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
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?)
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
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!