In the context of Leeds being in ‘local lockdown’ our Poet Theologian, Hannah Stone, considers how we can be nourished by the narratives of whatever faith we hold to, knowing that in reading and thinking about them we are sharing in a wider community and shares her poem ‘Leaven’.
Common to all cultures is a tradition of story-telling. The shared stories of your heritage – whether passed on through oral tradition or written down – are what hold you together as a community, whether it is the myths of Greek gods and goddesses (whose narratives morph into Roman culture); the Inuits legends, or the stories recorded in the Judeo-Christian scriptures. For Northwest Coast Canadian first nations, Raven is a trickster who can transform himself, and who is responsible for creating all the planets (and the salmon in the sea). In Māori history the demigod Maui (known as Te Ika a Maui) literally fished the North Island out of the sea. Each of these myths is contextual and an important part of the cultural identity of that people.
We tell bedtime stories to our children. We may try, in difficult times, to comfort ourselves with alternative narratives, so that what is going on in the world around is seems only one version of reality. As I write, Leeds has just been placed in ‘local lockdown’ and, for all that I could see it coming, I’m finding the prospect hard. Maybe the sense of isolation can be mediated by remembering the stories of extraordinary people’s ability to overcome extreme situations; the long, long confinements of Terry Waite and others being just one example that comes to mind. But where does religion fit in?
Ninian Smart designates the presence of narrative and mythic elements as indicating a religion. We can readily explore and be nourished by the narratives of whatever faith we hold to – and know that in reading and thinking about them we are sharing in a wider community. We can dream of the transformation described in so many myths and stories. Poetry is very adept at doing this, since it transforms the superficial meaning of words into deeper, richer alternatives, leaving space for every reader to find their own interpretation of the narrative. Let me tell you a story …
The man said: The kingdom of heaven is like the yeast
a woman kneaded into a mountain of flour.
The hands of poor women know
how to handle something small,
to make the most of a little life,
how to put their backs into making it happen,
that daily miracle of expansion,
growing inert grain into the staff of life.
The ears of a young woman knew
how to accept the strange, hot breath
of the angel’s message,
how to hold it deep inside her,
cupping her belly as it swelled,
proclaiming her shame to the world.
Write down this: The kingdom of heaven is like the women
who knead the dough, mixing the yeast
with the flour which men have milled.
They blend their skills to fill the crowd.
Together, the usurped husband
and the young woman who said yes
to the improbable story of a winged visitor,
took the leaven of a new-born into their hands,
not knowing how the story would end,
but somehow believing in the yeast.