Light to the Nations: Reclaiming the Catholic Historical Imagination

ROLLIN A. LASSETER

The study of history in Catholic schools awaits restoration to its proper role and emphasis, anchoring the present to the past and allowing young people to take their stand with the good and the noble of all ages.

My mother kept scrapbooks. Photos, clippings, mementos. All the detritus of a large and widely connected family in the South in the first half the century. Through an accident, all seven volumes were destroyed after her death. But there was a set of pages I always wanted to look at as a child, the pictures and clippings of my father’s grandfather Caldwell, who raised his grandchildren after their own mother and father died. The old gentleman himself was notorious for saying outrageous things at “sensitive moments.”

His most notorious put-down had to do with some dinner guests who just would not take the hint and go home. The old man had finally lead enough, and getting up from his chair, said to his wife, “Mrs. Caldwell, let us go to bed, these people want to go home.” Grandfather Caldwell had been Davidson County Judge for many years there in Nashville. He was finally driven from office for having built a new poorhouse with indoor plumbing, an expense the taxpayers of Nashville found unconscionable. “Bathtubs for the Poor!” was tile slogan that defeated him.

There was one fading photo I remember always catching my attention as a child. There were Grandfather and Grandmother Caldwell sitting on these little tiny donkeys, dressed in formal black, she with a big hat and veil, gloves and huge skirts, he with gloves, black coat and vest, high collar and tie, and white fedora, sitting stiffly atop these little donkeys. My mother told me it was taken right after he lost the office, and they took a trip through the West. They were about to descend the trail down the Grand Canyon. Indeed, whenever I heard Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite donkey music thereafter, I thought about those two old people on top their donkeys, descending that narrow trail in stately stiff lurches, hat, gloves, and black tie, to the tune of that braying and annoying melody.

But a scrapbook is not a history. It has at best only a chronological sequence. Why were Grandfather and Grandmother Caldwell seated on those donkeys? Did they actually ride down to the bottom of Grand Canyon? Whatever possessed them to do that at their age? From those scrapbooks there remains no coherent story, only a sketchy chronology, some anecdotes, and a few faded photos. The connective purpose, the end, the unifying narrative theme, are not there. By the 1940’s when I first wondered, there was no one left to tell me.

Like my mother’s now lost scrapbooks, the greater sense of our communal history as Catholic Christians is fading away with the last old people who knew its story. Our schools teach a secularized American civics and withhold both European and world history until the Ninth or Tenth grades of High School. Our textbooks are full-color, large type — pretty, but expensive scrapbooks of an inexplicable past.

What conflicts of the soul moved empires to change or conquest? What work of Divine Providence ordered the affairs of nations? Did any good come out of so much suffering? So much greed? So much heroic sacrifice and holiness? What is the Final Cause of these anecdotes and isolated statistics? Who did well? Who benefited? Is it a matter for apology that Europeans conquered the New World? Does the upsetting of local custom — human sacrifice, cannibalism, polygamy, slavery — require apology? The scrapbook approach to our past cannot advise. The human centuries retreat into one amorphous oatmeal of misery.

Unlike scrapbooks, History is stories. It has beginnings, middles, ends, and all its stories are events in the gathering action of one story, Sacred History, whose model is the Bible. The crisis of our times looms like nightmare over our hearts, and discouragement and despair seems to hang heavily on old and young alike. For the point of it all, the regathering of human life throughout history into the arms of God, seems to have been forgotten in the education of our children. If any one life, my life, is to have value, it must have story, and the romance of salvation. And it must have the support of its roots in the human story, its hope in the examples of sacred story. It is our age’s misfortune that storytelling, romance, and hope will have to be rediscovered and restored to our children. Our historical imagination, fading with the loss of our history, already needs re-forming in Christian faith, our love with the sympathy of the ages, our hope through the victories of our ancestors.

As Catholics, we are preeminently the people for whom history matters. There is a Christian imagination of history, a Christian answer to the question of history. In Vatican II’s Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, the council fathers of the Twentieth Century repeated the pattern first laid out so clearly by St. Athanasius in the Fourth Century: God’s word to Man came first through nature, then the Law, the prophets, and the Son of the Living God. Lumen Gentium opens with a review of the purposive in all of history:

By an utterly free and mysterious decree of His own wisdom and goodness, the eternal Father created the whole world. His plan was to dignify men with a participation in His own divine life. He did not abandon men after they had fallen in Adam, but ceaselessly offered them helps to salvation, in anticipation of Christ the Redeemer, “who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature” (Co1.1:15). All the elect, before time began, the Father “foreknew and predestined to become conformed to the image of his Son, that he should be the firstborn among many brethren” (Rom.8:29).

