AS A boy, I always had my head in a book, and for most of my adult life I have been a writer. Reading with my mum not only defined our relationship but shaped my life. Over the years, some of the most real people I have ever met have been in novels. Novels have influenced me, and changed me, and given me insights into the lives of others.
I loved stories because they seemed to give my life shape. They allowed me to escape my current situation, and they transported my imagination. As I grew older, I began to enjoy listening to the stories other people told me about themselves. There were my grandmother’s stories of a deprived and brutal childhood in London’s East End; stories of the war; and stories of other relatives.
In the hardware shop we owned, in Northolt, on the outskirts of London, a procession of customers would chat to my parents, with stories ranging from the funny and incredible to the poignant and tragic. It was part of the life of the shop. It helped that my parents did not judge those who told us their tales.
I THINK I knew from early on that, when someone tells you the story of their life, you see them differently. You begin to see the contours and vistas of their narrative and their experience. You see the dark and light corners that make up a person.
In the New Testament, it is the little autobiographical details that help us to see the disciples as real people and not simply actors or mouthpieces. When we realise that Peter, the rock of the Church, had his very rocky moments, we begin to warm to him. When we notice that he seemed to want to be liked, and that this led him into all kinds of trouble; then we see his vulnerability, and this makes us more open to what he has to say.
In my ministry as a priest, I began to come into contact with people’s stories. Like doctors, priests are privileged to be the keepers of stories. That is what people have to offer us. People trust us with them.
I WAS not always a priest. For much of my adult life I was working in commerce. For many years, I ran a brand agency that started out as a venture in my spare room and became something of a sensation. By some odd alchemy, everything I touched seemed to turn to gold.
When I was running my agency, I seemed to meet only people who were buzzy themselves and surrounded by equally successful friends. I was always busy, and everyone I knew was busy. I lived what can only be called a gilded life. I travelled first class. I used only taxis, and never took the bus. I got on planes, and was a consultant around the world. I had staff, and ran an organisation that was successful and rather glamorous. I had travelled a long way from the anxious and timid comprehensive-school boy who worked in his mum and dad’s shop.
At times, I had to pinch myself. But perhaps I did not pinch myself enough. I was losing contact with my roots. I was no longer the boy from Northolt — at least, I didn’t feel that I was.
LOOKING back on those years, I now see that my view of life was unrealistic, and insulting to those less fortunate than myself. The stories I heard, and the stories I told, were shallow. And, during this time, I stopped reading for pleasure. I didn’t read a work of fiction for years. In spare moments, I wondered where the boy who loved books had gone.
But, even in those years, I was not quite lost. Because, deep in my own heart, I was unhappy and restless. By the end of this period, I felt trapped, and desperate to find meaning. I think that most of the people I knew during this period were trapped also.
I had a moment of epiphany. I was desperate for a break, exhausted and low. My wife had been very ill, and life was so tough that I did not know where to turn. We booked a holiday — the first for 18 months, and the first break since my wife’s illness. I got a call from a client on the morning before we went away. They were insistent that I go in to help them. I explained about the holiday, but that carried no weight. At 9.30 p.m. I was in an office on my own, way outside London. I had missed my holiday. I had no way of getting home, and my clients had left without telling me. I realised that, in my working life, no one really cared about me and my family, and that I was simply a well-paid hired hand. When I had outgrown my usefulness, that would be that. I knew that life had to offer more than this.
THE story of my conversion to Christianity in my early forties is for another time. The giving up of my life as an entrepreneur and businessman is for another time, also. But one of the products of becoming a Christian, and, later, a priest, was that I began to hear the stories of those who had no one else to tell them to. My ear became tuned to a different beat. I began to see a side of the world that I had been insulated from.
When I became a priest, I started to become attached to stories again. I began to think that we have to reclaim them: to see them as the bedrock of the Christian way, of a healthy society, and of our own health and well-being.
My church is named after that great northern saint, Cuthbert. He led a revival of the faith, and was known as the “fire of the north”. He would visit local settlements, most of them pagan and poor, and would spend time simply sitting and listening to the stories of the families who lived there. They loved him for it. He was a good advert for the faith, and many of those he took time to listen to became Christians.
I REALISED that life becomes impossible when we have no one who wants to listen to our stories, or we find it hard to tell our story — because of trauma, grief, or violence. Many of the older people we have worked with at my church had stopped telling their stories because no one seemed interested. They also, I think, felt embarrassed to be left so alone. They never imagined, when they were bringing up their families, had good jobs, and the world seemed full of possibility, that one day they would be surrounded by the memories of friends who had moved or died, and that they themselves would become just another elderly person with no one to talk to.
Family members have sometimes heard all the old tales and don’t want another dose of nostalgia. It is easy to lose interest in a parent’s story of their youth when you’ve heard it countless times before.
Learning to listen to stories — and to tell them — has transformed my ministry and my faith. It has helped me reconnect with a part of myself that I feared I had lost.
The Revd Steve Morris is Vicar of St Cuthbert’s, North Wembley.
This is an edited extract from Our Precious Lives: Why telling and hearing stories can save the Church, to be published by Authentic on 14 February at £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.20).