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  • Stories of Healing. How a Franciscan Story May Cast Light upon COVID-19 Stories
  • Willem Marie Speelman (bio)

Stories represent lived experiences as they have happened or as they could have happened. According to Paul Ricoeur, the difference between historical and fictional stories is narratively speaking not very significant; all stories follow a plot (Ricoeur 1984:208). The construction of the plot (emplotment), selects, values, and connects different events – whether factual or fictional – in such a way that they follow a logical line towards a meaningful end. The line of events gathers together the different actors, times, places, figures, and themes in the story. The story-teller and listener follow that line. In that receptive act, however, other stories will resonate with this story, which will add to the meaning of some of its events. A narrative approach makes it possible to compare different stories, historical as well as fictional, and to describe how they enrich one another. As a student of Franciscan spirituality, I am interested in the question how Franciscan stories can enrich stories about lived experiences in our days. Franciscan stories may be historically doubtful; they were told by someone to someone else with the intention to communicate something, and this something was never just information about facts. Nonetheless, they are full of meaning and can shed the light of their significance on present situations.

Stories of people working in health care during the crises of the COVID 19 virus made me think about the engagement of Francis and his brothers with lepers. Some elements clearly resonate: leprosy was also a very contagious disease, uncontrolled, often fatal, and led to strict isolation of the lepers from society. I wondered what a conversation between these two practices would tell us: about our health care practice and about the practice in the Franciscan story. I chose to focus on a story of St. Francis curing an angry leper as it is told in the collection of stories called The Little Flowers of Saint Francis.1 As a merely superficial confrontation would mainly reveal differences, l chose to analyze this [End Page 287] story’s emplotment, and follow its generation of meaning; I would likewise analyze present-day’s stories of health care workers. To this end, I chose to use a collection of articles about the experiences in a hospital in Southern Netherlands, published in the Dutch newspaper The Volkskrant by journalist Willem Feenstra.2

The narrative method of analysis that I will use is based on the semi-otics of the Paris School of Algirdas Julien Greimas (Greimas & Courtés 1979/1982), which has been elaborated in an analytical method by the Dutch research group SEMANET (1987). My own use of this method is guided by the question how values are realized and communicated, and which isotopic values give a particular narrative utterance its identity: what does it say? (Speelman 2013; Oosting e.a. 2017). I will shortly introduce the method by discussing the realization of values, a realization which is operated through the narrative program (the employment). The program follows a structure called the narrative scheme.

1. Introduction to the method

The analysis follows the generation of meaning in a particular utterance, in our case a story. Meaning is formed by values, especially by changing values into their opposites. Values are the most elementary units of a narrative utterance. They virtually exist in relations, and as far as language is concerned purely in oppositions: in the language system (not in reality!) the value/white/is and is nothing else than/non-black/.3 Values [End Page 288] enter into correlations with one another (actualization), thus forming bundles which can be recognized as figures: the leper is/ill/,/contagious/,/excluded/,/hideous/etcetera. These figures are thematized in a particular story, thereby adding other values: this leper is/male/,/impatient/,/dirty/etcetera. With the leper all these values run like treads through the story. But some of them change into their opposite; in this story the leper is washed (/dirty/versus/clean/), healed (/ill/versus/healthy/) and restored in faith (/impatient/versus/patient/).4 The story transforms values by correlating them with an object, for example by correlating cleanliness...


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pp. 287-307
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