Stories we pay attention to

31 July 2020

By Canon Mike Williams

Life is full of stories that vie for our attention. Which ones do we pay attention to? I’ve enjoyed some recent TV programmes examining the myths and legends of key moments in history. Facts can be selected and emphasised to suit the agenda of those telling the story; other facts are sometimes conveniently forgotten.

The story of how the tobacco industry fought back against the science that made the link between smoking and cancer, shows how they employed the tactic of doubt. They funded scientists to raise doubts by questioning if it was other factors at play. We see the same tactic employed now by climate change sceptics – they seek to raise doubts about the human causes of global warming.

The Bible and other sacred texts provide a huge collection of stories about God and his relationship to the world. Religion retells these stories to help us live in the present and imagine a better future. We also retell stories about those we call saints of our faith. Friday 31 July is the day we remember St Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. St Ignatius is an excellent example of someone who changed which stories he paid attention to. As a young man he wanted to emulate great soldiers and fought in battle. Recovering from his injuries he had time to read about the life of Jesus and the saints. He discerned within himself a change of heart as he came to focus on Jesus and the holiness of the saints. He made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, returned to Spain and put himself through university, where he met six companions who joined him in making solemn vows. In 1539 he formed the Society of Jesus and sent out missionaries to create schools, colleges and universities around Europe.

Ignatius’ book of ‘Spiritual Exercises’ has had a profound influence on the journey of faith for many Christians. A helpful way of prayer that he suggests is to use your imagination to place yourself in the midst of a biblical story. Be an onlooker, be a participant. What do you see? What do you feel? What part of the story do you now pay attention to? Listening to stories with our heart as well as our mind might help us discern and imagine our future.

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