By the time the first sheep touched down on the green felt, the electric fan in the corner was the only sound in the room. They waited silently to receive the next word, bodies relaxed but in that slightly forward-leaning posture common to children in every Godly Play circle all around the world.
These were not children. Nor were they seated cross-legged in a circle. Some of their fragile bodies and compromised joints would not have allowed climbing onto the floor. We were not even in a circle.
“You can tell any story you want,” said the Rev. Betty Carpenter when she invited me to the Vacation Bible School for adults with developmental disabilities held at St. James Episcopal Church in Sewanee, Tennessee.
Well, it wasn’t going to be a parable. I was thinking about the visual limitations of telling the story on top of a table. Of course, I could hold it aloft, but I wanted something more easy to see in a horizontal gaze, since we would not be gathering in a circle and directing our gaze downward. The Good Shepherd and World Communion seemed like a good choice.
So much depends on a circle. It isn’t merely a handy shape for storytelling. As Jerome Berryman notes In Teaching Godly Play: How to Mentor the Spiritual Development of Children, circles represent sacred power. We find them in every culture as a center of power for conveying mythos: the matrix (womb) of creation, the cauldron, the Holy Grail, the circle of the chalice, the Native American storytelling circle, and the campfire (p. 37).
In Godly Play, as in life, we must work with reality. Reality on this day consisted of a rectangular room filled with rectangular tables, and people who needed to sit in chairs. When a sweet, jolly man named Curtis took a seat at the table where I was preparing to tell the story, I shifted to the side so others could see.
Now their eyes followed the sheep, who followed the Good Shepherd who showed the way to the good grass. They watched in perfect silence as the little priest stood behind the little table to read the very words of the Good Shepherd. When the people of the world began to crowd around the table, the room remained so quiet, my students seemed almost not to be breathing. Would they know when it was time to speak? I wondered how to break the spell that held them mute.
The words were already there for me. “I wonder if you have ever come close to this table?”
“Never!” a woman cried, her voice lilting with joyful amazement. “I have never seen anything like that.”
“I wonder where this table could really be?”
They were silent again.
I asked, “I wonder if the people are happy around this table?”
Suddenly, laughter. Someone thought I was asking about the wooden figures standing around the miniature wooden table on the circle of felt. That someone was me. I had forgotten that we were not sitting cross-legged in a circle on the floor. We were sitting at tables, and Curtis was at my table. Everyone who knows Curtis, knows Curtis is happy. Yes, the people are happy around this table!
I wonder if you have ever come close to this table?
— Jeannie Babb