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Pope Francis writes an afterword to a book that gathers reflections on storytelling

Mystery and compassion

 Mystery and compassion  ING-021
27 May 2022

The following is a translation of the Holy Father’s afterword to a book that brings together reflections on the importance of storytelling by 44 artists, writers, theologians and journalists. Edited by Andrea Monda, Director of the L’Osservatore Romano, the book is entitled “The weaving of the world,” (La Tessitura del Mondo), and was published by the Vatican Publishing House (lev ) and Salani Publications.


he stories we tell and re-tell and pass down to one other are tents to gather under, flags to follow into battle, unbreakable cords to connect the living and the dead, and the interweaving of these vast textiles across centuries and cultures binds us powerfully to each other and to history, guiding us through the generations”. So wrote Donna Tartt after reading this volume that gathers the reflections of 44 writers, artists, theologians and journalists on the theme of storytelling. The American novelist acutely grasps one of the points on which many of the authors of this book converge: storytelling as “textiles”, made of “unbreakable cords” that connect everything and everyone, past and present, allowing us to open ourselves to the future with feelings of confidence and hope.

This aspect of the textum (Latin for textile from which comes the English word text) was at the heart of my Message for the 2020 World Day of Social Communications, which was the spark that gave rise to all the other reflections that are collected here. From February to October 2020, in fact, these texts that were “provoked” by reading that Message of mine, were published in the pages of L’Osservatore Romano. I was asked to add a final conclusion at the end of this rich and beautiful series, which I had already read with great pleasure as it unfolded over the course of the months. I therefore gladly accepted; on condition however, that it not be considered “final”, somewhat because, as Frodo, the protagonist in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings says, tales never end, and also because a very beautiful aspect of this book is precisely the sense of openness, of circularity, of dialogue.

Before I continue with the “content”, I would in fact like to briefly pause on the “approach” of this volume: at the beginning, there is a message that is sent. This message is shared and brought to the attention of some people who allow themselves to be questioned, and they enrich that message with their own contribution. The author of the message reads all these contributions and launches a new reflection which is richer than the initial one, thanks to everyone’s contribution. Lastly, the reader of this book will enter into the dialogue and will continue it in his daily life. Here are the “tents to gather under” which Tartt talks about. Here is the interweaving that “binds us powerfully to each other”, even through the generations.

All this says a lot. And in particular, it says that what matters in stories is obviously the telling, but perhaps even more, the listening. This book is the narrative of a dialogue that does not end on the last page and, as dialogue, has listening at its core. Even silent listening. In these pages on storytelling, one can strongly feel the presence of silence. From this point of view, it is important that there also be an essay. I am referring to the text, “Tu parli anche quando taci” (You speak even when you are silent) by Massimo Grilli, directly dedicated to silence. Almost a counterpoint, a countermelody, as essential as the main theme performed by the rest of the orchestra. Words and silence, together.

And here I would like to return to some aspects of the content, among the many possible — the collection is beautiful precisely because of its freedom and the variety of approaches and points of view — to highlight three themes which to me seem the most recurrent ones: I have already highlighted the first one: storytelling as “weaving”; the second is hidden within the mention of silence and it is the theme of “mystery”; the third is the theme of “compassion”.

Regarding the first, as I have already said, the weaving is perhaps the aspect on which the majority of the authors concentrates, some underscoring the role of women, as for example Marcelo Figueroa. Others highlighting the flexibility of story weaving “capable of welcoming ever new situations and ever new subjects” (J. P. Sonnet); and others, instead, like Antonella Lumini, linger on the “magmatic” consistency of stories which, however, “endure”, have a “grip” and a pace, “like the source of a river that then flows into the sea”.

The theme of mystery, broken down as the sense of limitation but also of the “magic” that intervenes in the moment of poetic inspiration, is present from the very first text, the one by the architect Renzo Piani, according to whom, “we human beings are all joined in this awareness of a mystery that hovers above us, that overcomes us. This too has to do with poetry”. “What I do not know how to say, I know how to sing”, says a song by Roman singer-songwriter, Francesco De Gregori, who was interviewed for the collection; and Judith Thurman adds that artists, with profound intuition, “must write not so much about what they know, as about what they didn’t know that they knew, until they redeemed it from obscurity”.

The sense of mystery opens out to the transcendent, towards an unmistakably spiritual and religious dimension. Donna Tartt notes that “perhaps most pertinently though, stories are sailcloths that we hoist to catch a breath of the divine. The thoughts of other people assume a curious life in us, which is why literature is the most spiritual of all the arts and certainly the most transformative. Like no other mode of communication, a story can change the way we think, whether for good or for ill, […] Cultures ancient and modern have always regarded story as magical — and dangerous — for this reason: because it’s possible to hear a story and at the end of the story to be literally a different person”.

And this leads us to the third aspect, compassion, this too present in various texts gathered in the volume. In particular, the author, Marilynne Robinson, recalling the stories and songs her mother used to read to her, reflected on compassion, which in her opinion, in the broadest sense “is the life of the soul, the human analogue to divine grace”; and further on she adds that history “demonstrates continuously how important stories are to communities”. Literature is thus tied to compassion and this leads to transformation which takes place in each experience of writing and reading, and it takes place in an ambiguous, ambivalent, and therefore risky manner: storytelling can also unleash a negative, manipulative and destructive force.

Compassion, as I often repeat in my discourses, is one of the three characteristics of the style of God, together with closeness and tenderness. It is therefore a powerful force and cannot be reduced solely to an interior, intimate aspect, because it also has a dimension which is obviously public and social, so that storytelling is revealed as a force of memory, and thus, a guardian of the past, but also, precisely for this reason, a leaven of transformation for the future. Compassion finds its most representative figure in the Good Samaritan recounted in chapter 10 of the Gospel of Luke. This man has compassion for the wounded man and offers him not only care and healing but along with them also another story of his life which, with his gesture, he “redeemed [...] from obscurity”. Compassion transforms the lives of the two protagonists, and this also goes for each person and for each community.

This, if you will, political, dimension of narrative, is also very present in the 44 texts in the book. I am thinking of the reflection of Alessandro Zaccuri, which speaks of Jesus as the “narrator Messiah”, apparently unarmed but in reality possessing the powerful weapon of storytelling. Just as the Irish novelist Colum McCann sees storytelling “as one of the most powerful means we have with which we can change our world. […] Storytelling is our great democracy. It is the one thing we all have access to. We tell our stories because we need to be heard. And we listen to stories because we need to belong. Storytelling crosses borders. It leapfrogs boundaries. It shatters stereotypes. And gives us access to the full bloom of the human heart”.

What McCann is alluding to is the same conclusion reached by Daniel Mendelsohn when he states that “words are bridges […] through storytelling we can reduce the distance that separates us and I think that today this is more necessary than ever”. Mendelsohn refers to the time in which these texts were written — his contribution is from April 2020 — and indicates a precise literary reference: Boccaccio’s Decameron, set in the time of the plague. This book too, with its 44 texts, was put together during a time of pandemic and one feels the importance, the urgency of returning to the oldest and most human activity: the art of storytelling, that is, of building bridges that can “connect the living and the dead”, to guide us, through the centuries and the generations, towards a future to build and weave together.