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A view from the sycamore tree.

Was Willa Cather right when she said, "There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country, that have been singing the same five notes over for thousands of years"

Yes and no. There are probably only two or three fundamental human stories, but, I would assert, the lark that sings in these stories has seven, not five notes. Whatever our story, be it comedy (divine or profane) or tragedy (American or otherwise), there is a creative dynamic beneath the actions that is universal in format, particular in its expression.

What are the same seven notes that crisscross all countries and generations? I appeal to my favorite story from scripture as a model: the story of the man in the Jericho sycamore tree. His name is Zacchaeus. Some years ago while on retreat, I was taught these notes in Zacchaeus' story, and they remain with me still. But first, the story (Luke 19:1-10) needs rereading:

Entering Jericho, he [Jesus] passed through the city.

There was a man there named Zacchaeus, the chief

tax collector and a wealthy man. He was trying to

see what Jesus was like, but being small of stature,

was unable to do so because of the crowd. He first

ran on in front, then climbed a sycamore tree which

was along Jesus' route, in order to see him. When

Jesus came to the spot he looked up and said,

"Zacchaeus, hurry down. I mean to stay at your

house today." He quickly descended, and welcomed

him with delight. When this was observed,

everyone began to murmur, "He has gone to a

sinner's house as a guest." Zacchaeus stood his

ground and said to the Lord: "I give half my belongings,

Lord, to the poor. If I have defrauded anyone

in the least, I pay him back fourfold." Jesus said to

him: "Today salvation has come to this house, for

this is what it means to be a son of Abraham. The

Son of Man has come to search out and save what

was lost."

Turning to our libretto we have a listing of the seven notes in all good human stories: * Desire: looking for someone, something * Obstacles: blockages to one's goals * Decision: often involving great risk * Encounter: face-to-face with truth * Murmurings: self-doubt (within, without) * Conversion: radical turning * Salvation: liberation

Glance at your family tree, pick up a biography, take in "Shadowlands,"--there are the same seven notes with just a change of characters and circumstances. Or, just check the mirror, and the story line is essentially the same.

Desire. "Desire urges us to possess, to go to something; loathing urges us to abandon, to go from something."--James Joyce

What is it we search for? Meaning? Commitment? Quality? Love? Zacchaeus was looking for Jesus, a teacher and healer who was bringing life to so many. This tax collector had possessions, but something was missing. So he ventured forth as a seeker, hoping to find fulfillment of a dream that was probably nebulous and ill-defined. What he found transformed his very existence.

All of us are searchers. All of us are filled with complex desires, some of which are in opposition to one another and our own best interests. Our story depends upon naming and clarifying just exactly what it is we want, what it is we are looking for. Zacchaeus serves us as a guide.

Obstacles. "I know and see too well, when not voluntarily blind, the speedy limits of persons called high and worthy."--Ralph Waldo Emerson

Desires are blocked by limits. When we are too short, physically, intellectually, or spiritually, when we are embedded in crowds of people or activities that absorb our time and energy, there is small chance of reaching our heart's desire. Facing our limitations is the first step to freedom.

Zacchaeus' vision was impaired. However we interpret this, the fact remains that unless something is done, he will be unable to see Jesus. Our stories are filled with limitations: genetic, psychological, economic, political. There is an intrinsic poverty and "radical indigence" that thwarts our yearnings. But there is hope when decisions based on grace are made.

Decision. "Two roads open up in front of you: the road of man, which is level, and the road of God, which ascends. Take the more difficult road."--Nikos Kazantzakis

Certain days shape and define our destiny. The choice to climb a tree, to "go out on a limb," to risk one's dignity and well-being is not to be undertaken lightly. Zacchaeus ascended into the sycamore tree and returned to earth a different person.

Every story is filled with turning points; there are roads not taken and those that contain great adventure. But there is also the option of remaining grounded, of playing it safe, of not exposing oneself to the wind of life and the whirlpools of the classic Scylla and Charybdis. Zacchaeus set sails on the open sea.

Encounter. "But his presence alters nothing in my life."--Mary Gordon

The opposite can also be true: his or her presence has altered everything. Such was the encounter between Zacchaeus and Jesus, Saul and the risen Lord, our own intersections of grace. Face-to-face meetings tend to alter our vision, values, and often virtues. The abiding presence of a loved one is at the heart of every good, sacred story.

Encounters frequently involve invitations and imperatives. What happened in Jericho happens throughout the world. God seeks us out, states the divine desire of presence, awaits our offer or decline of hospitality. An urgency underlies the story: "Today!" For Zacchaeus, his destiny hung in the balance.

Murmurings. "All other swindlers upon earth are nothing to the self-swindlers, and with such pretences did I cheat myself."--Charles Dickens

It is not necessary for the crowd to give us an identity, be it sinner or saint. Deep within we know what we are, what we can become. Yet there is a danger that a person can identify with a particular aspect of one's life and assume a label: swindler, adulterer, cheat.

Jesus came to liberate sinners, to find the lost. Zacchaeus refused to identify with the murmurings of the crowds and took Jesus to his home, to his heart.

Every story faces this second level of obstacles, a level much deeper than physical or social blockages. We are dependent upon others for self-perception to some degree. When the reflected image is negative and narrow, the conversion process can be inhibited.

Conversion. "It seems to me that all good stories are about conversion, about a character's changing."--Flannery O'Connor

Shakespeare invites us to watch the young prince Hamlet slowly deteriorate as he discovers the murderer of his father. Saint Augustine's Confessions narrate the transformation of a man embedded in sensuality and pride who becomes a committed disciple of the Lord. Even Aladdin experienced a change from being a street urchin to becoming a prince (thank you, Genie).

Zacchaeus' conversion was more than moral, though he now made decisions in line with the teachings of Jesus. At a deeper level, it was a psychic conversion, a radical change of images that gave the tax collector a change of identity. Every story is based on images of self, of God, of life. When these change, all is made new.

Salvation. "To be saved means to share in the life of Christ."--Romano Guardini

What is especially noteworthy in the Zacchaeus story is the social nature of salvation. Salvation came not only to this man but also to the whole household. The social nature of the spiritual life must be understood if we are to comprehend the nature of the human story.

The divine comedy contains a powerful paradox. God, infinite and incarnate, becomes the guest of humankind. In this is our salvation, our happiness, our destiny. Regardless of the number of notes in our story, all comes down to the question of hospitality: does God receive a warm, loving welcome or not?

A warning about reading stories: the power of a story is a power over which we do not have ultimate control, since it can catch us off guard, tell us things about ourselves we would prefer not to know, and liberate us to move in directions we would never have imagined.
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Title Annotation:story of Zacchaeus; characteristics of human stories
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Jul 1, 1994
Previous Article:Let's capture the Hispanic imagination.
Next Article:And the list goes on.

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