He planned to assemble in the holy Church all those who would believe in Christ. Already from the beginning of the world the foreshadowing of the Church took place. She was prepared for in a remarkable way throughout the history of the people of Israel and by means of the Old Covenant. Established in the present era of time, the Church was made manifest by the outpouring of the Spirit. At the end of time she will achieve her glorious fulfillment. Then, as may be read in the holy Fathers, all just men from the time of Adam, “from Abel, the just one, to the last of the elect,” will be gathered together with the Father in the universal Church. (LG 1.2)

History is not only stories, it is the Story of Stories. Our word story comes from the Greek historia. To the Greek, historia meant “inventory,” “accounts,” the account one gave of what one found in the storehouse of memory. By the time of the Romans, that accounting, that historia had come to mean the narrative shape of the past, a making sense of the facts and suppositions about the past by telling their story. What is a story?

A story is a connective structure within events that has as a beginning an unresolved tension, a problem, then a middle, a turning point of that tension, and finally an ending, a resolution of that tension. The ending, its Final Cause, is the determinant of the story’s unfolding. Its events move in obedience to the internal laws of its own nature. So it is with the history of mankind.

For a Christian, learning history confirms the Faith. It was at a moment in real human history, not in myth, not in some mythical time before time, that God took flesh in the womb of His blessed Mother Mary. He lived, spoke, suffered, died, and rose from death for the salvation of all mankind. We Christians see God as He works in history. We Catholic Christians see the hand of God as it shapes the history of our Church and tradition. We understand doctrine not as some once-only revelation to the apostles, but as unfolding its meaning as God reveals more and more aspects of the truth to successive ages of the faithful.

There is, today, a rival notion at work in the teaching of history. It has for some time now been shaping the imagination of our young people as it has been the usual approach of American schools for a generation. The approach the secular educationists call “Social Studies” sees the story of our past as a secular story, a story with no particular final end. Facts and records, statistics and testimonies, imports and economics. Mankind has done this or that in a world whose very age dwarfs the short centuries of human existence, and whose end, in the inevitable heat death of the universe, promises to leave no room for human achievement in the undifferentiated pea-soup of dissipated energy, or in the implosion of universes in the relativist prelude to another Big Bang. Social Studies is a name for the despair of history.

History Studies, to the contrary, lifts the curtain on a great drama — the great acts of God among His people, the Logos at work creating and redeeming our world. That understanding informed saints and students for centuries before this one, and should be still informing Catholic educators today. Why it does not is a tale in itself, best left for another time. A Catholic history is the reconstruction of human events seen as the working of God in this world, shepherding, guiding, the sheep of the nations, with the laws of reason and the law of revelation, toward the moment of the Incarnation and the Resurrection. In its dramatic suspense students find the revelation of death’s illusion and the hope of eternal life. In its heroic romance lies the spread of that vision to all the world, supplanting lesser visions and incorporating cultures and civilizations capable of receiving it, up to the final moment of judgment, the parousia, and New Heaven and Earth.

History is a moral value-judgment, it cannot be neutral. It judges against those men and nations that turn away from God and reject His laws. Nations may choose to drive their cars on the right or the left side of the road, and suffer no serious consequences. But neither men nor nations may choose to ignore those laws that are written in the structure of reality itself. From such choices come spiritual blindness, misery, ruin, war, pestilence, and famine, the results we call Judgments of God. Social studies may hint at any of these, or obscure them, but histories ask for connections between causes and effects.

The Congregation for Catholic Education, in their address to Catholic educators, The Religious Dimension of Education, distinguishes three criteria for establishing the religious perspective within any Catholic school, 1. confidence in our ability to attain truth, 2. the religious dimension in human history, and 3. serious attention to the humanities, — philosophy, history, literature and art — as the “human patrimony.” Here is some of what they say about history studies:

Teachers should guide the students’ work in such a way that they will be able to discover a religious dimension in the world of human history. As a preliminary, they should be encouraged to develop a taste for historical truth, and therefore to realize the need to look critically at texts and curricula which, at times, are imposed by a government or distorted by the ideology of the author. The next step is to help students see history as something real: the drama of human grandeur and human misery. The protagonist of history is the human person, who projects onto the world, on a larger scale, the good and evil that is withal each individual. History is, then, a monumental struggle between these two fundamental realities, and is subject to moral judgments. But such judgments must always be made with understanding. (III.2.58)

To this end, the teacher should help students to see history as a whole. Looking at the grand picture, they will see the development of civilizations, and learn about progress W such things as economic development, human freedom, and international cooperation, realizing this can help to offset the disgust that comes from learning about the darker side of human history. (II.2.59)

Why study History? Certainly not to accumulate a body of dates and facts for a soft-science. Nor, as some detractors today would claim, to inculcate some cultural myth excusing the crimes and errors of our ancestors or inventing new ones to accuse them of. What is “great” and what is “good” can only be judged from a distance, and the study of History allows that perspective. We study History to find the Truth — Truth about man and Truth about God. History gives a framework of facts, personalities, and ideas for the events and questions of today. How does it happen that America has a race problem? Who has first claims on America today? Why do people argue about immigration? Who are the Protestants?, and were there any Catholics in the founding of this country? Was Lincoln a good man? Roosevelt? Clinton? The study of history gives a perspective on such questions, the kind of questions children ask. And the facts they learn help them to determine the truth of issues and claims.

