Yes, History Matters

I love history. My love for history was instilled and nourished by some good history teachers I had along the way. The first one was my own father.

When we were kids growing up on our small farm in Ohio, my father taught us how to find Indian arrowheads in the newly plowed fields. When we thought we had found one, we’d take it to Dad. He’d examine

A father teaching his children to hunt for arrowheads.

A father teaching his children to hunt for arrowheads.

it closely, turning it over reverently in his large hands. By teaching us to look for arrowheads, my father was teaching us to respect the land we called our own and the people who had walked the land before us.

I had good history teachers in school too. In high school, it was Sister Mary Floyd who always related what we were studying in World History to contemporary times. At Notre Dame College, it was Sister Mary Patrice. She didn’t give lectures about history. She transformed history into fascinating stories with incredible characters, familiar and exotic places, sweeping plot lines—all with implications for our own personal lives.

Historian Michael Crichton said: “If you don’t know history, you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.” That image is a good one. British writer Penelope Corfield expands on that idea. She says that all people are “living histories.” Our DNA is inherited from countless ancestors that preceded us. When you visit a new doctor, for example, you have to answer pages of questions. Why? Because in order to best treat you today, the doctor must know something of your past family history (Is there cancer or heart disease in your family?) as well as your personal history (Have you had any major surgeries? Do you smoke?)

Our God is a God of creation and history.

Our God is a God of creation and history.

We are all living histories because we also speak a language we inherited from the past. (Linguists say the words “I,” “we,” “two,” “hand,” and “star” are among the most ancient words dating back tens of thousands of years to the Stone Age!) We also keep traditions that are centuries old or even a few years old. (Do you put up a Christmas tree? What do make for Thanksgiving dinner?) And we can embrace religions that can be thousands of years old. No wonder Corfield concludes, “History is inescapable.”

Not everyone appreciates history though. Henry Ford supposedly said, “History is bunk.” (Later on he modified it: “History is bunk to me.“) Ironically, his words are now part of history! But let’s look at that Model T Henry Ford invented. Before building the car, Ford studied other horseless carriages for 15 years. In order to make his car, he relied on the advances made in the steel industry. He also relied on the expertise of oil producers to make the fuel his car would run on. His use of the electric ignition drew upon the study of electricity. And, finally, every Model T had four wheels. The wheel was 5,000 years old! Corfield concludes: “It took a lot of human history to create the automobile.”

A knowledge of history is also important because we can learn from history. As George Santayan wrote, “Those who cannot learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.” Some say the U.S. failures in Iraq can be attributed to our general ignorance of the history of that region of the world. We also can see how important history is because one of the first things tyrants do when they gain power is to rewrite the history books. Lenin did it, Stalin did it, Hitler did it.

What is the connection between history and our Christian faith? One of the main tenets of

Our Christian faith is rooted in Jesus who walked our very earth.

Our Christian faith is rooted in history…in Jesus who walked our very earth at a specific place and time in history.

Christianity is that God is active and alive in human history. We view creation, for example, not simply as an event in the far distant past; we believe that creation is an ongoing event. As the poet Denise Levertov said of creation: “and that, O Lord,/ Creator, Hallowed One, You still,/ hour by hour sustain it.” Our faith is deeply rooted in other historical events: the Exodus, the Incarnation, the life of Jesus, the history of the church. A knowledge of the history of our faith helps us to make decisions in the present. It also enables us to make changes for the future.

A few questions for reflection:

Did you like history in school? Why or why not?

Do you like to read about history now? Why or why not?

What role does history play in your spirituality and your prayer?

I reached into history for today’s song, “Ubi Caritas,” sung in Latin by Taize. An English translation is: “Where there is charity and love, God is truly there.” These words date back to the earliest days of Christianity; the original melody dates back to the 4th or 10th Century.  The words are simply repeated over and over in a contemplative manner:

Any responses? I love hearing from you!




No Comments

  1. Kathleen Magiera on September 14, 2015 at 5:30 am

    Sr. Melannie,

    I am a history geek. Love to stop by those roadside markers and read about historic happenings.

    I find our Catholic history and tradition important in my spirituality. Where we are and where we have been.


  2. Kathy on September 14, 2015 at 6:32 am

    Sr. Melannie,

    I love reading historical fiction, as it “brings to life” in a more personal way events from the past. I am married to a history geek. My husband actually impersonates Ben Franklin for local parades and other events! In terms of spirituality, I often think of my grandparents and others who shared their faith with me, helping get me to this place today.
    Thanks again for a nice reflection.

  3. aburrow76 on September 14, 2015 at 9:15 am

    I love History! I had a great 8th grade teacher who played war games and you wouldn’t think a girl, gasp…would enjoy that! But it made sense to why things were happening. Our teacher explained our moves and if they went along with history and if they were different how we could have changed history. So many years later I have a BA in History and I am slowly working on my MA in Teaching! I can’t wait to teach History. Its part of every subject we teach.
    Thanks for the entry! I enjoyed reading it!

