platonic, saw her dating some and me dating others, but ultimately we fell in love with one another. Through graduate and medical degrees, fellowships and residencies, we arrived at the altar of a Catholic Church, stunned to find ourselves so blessed with each other

Now we have two young daughters. And if and when I am asked to describe how I met and fell in love with their mom, words will surely fail me. How do you put into words what can only be expressed in pure and overwhelming feeling?

By telling the story.

Is it any different for our Catholic Faith? If you think about it – I mean really think about it – the truth, the goodness and the beauty of this Faith is utterly overwhelming and initially comes to us via the story of the Bible, not some abstract argument. A God that could have been cold, calculating, and capricious like Zeus or any number of ancient, wicked gods, instead is a loving Creator who runs a risks of renegade creatures by granting us freewill.

He mourns the dislocation that we set into action, but tirelessly seeks to gather us back in his Fatherly embrace. Through rules that champion our dignity, lessons that correct our paths, and enduring hope that quenches our thirst for redemption in the midst of our brokenness, this God – this indescribable Father whose only Son becomes Man – when rightly considered should render us bereft of words. We should be too emotional to speak lest we literally break down and weep.

In becoming Catholic, did I grasp these truths? I’m not sure. Nor am I sure that I ever truly will. But I have moments of apprehension where grace alights and I get a glimpse – a sheer, sweet glimpse – of the God who refused to leave me behind. And where do I most experience those moments? In the stories.

I hear it when someone says, “Jesus loves you.” But I comprehend it when a suffering crucified Christ mutters, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”

I am listening when someone tells me, “God forgives you.” But I understand when the undeserving and desperately weeping prodigal son is gripped tighter by his even more emotional father.

Suffer the Little Children by Fritz von Uhde (1883)
Storyteller: “Suffer the Little Children” by Fritz von Uhde (1883)

I am receptive when someone warns, “Don’t sin.” But I am transformed by a Christ who gently calls executioners to account while sparing the adulteress with the loving, yet firm words, “Go and sin no more.”

At the end of G.K. Chesterton’s extraordinary biography of Charles Dickens, Chesterton didn’t convey his appreciation for the man and his message with bland superlatives. Instead he said this:

[Here is part of what Dickens] meant; that comradeship and serious joy are not interludes in our travel; but that rather our travels are interludes in comradeship and joy, which through God shall endure for ever. The inn does not point to the road; the road points to the inn. And all roads point at last to an ultimate inn, where we shall meet Dickens and all his characters: and when we drink again it shall be from the great flagons in the tavern at the end of the world.

At the conclusion of Georges Bernanos’ masterpiece, The Diary of a Country Priest, the meaning of grace is not stated primly, but rather is embodied in the last breaths by a selfless and dying country priest. Clutching a rosary, the priest looks upon his attendant who is anxiously awaiting another priest to administer last rites. Bernanos’ priest imparts one last reassurance before dying:

“Does it matter? Grace is everywhere.”

And at the beginning of Evelyn Waugh’s brilliant novel, Brideshead Revisited, the melancholy of a time gone by mixed with the hope of returning to its undying truths were captured in the mutterings of the aging soldier Charles Ryder peering from hilltop at the remains of the estate of Brideshead:

“I have been here before.”

There are numberless glorious statements that can be made about the Catholic Faith. Just like there are innumerable wonderful statements that can be made about my wife. And they can all be true. But sometimes, in the midst of the majesty of God and the magnitude of my love for my wife, a statement, as Flannery said, is inadequate.

So if my daughters look at me and ask why I believe in God or how I fell in love with their mom, perhaps, just perhaps, I should set aside the statements and simply tell them the story. I have a feeling that they’ll like it.

Tod Worner is a Catholic husband, father, and internal medicine physician practicing in Minneapolis. He blogs regularly as A Catholic Thinker for Patheos. Dr. Worner has created a Catholic curriculum for high school students finished with confirmation, and also lectures on titans and tyrants from World War II. He is currently at work on his first book.