Stories of Spirit


Presentation to the Comox Valley Unitarian Fellowship

September 22, 2013


Mike Bell


Thanks you for the invitation to speak to you today about “Stories of Spirit That Can Change Our World.” There is a wonderful scene in the recent movie “Lincoln” that those of you who have seen it may remember.

Lincoln is in a meeting with his cabinet.  It is a very tense meeting.  He is trying to get the final few votes that will enable him to pass the Declaration of Emancipation that will end slavery.  But the southern leaders want to meet with him to work out a deal: stop the war but retain slavery.  He is being attacked by the opposition and some of his own party for refusing to meet with them.  His cabinet is discouraged and feeling helpless.  But Lincoln is trying to motivate them to work harder.  So he says, “This situation reminds me of a story about an older gentleman I knew back in Illinois.”  At this point his chief of staff stands up and heads towards the door.  He says, “I’m outa here.  I can’t stand one more story about some old guy in Illinois.”


Presentation to the Comox Valley Unitarian Fellowship

September 22, 2013


Mike Bell



Thanks you for the invitation to speak to you today about “Stories of Spirit That Can Change Our World.”

There is a wonderful scene in the recent movie “Lincoln” that those of you who have seen it may remember.

Lincoln is in a meeting with his cabinet.  It is a very tense meeting.  He is trying to get the final few votes that will enable him to pass the Declaration of Emancipation that will end slavery.  But the southern leaders want to meet with him to work out a deal: stop the war but retain slavery.   He is being attacked by the opposition and some of his own party for refusing to meet with them.  His cabinet is discouraged and feeling helpless.  But Lincoln is trying to motivate them to work harder.  So he says,, “This situation reminds me of a story about an older gentleman I knew  back in Illinois.”  At this point his chief of staff stands up and heads towards the door.  He says, “I’m outa here.  I can’t stand one more story about some old guy in Illinois.”

I’ve had similar experiences to Lincoln’s …sometimes in my own family.

Lincoln was a famous storyteller.  He knew and appreciated the power of story to energize Spirit.   He realized that there were two stories, the Great Story and the small stories, and both kinds are interrelated.

For him the Great Story was the story of the ongoing Civil War.   But he knew that quoting facts and figures about the 700,000 union and confederate soldiers lying dead on the battlefields and 4 million men women and children suffering under the yoke of slavery would not motivate.   So he used the small stories, the inner stories of Spirit that his listeners could relate to, stories that would appeal to his listeners’ values and  better self, stories that would motivate them to do the right thing, stories that would energize them to get those last few remaining votes to free the slaves and change the world.

For us today living in this valley there is also the Great Story and the small stories.  The Great Story is the story of this valley—its beauty, its bounty, its history, its eco-systems, its species, its economy.  In particular it is the story of the way this valley is being developed and the legacy this development leaves for future generations. And it is not just an environmental story. It is a story about box stores, small businesses and sustainable jobs; it’s about schools and colleges; it is about the food we eat; it is a story about how we provide or don’t provide support for the homeless, the elderly, and those with disabilities.  It is a story about our rights as citizens and about the people we elect to ensure those rights.  All of these elements are inter-related and part of our Great Story.

The little stories are not Disney stories, or cop stories on television, or situation comedy stories.  They are real stories about real people.  They are the stories each one of us—all citizens of this valley—can tell.  And it is these stories—your stories and mine—that can inspire us and determine the future life of this valley.

As we proceed, I’ll begin with a few words about Spirit, then I’ll l talk about the power of stories to evoke Spirit. Finally I’ll take you on a bus ride. I’ll show how the stories we tell can determine the future of this valley.

For the next little while, then, you and I have our respective jobs.   My job is to do the talking and tell the stories.  Your job is to do the listening….  If you should finish before me, don’t get up and head for the exits.  Just give me the signal.


The word “spirit” comes from the Latin “spiritus” and means “breath and life”.  The word “inspire” means to breathe life into.”

Spirit is a common term that we often use in our daily conversations.  We talk about “team spirit.” We say thing like, “My mother is struggling with her cancer but today her spirits are up.”  “I watched that movie and found it very inspiring.”  “Our granddaughter, Caila, is a very spirited child.”    Though we can’t define spirit, it is like art.  We know it when we see it.  It is a creative force, an energy source that inspires us, that often moves us to take action.