  4. Doris on September 14, 2015 at 9:19 am

    This post is very timely for two reasons. At my church, we are preparing to resume a program called “Telling Our Stories: Creating a Spiritual Legacy.” Together, we write and share stories of our past, the lessons we have learned, and the ways in which we want our lives (histories) to bless our children and others.
    The second reason is that your words made me realize that, while “History” was my least favorite subject in school, I do enjoy reading historical fiction. The women is our book club at church have selected three books of historical fiction for the coming months.
    Thank you for your weekly posts.

  5. Cindy on September 14, 2015 at 9:24 am

    Sr. Melannie,

    It was not until I studied the history of our beautiful Catholic Church did I understand and love the Church as much as I do today. This is coming from me who was not always a history buff while in school. The history of our church is such an eye opening experience that I believe all Catholics should read about!!


  6. Tom on September 14, 2015 at 9:35 am

    Your touching description of your dad “reverently” turning over whatever you brought to him to examine was very beautiful. I am sure that more often than not it was just a common piece of stone, but his way of handling it taught you that nothing is to be easily dismissed or discarded. Images of the large, strong, but gentle, hands of your dad, and mine, flooded into my memory. Thanks.

  7. Rita on September 14, 2015 at 10:24 am

    I have always loved Ubi Caritas, I learned it in Latin when I was a girl and now, of course, sing it in English… that song is sung from deep in my heart, I hope to hear it when I die, then I will know I am home.
    “brought here together by Christ’s Love, by Love are we thus bound.”
    Peace to all, Rita

  8. Kathy McCoy on September 14, 2015 at 10:47 am

    Thank you for this beautiful explanation of why history matters. Unfortunately, the history I learned in school was all about memorizing dates, wars and battles. History was never brought alive in stories, it was just another class of memorization. I am an avid reader, and after reading your lovely explanation, I just made a promise to myself to download an enjoyable, historical book this week. Do you have any recommendations?
    Thank you for your Monday ponderings. I so look forward to them and the music, as well.

  9. Annette on September 14, 2015 at 12:16 pm

    I also had Sr. Patrice at Notre Dame College many years ago Sister. History was my minor so you can see I have always been drawn to learning! I continue to absorb as much history as possible learning scripture, bible studies, in prayer and anything else I can find!

  10. mary james on September 14, 2015 at 2:02 pm

    Thanks Melannie! I love history, especially American. I LOVED Sr. Patrice’s class, also. I once bought the text she used, but it wans;t even close to the same thing because she “taught” it from life and experience. She threw names around like they were her old friends.
    Recently SR. Joan Chittiser told of her work with a group of Jewish,Muslim, Christian leaders. She asked the Ayatollah about jihad. He pondered and said that ISIS, radical groups are not jihad “No, no , no–this is NOT Islam. They are a peaceful people

  11. Joy on September 14, 2015 at 2:11 pm

    Surely God is in this song…..thank you……

  12. Barb on September 14, 2015 at 7:45 pm

    What a beautiful song. You pick out such wonderful music. Thank you.

  13. Mary Fran on September 14, 2015 at 8:59 pm

    Ah, Sr. Patrice! Though my major was in science I took an elective Sr. Patrice class three extra semesters.
    During a presentation by David McCullough a few years ago he positioned history as story, as you did. His closing comment was that anyone who couldn’t teach history and make it fascinating leaving students wanting more of the story shouldn’t be a teacher as everyone loves a good story.

  14. Kathy Hassink on September 15, 2015 at 2:33 pm

    Dear Cousin,
    Your song reminds me of a Czechoslovakian embroidered wall hanging that I have; the translation follows:
    Household Blessing
    Where there is Belief, there is Love
    Where there is Love, there is Harmony
    Where there is Harmony, there is God
    Where God dwells, there is no Want.

  15. Michelle Lee on November 9, 2015 at 3:22 pm

    I have been receiveing your post coming to my email every week for several months now and have enjoyed it ver much. However for the last 3 weeks I have received nothing. Is there something that can be done to remedy this? My friend is having the same problem. We would appreciate your assistance with the situation. Thank you for your posts.

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on November 9, 2015 at 3:43 pm

      Dear Michelle, Thank you for alerting me to your problem. Four other subscribers reported the same problem, so I’ll have our “tech people” look into this. Thank you for letting me know you weren’t receiving my blog. And thank you for being a subscriber! Gratefully, Sr. Melannie

      • Michelle Lee on February 22, 2016 at 5:22 pm

        I wrote to you last November about not receiveing your blog on Mondays. I also had a friend that was having the same problem. Hers cleared up a short while after, but mine is still out. I tried to re-enroll but the computer tells me I’m already signed up. I miss not receiving your post. Thank you for any help with this matter. I enjoy reading your blog and the thoughts in LivingFaith. Thanks again. M Lee

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