Frank Boreham’s childhood brimmed with storytelling. They called it “The Hassock Hour,” which came on Sunday evenings and commenced at their mother’s feet. Kneeling on hassocks beside her, Frank and his nine siblings heard storytelling as children that rivaled everything they heard as adults. Their favorite story was one their mother told of herself at seventeen.
She had made plans with her cousin, Kitty, to spend the afternoon at Canterbury Cathedral. Neither had been there before and they were excited about the adventure. But when the time came for their meeting, Kitty was no where to be found. Ten a.m. turned to half past eleven, and Kitty had still not arrived. “I was just about to turn away,” said Mrs. Boreham, “dejected and disgusted, when an elderly gentleman approached me.” He seemed to notice she had been waiting for someone, and proceeded to ask if she would like a tour. “I am deeply attached to the place,” the man said, “and happen to know something of its story.”
This turned out to be quite true. As they moved from point to point, the stories came alive. The man recreated in words the arrival of Augustine in the sixth century, the first archbishop of Canterbury. He described the pilgrims of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and the Danes’ disfiguring attack on the noble building. Beside the shrine of Thomas Becket, the grim martyrdom of 1170 came to mind as never before. Mrs. Boreham had discovered adventure after all: “Concerning every pillar and arch, every cranny and crevice, my eloquent guide had some thrilling tale to tell.”
We often speak of the influence of story in our lives. The influence of a storyteller is equally profound, I think. This seems especially clear as the story of Christmas quickly approaches and brings with it childhood favorites, Handel’s Messiah, and traditions with origins we often sense matter even if we can’t identify them. F.W. Boreham long cited his mother’s masterful storytelling as the tool God chose to most shape his own writing and imagination. Her storytelling made visible the wonders of God at work. “The Hassock Hour” brought past and future, story and faith to life for Boreham—much in the way the guided tour brought Canterbury Cathedral to life for his mother. Through the eyes of one who knew the story by heart, both learned to see.
The early church is full of similar testimonies. As Philip ran beside the chariot of the Ethiopian official, he heard a fragment of a story. The official had been in Jerusalem worshiping at the temple, and on his way home he was reading from the book of Isaiah. Hearing this, Philip asked the man if he understood what he was reading. “How can I,” he replied, “unless someone explains it to me?” and he invited Philip into the chariot. Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the rest of the story. The one whom Isaiah foretold, the one who would be “led like a sheep to the slaughter,” was crucified in Jerusalem and resurrected to life. Seeing water, the man stopped the chariot and asked Philip to baptize him: “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God,” he said decidedly.
Storytelling is profound because we live our lives in the midst of story. Mrs. Boreham’s encounter at Canterbury invited her to live among a great history of belief and story. In that cathedral, she realized she was simply one among countless pilgrims to stand in awe before the Lord. Likewise, the Ethiopian official found himself a part of the same grand story, invited to life as it reached far beyond the words of Isaiah himself—from Eden to Nazareth to Ethiopia. The stories we tell remind us continually that life is first a story.
They also remind us that there is first a storyteller. When at long last the cathedral tour was finished and they were heading out the great doors, Mrs. Boreham’s guide suggested they exchange cards. She thanked him sincerely for his time and courtesy and tucked the card in her pocket. On the train ride home, she pulled it out. It simply read: Charles Dickens.
Christians tell the story of Christmas, Advent tells the story of Christmas because there is a story to tell. Faith comes through hearing the message, says Paul, and the message is heard through the word of Christ. Faith comes forth because there is a story to hear. Faith comes, because where there is a story, there is a Storyteller. Into our small world, there is one who speaks, one who comes, one who is born.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.