All religious or faith groups recognize the presence of Spirit. Sometimes it is some external reality— Allah, Buddha, the Tao,  God or the Holy Spirit, the Creator, the Great Spirit.

Sometimes is it an internal reality—an indwelling in our souls.  Often  it is both.  Sometimes, for humanists, Spirit might be the guidance of reason that inspires ethical behaviour.

One of the defining characteristics of Spirit is that our understanding of Spirit evolves as our understanding of our world evolves.

I have a friend who is a Roman Catholic nun. For many years she has run an eco-spirituality center in the U.S.  She tells a story that graphically illustrates the need to adapt Spirit to changes in our society.

One day someone asked her about her belief system as a Roman Catholic in this changing world.  She answered, “When I was a child I went to mass with my family.  We always sat in the same pew, and on the wall high above us was a stained glass window.  I would look up at the window and see a depiction of the Trinity—an old man, a young man, and a dove—Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”  Then she said “Two guys and a bird won’t do it for me anymore.”

As we look at the concept of Spirit emerging today we see certain characteristics.   It is a universal experience,   No religion has the franchise on Spirit.  As we read in St. John’s Gospel, “The wind blows where it pleases; you can hear the sound but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.  So it is with everyone who is born of the spirit.” (Jn3:8)

Spirit is a personal experience based upon some internal awareness.  It is a sense of something within us that motivates and at times challenges us.

There is an interesting story about Carl Jung who was not a church-goer but had a strong sense of this internal Spirit.

One day, a young woman, one of his students, accused him being an atheist. Jung was confused and asked the student where she had gotten that idea. The student paraphrased a quote she had read in which Jung said he didn’t believe God existed. Jung smiled and said “Young woman, rest easy.  When we have a relationship to a particular thing or experience with it – belief or faith ceases to be a factor. The truth is this. I have had the experience of being gripped by something that is stronger than myself, something that people call God. So, I will never say that I believe that God exists. I must say I know God exists!”

So Spirit, for Jung and for many of us is the sense that there is something within us that is stronger than ourselves.

Finally, in my own experience working as a priest, I became aware that the Earth—Nature—is for many people the way they  recognize Spirit.

Some years ago, a close friend of mine—her name was Ann–was dying of cancer.  Her husband called me and told me that she was being released from the hospital to die at home… on the condition that they find a spiritual director.  When I asked him if they had one he said “Yes—You.” So I travelled down from the North to see her. They had a wonderful house near Red Deer high up on a hill overlooking beautiful forests, and soft fields.  Her husband, the son of an Anglican priest,  welcomed me and expressed a concern. He told me that Beth no longer believed in the same things he believed in—the things they learned about the Trinity, about God, about Jesus.  His subtle message was: help straighten her out.

When I entered the room Ann was sitting in a chair looking out the window at the forest and the waving fields. She welcomed me and said, “Did you talks to my husband?  He is worried about me.”  I said, “I know.” She said, “Mike, all that stuff I learned as a kid in Sunday school has never made much sense to me.  But when I look out that window and see those forests and fields I know there is a God.”

Beth had discovered what many indigenous people would call “The Spirit of the Earth.”

So…Spirit is a universal experience.  We can’t define it but we know it as something we experience.  It is a creative force that often manifests itself within us, as something stronger than ourselves. At times it is a force that challenges us. And for many of us, and for many religions,  it manifests itself in the beauty and even the harshness of nature and the world around us.  To paraphrase the words of a friend of mine—those peoples, cultures and religions that are seeking some kind of common ground of Spirit should begin by realizing that they are standing on it.


It is through the telling of stories that we often become aware of the presence of Spirit.  Most of the great leaders have used story to motivate people.

St. Mathew’s Gospel tells us  “Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables; indeed he would never speak to them except in parables. (Mt 13:34)

Mahatma Ghandi was a great story teller.  He entitled his autobiography, “The Story of My Experiments with Truth.”

Perhaps the greatest speech in my lifetime was Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream Speech.” If you read it, as I have done recently on the anniversary of the March on Washington, you will see it is a series of stories: about Lincoln’s Emancipation Declaration, about bombings, police dogs, separate restaurants and even drinking fountains, about motels with “Whites Only” signs. He closed his speech with his dream—“that one day little black children and little white children will walk hand in hand and be judged not on the colour of their skin but on the strength of their character.” 

