“Once upon a time, long, long ago, far, far, away in a kingdom by the sea…” Thus began a thousand stories my father told. Sometimes the stories were set in the Yukon, where my father worked summers staking mining claims. Often, those stories featured whistlers (marmots) or whiskey-jacks enticed to bridge the divide between human and creaturely worlds. Sometimes it was a mountain goat or grizzly bear. When you heard “once upon a time…” you knew to listen carefully, because something good was coming.
Maybe that’s where I developed the habit of listening carefully. Most of the stories I hear these days don’t start with, “once upon a time…” though it’s still a formula I use to start a story or to coax one from my grandchildren, all of whom are wonderful story-tellers. The stories I hear now are more likely to start with, “Have you got a minute?” or “Can I come in…?”
Many of the stories I hear begin or end with a prayer. It might not be phrased in words and language we necessarily associate with prayer. Though many of the stories start with bowed heads, mine or theirs or both, it is the act of welcome, of listening, of holding space or silence that becomes the prayer. When someone who has held a story a long, long time trusts enough to share their truth, vulnerability and often, their incredible resilience, it is a prayer.
Once I picked up a young man hitch-hiking. Though it was raining heavily, he was barely wet. Another ride had dropped him off a few minutes before and he had prayed, he said, that someone would pick him up quickly. It was the rain, as much as the prayer that convinced me to pick him up. In the hour or so from Qualicum to Port Alberni, he shared his story. His family history was difficult. Abuse, addiction, and violence stretched back more than a generation. Young as he was, he was raising children of his own. I decided, he said, that it was going to stop with me. I was going to bring my children up a different way. With patience and kindness in a home where they would be safe and know they were loved. I wondered aloud how he managed to follow through. “A teacher taught me I could be that man, he said, and named someone I knew and admired. She reminded me of our traditions, our elders, our teachings. Another prayer.”
When I was a young mother and telephones were connected to the wall, I noticed that whenever I had an important call, my sons would act up. Just beyond the reach of the phone cord, they would squabble and holler, spill milk or pull the cat’s tail, demand attention in a hundred different ways.
Unfortunately, the Divine Beloved doesn’t act up, demanding attention when we’re busy. To pray, to hear a prayer, we need to shut off the noise. Not just the TV, the phone, the computer. We need to shut off the tyranny of the urgent, the busy-ness that says, this can’t wait. There is a time and place for doing, a time and place for urgency. It just isn’t all the time.
To pray, to hear a prayer, to be a prayer, we need to be silent. To be open. To let the holy energy of the universe speak. It might be a child’s voice, seeking reassurance and love. A story of joy or delight, forgiveness or unspeakable pain. Or a still, small voice that says, you, you are my beloved. “Once upon a time…”
Rev. Julianne Kasmer is part of the Spiritual Care Team at Our Place Society.
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* This article was published in the print edition of the Times Colonist on Saturday, February 27th 2021