By Steve De Mott
I first met Jay six years ago, when he came to visit me in Nirivilo, a tiny rural village in southern Chile, surrounded by pine trees, wheat patches and small vineyards clinging to rocky slopes. It is a village where people still get around on horseback or in creaking oxcarts, a place without a telephone, a movie house or even a newsstand.
I was the pastor there and was more than glad to have a visitor, especially a "storyteller" (although at first I didn't realize how gifted and highly regarded a storyteller Jay was). Jay was a classmate of Father Tom Henehan's at Holy Cross, and it was through Tom that Jay came to Chile.
Winter was coming on, the nights were getting long and cold, and I didn't have that much to do. So I put couple of logs into a little stove Chileans call a sallamandra and hoped that my guest would tell me...a story or two.
Actually, I didn't have to hope or hint for very long. One thing I discovered about Jay is that he loves to tell stories. He even launched into a story once as we were waiting for a bus along the Pan American Highway. It's part of who he is. In fact, it was he who asked me, "Would you like to hear a story?"
When I said "yes," he paused, bowed his head, and closed his eyes for a moment of intense concentration. In that moment of silence I caught the image of a man who goes somewhere deep within himself to find the story, and once he's found it he becomes the story.
Jay then stood up and began to tell me a story not only with his voice but also with his hands, his eyes...his entire being. All this for an audience of one. There I was in a hundred-year-old adobe house under a leaky tile roof watching a true artist, one who has performed all over the world including the Lincoln Center, the Abbey Theatre, London's National Theater Complex and on National Public Radio, to name just a few places. (And it certainly is a great privilege to have him here at Maryknoll for a second time.)
As he spoke I felt Jay was spinning an invisible web and casting it all around me. I was spellbound. The experience was more than that of listening. Jay had created a magic carpet for my imagination and was flying me into another world. I suddenly felt different about myself and about everything that surrounded me.
One of the secrets to Jay's genius as a storyteller, I believe, is that his stories (or at least the most important elements of them) come from somewhere deep within his soul. Because of that, he is able to connect with places deep within our souls. There is an immediacy, a vibrancy and a depth of communication in storytelling that we cannot experience in books or movies. It is heart speaking to heart. It is soul speaking to soul.
Jay is obviously much more aware than I am of the spiritual dimensions of his extraordinary gift. And I was not really surprised to learn that he spends at least a half hour in meditation every day. (He also does voice exercises in the morning, something I'm glad he warned me about when he was my house guest.) Jay is a man of prayer, conscious that his gift comes from God and that there's a holy purpose to his storytelling.
Stories are, after all, not just stories. I have come to believe they are vital to our very existence as human beings. Stories hold our world together. Allow me to read a brief reflection on stories by Leslie Marmon Silko:
I will tell you something about stories, (he said.) They aren't just entertainment. Don't be fooled. They are all we have, you see, all we have to fight off illness and death. You don't have anything if you don't have stories.
Their evil is mighty but it can't stand up to our stories. So they try to destroy the stories, let the stories be confused or forgotten.
They would like that. They would be happy, because we would be defenseless then...
Well, we're not defenseless this evening. Jay is here to tell us a story that shores up what's best in our humanity and gives voice to the cry of the cosmos.
Introduction of Jay O'Callahan
By Stephen T. De Mott, M.M.
July 6, 1998