For Carl Jung, story was critical to his theory.  He had been a disciple of Sigmund Freud.  In 1933, with the rise of Hitler, Freud, a German Jew, decided to leave Germany leaving Jung on his own.  Over the next few years Jung rejected Freud’s strong emphasis on sexuality.  He became aware of stories from around the world and in studying them discovered a collective unconscious, something he believed existed in all humans. These stories often took the form of what he called archetypes—frameworks for universal stories.

For Jung, stories were not just something people told. They were part of a person. He noted that everyone has a story and when psychological problems occur it is because our personal story has been denied or rejected.  Healing comes when we discover or re-discover our personal stories.   So, in a very real sense, we are our stories.

0ur stories give us our identity.  The stories we tell give evidence that we are who we say we are.   They also establish our relationships and rights to certain possessions. In our courts people often tell stories to validate their claims.

Some years ago a First Nation band in northern B.C. wanted to negotiate its land claim.  The federal government officials arrived from Ottawa and held a meeting with the band council and some of the elders. During the course of the meeting one of the civil servants said, “I hope you realize that this land we are talking about belongs to the federal government in Ottawa.”  The elders were shocked.  One of them stood up, looked across the table at the civil servant who made this statement and said, “If this is your land, where are your stories?

The real power of stories is in the telling of stories. Our family stories help us maintain relationships.  When we tell stories about our marriages and divorces, about our parents, about our children and grandchildren, about our life experiences, about our jobs our successes and failures, we are defining who we are and how we relate to the world.  And these stories are critical.

Finally the telling of stories helps us create a sense of community and give us strength.  And, they are sometimes a survival tool.

I realized this some years ago when I was facilitating a community planning conference in Pangnirtung, an Inuit community at the end of a long fiord,  in the mountains , half-way up Baffin island. There were 80 people crammed into the community hall: men, women children, some of them babies in amautiks on their mothers back, and kids running all over the place. The purpose of the meeting was to help them create a story about their community’s future.

The language for the meeting was Inuktitut, the Inuit language.  I don’t speak Inuktitut and had to depend on translation. But the equipment to allow for simultaneous translation broke down so I had to use consecutive translation.  I’d say something and the translator would translate.

There were a series of exercises.  I was particularly worried about one exercise, the critical one towards the end of the conference.  People had to break into small groups and prepare presentations based upon stories.  But would they be able to adapt to the Qadluna’s—the white man’s –way of doing things?

The answer came instantly.  As soon as they broke into groups the level of energy went up, way up.  There was laughter, loud talk, and even shouting from one group to another.  At one point a man yelled something to another table and everyone broke into gales of laughter.    I asked the tanslator what he said. He looked at me and smiled with a wry look on his face and said, “You really don’t want to know.”

At that moment I realized that stories were not only important, they can be critical for survival. For what do you do to keep sane in a snow house—an igloo—out on a seemingly endless and frozen barren land, with outside winter temperatures of -40C-60C  below sometimes in weeks of total darkness and, inside the snow house, only a dim seal oil lamp providing light and heat?  How do you survive and maintain your sanity?  You play games and you tell stories.

So stories communicate Spirit. They energize us, they are a source of our creativity, they form and strengthen our relationships, they focus of our creativity.  We are our stories.

When we tell our stories we open to others the Spirit within our souls.


On Thursday evening, December 1, 1955 a seamstress in Montgomery Alabama, after a long hard day of work, got on city bus to go home.  She sat towards the back of the bus. The front seats were reserved for white people.  But then more white folks got on the bus and, according to city law, the black folks had to surrender their seats to white folks. But the seamstress refused.  She was taken off the bus and put in Jail.

Rosa Parks did not intend to start a revolution. She was just tired and didn’t want to be pushed around just because she was the wrong colour.  She had had enough.

The story of her Spirit of courage spread around the city, around the country and then around the world.  The story has been repeated, time and time again for almost 60 years in homes, schools, churches and everywhere else.    It has helped bring about changes in society, many changes. And out of the telling emerged someone that Rosa Parks, in her wildest imagination, would never have thought possible.  Barach Obama.

I feel, to quote from the previous reading from Thomas Berry, that the Comox Valley is in between stories.   But our federal and provincial governments are spending millions of tax dollars to create a new story.  It is based upon resource development.

