Man is a story-telling animal. We make sense of our experiences, or fail to make sense of them, by the stories we tell. We perceive our lives as going well or badly in terms of the narrative of our lives. One of the greatest gifts of Catholic faith is the story of salvation history. The offer of faith is the invitation to participate in a truly meaningful story, one that begins at creation and ends, or at least resolves, over the horizon of eternity. Catechists call this story the narratio, and it is arguably the most important part of our education in the faith.

The outlines of the story are familiar: the creation and fall, the biblical covenants of Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Christ, prophecy and fulfillment, and the foundation of the Church. For Catholics, sacred history does not end with Pentecost. The succession of Popes and bishops, the lives of the saints, and the continuation of the liturgy provide concrete points of continuity with the ancient drama.

The individual Catholic takes up the story line in at least two ways. Through baptism, he enters the community that is the subject of the narrative. In union with Christ, the Church is the protagonist in sacred history and the catholic shares in her joys, sorrows, and ultimate triumph. This collective identity is a great motive for remaining in the faith. My destiny is linked to the beautiful drama of the Church.

The Catholic enters the narratio in another way that is more personal, more interior. The life of Christ is the paradigm not only for the Church collectively, but also for each individual Catholic. The sacraments introduce us to the life of the Church, but they also bring into our own lives a dramatic reenactment of the life of Jesus. St. Paul speaks of this personal participation in Christ: God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (Colossians 1:27)


Lectio divina is one way to take up the story of the Church in my own life. I read the Bible contemplatively, allowing the Holy Spirit to speak to me, showing me how to insert my own life and struggles into the narratives of Scripture. The Catholic doctrine of the four-fold sense of Scripture is very helpful. According to that teaching, the Bible is not just the record of past events. Those events are also allegories, capturing spiritual realities in narratives that can be reenacted in my own life.


Coming to share in the narratio of Scripture is what gives the Catholic gratitude, joy, and hope. The experience of suffering becomes bearable if it is a meaningful chapter in a book with a glorious ending. St. Paul says, “Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” (Romans 8:17) The saints experience their past failures, deprivations, and even persecution with gratitude and joy. Speaking of her considerable suffering, St. Josephine Bakhita said, “I am definitively loved. Whatever happens to me, I am awaited by that love. And so my life is good.”


Modern, secular liberalism is understandably uncomfortable with this mode of life. Many fear that religious people might seek to impose their narratives on others. This is not an unreasonable fear, for history is riddled with ideological and religious wars. However, the secular critic fails to see that liberalism is also a narrative, and one that increasingly seeks to impose what Pope Benedict called the Dictatorship of Relativism. There is no escaping narratives. We can only strive to be self-aware and self-critical in how we adopt them.


Some thinkers have tried try to deny the narrative structure of our lives, but they are not successful. They make use of narratives to deny narrative. For example, Buddhist philosophy famously rejects the continuity of personal identity through time, the continuity on which narrative depends. However, Buddhist literature recounts this “truth” through the narrative of the Buddha’s life. Similarly, the atheist Jean-Paul Sartre argued against the narrative coherence of life. How did he express this philosophy? In the narrative of his novel Nausea.


The narrative of one’s life makes sense of the pursuit of virtue. It makes possible the idea of vocation. My life has a goal that transcends my personal history. I can find my place, my vocation, in that larger story. I try to cultivate the necessary virtues to live that vocation fruitfully.


The goal of the Catholic narrative is friendship, friendship with God and one’s neighbor. Pursuing that goal requires a radical trust in God’s providence, a supernatural belief that everyman is at least potentially my friend, and that my efforts at friendship are worthwhile, even if I fail to see results here and now. It is grounded in the faith that Christ has made peace, to reconcile all things in heaven and on earth. (Colossians 1:20)

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