As a citizen of this valley I feel that I’m being told to sit in the back of the bus. The front seats are reserved for CEOs of large corporations who build pipelines, coal mines, and other resource development projects. Most of them are from other countries—Japan, Korea, and especially China. Recently two Chinese Companies have filed 18 new coal licenses in our valley.

The leaders of the tour, who alternate as driver and tour guide, are the heads of our federal and provincial governments. The trip is being billed as The Comox Valley Bargain Basement Resource Acquisition Tour.   Everything is for sale and there are incentives—tax benefits, removal of cumbersome environmental laws; international agreements to smooth the way ahead and give access to our resources; silencing or firing pesky scientists and environmental staff.  The CEOs tell the driver and tour guide where to go, and everything is for sale.   The bus P.A. system is continually chanting “jobs, jobs, jobs,” sometimes in English some times in Chinese.

In the back of the bus with me are some fellow Comox Valley citizens, including some First Nation citizens, and some local politicians. We are the window dressing along for the ride. The tour operators have instructed us to keep quiet and sit still.  We are deemed too unsophisticated to understand the intricacies of the global economy.  In the old days we used to sit in the front and tell the driver where we would like to go. But those days are now gone.

This is a fantasy story of course, but it is quickly becoming a reality story. And it is not enough for us to continually object to this false story. We need to get off the bus and create a better story, our own Great Story for the valley.

We do this by doing what Lincoln did: telling our own little stories about why we came here or were born here and stayed here; about what we love most about his valley; about the rights we think we should have as citizens that have been taken away; about what a healthy economy might look like; about what sane development looks like.  Some of you in this room have been telling these stores for years.

We must have confidence in the Spirit power of our own stories. If we tell our story in our schools, our churches, our clubs and youth groups; If we organize story telling sessions in our homes; if we tell our stories to our political leaders and business leaders, then in time the power of Spirit in our stores will create an integration of thinking and develop a consensus for this valley.

Perhaps this consensus will take the form of a social contract or charter of rights for humans and other than human citizens in this valley.  Perhaps we will create a new sane development road map for our own bus and have a new Big Story for the Comox Valley.

Just yesterday we had a story telling session at the K’omox band hall. About 100 of us got together to tell stories about some of the victories we have achieved over the years in this valley.  Much of what we have today is due to the work of our elders.  We honoured them.  The session was inspiring—which of course was its purpose.


Story telling is not always easy, especially as it goes to the heart of things.  I‘m sure, at difficult times, many of us call upon a power greater than ourselves.  I know I do.

At one point in his life Carl Jung had a nervous breakdown. Later on, perhaps as therapy, he built a tower to house his office. Over the front door he carved into the stone a Latin inscription, some words from the Dephic Oracle. It reads “VOCATUS ATQUE NON VOCATUS DEUS ADERIT. He also had these same words engraved on his tombstone.

I have these words on the wall above my desk and I look up at them often, especially on the bad days, when I feel lonely and defeated.   They encourage me and give me hope. They translate, “WHETHER SUMMONED OR NOT SUMMONED, GOD WILL BE THERE.”

Reading from Thomas Berry

A Question of Story

It’s all a question of story.  We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story.  We are in between stories.  The old story, the account of how the world came to be and how we fit into it, is no longer effective.  Yet we have not learned the new story.  Out traditional story of the universe sustained us for a long period of time.  It shaped our emotional attitudes, provided us with life purposes and energized action.  It consecrated suffering and integrated knowledge.  We awoke in the morning and we knew where we were.  We could answer the questions of our children.  We could identify crime, punish transgressors.  Everything was taken care of because the story was there.  It didn’t necessarily make people good, nor did it take away the pains and stupidities of life or make for unfailing warmth in human association.  It did provide a context in which life could function in meaningful manner…

A radical reassessment of the human situation is needed, especially concerning those basic values that give life to some satisfactory meaning.  We need something that will supply in our times what was supplied formerly by our traditional religious story.  If we are to achieve this purpose, we must begin where everything begins in human affairs—with the basic story, our narrative of how things came to be, how they came to be as they are, and how the future can be given some satisfying direction.  We need a story that will educate us, a story that will heal, guide, and discipline us.


Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth, p. 123-124.

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