That the Church was the center of learning and civilization long before George Washington took hatchet to cherry tree, that Spanish missionaries brought peace and prosperity to the impoverished cannibal tribes of the Southwest long before the English colonies began their fight for independence from the Crown — these are chronologies a responsible Catholic free man must have firmly in the back of his thought. We stand with “so great a cloud of witnesses.”

The birth and progress of great ideas in civilization links present struggles to past triumphs. Where does our understanding of Freedom come from? Do we mean the same thing by it that the Greeks meant? Is Freedom a Biblical concept at all? Does nature have laws? How do laws restrict freedom? aid it? What is the origin of our present political struggle over the place of Natural Law in our land?

Why study history? For all those reasons, but equally to awaken the sense of shared humanity, of the drama of human grandeur and human misery, of sympathy and similarity with all peoples everywhere. The study of History opens us to the fullness of “the gospel message itself, which embraces and integrates the wisdom of all cultures” (III.2.57). In the lives and thoughts of the Past we may find our closest friends. “My best friends are all dead,” my historian friend in Texas quips. In the events of the Past we find our best adventures, and in the achievements of the Past we find our models and inspirations.

The example of great men and women facing defeat and then prevailing gives hope and purpose to young hearts. The story of the martyrs, of the great saints, of the heroes of Christendom: Helena and her son Constantine, Columkille of Scotland and Columbanus of the Rhineland, Charles Martel at the battle of Tours, and his successor Charlemagne, Robert the Bruce and his ancestress Margaret of Scotland, Christopher Columbus, Fr. Junipero Serra and the missionaries to the American Southwest, St. Francis Xavier’s mission to Japan, Miguel Pro and the martyrs of modern Mexico, these are tales to inspire and hearten, life-long tales of heroism and hope.

And even the failures and vices of societies and individuals warn the imagination against error. How much will be learned by tracing the fall of Pericles’ brilliant Athens to rigid Sparta, or discussing the treachery of Alcibiades, by naming the blasphemy of Babylon’s Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzur, Cleopatra’s folly, the collapse of the Roman Republic into dictatorship, the betrayal by England’s Henry VIII of his Faith and his Church? What caution for our present world lies in the likeness of Xerxes’s Persians at Salamis to Phillip II’s Spanish Armada two thousand years later?

The romance of the last stand at Thermopylae, King Leonidas and the brave Spartan royal guard of 400, holding the pass against all Xerxes’ armies for three days, binding up their long hair one last time, picking up shield and spear despite fatigue and hopelessness — that is true high romance. The fury of Roland at Roncesvaux, sounding the great horn over and over for a relief army that would not come — that is courage. Or the defiant voices of Don John of Austria’s little fleet, raised in the Rosary before Lepanto, the Turkish squadrons advancing in overwhelming numbers — that is glory. The brave, doomed Carmelites singing the Salve Regina on the steps of the guillotine, the song diminishing voice by voice as the machine thunders down — that heroism is the lure of History. And through our modern technology all may now see the beauty of the pagan temples of Greece, the cathedrals of Medieval Christendom, the icons of Russia, the paintings of the Renaissance, the intimate and revealing portraits of Titian, Holbein, Rubens, Rembrandt, and Goya, and the overpowering grandeur of the churches and palaces of Counter-Reformation Rome — it is a feeble heart that is not moved to wonder and emulation.

The motive force of Christian schooling is the love of the Three Transcendentals, Truth, Goodness, Beauty. It is that quest that makes the study of history the most exciting and important subject of the grammar years. History is search, by teacher and student alike, for what is the truth, the hand of God in the events; it is an effort to discern the Good in the intentions and the events, the motivations, causes, and aims, the noble and high, the Plan of God. History is personal and intimate encounters with the Romance in human life, the Beautiful within the terrible, great art, great heroism, great aspiration, the presence of God.

Beauty and romance draw the soul to desire virtue; and beauty and romance are the heart of the study of History. But it is the element of storytelling and high romance that has been most strenuously expunged from the social studies books written for today’s schoolchildren. The effort to be value neutral, to be impartial and sensitive to the feelings of everyone has left us sensitive to the deepest feelings of nobody at all. What stirs the blood? What soil is our own? What is worth living for? dying for? Those are the questions the human heart naturally asks, and children in their naturalness ask most of all. Questions that if not answered with the True, the Good, the Beautiful, will answer themselves in lies, banality, and human degradation.

God has not left history fragmented. There is a beginning, middle, and end. As history teachers, as teachers of the Truth, we cannot leave history fragmented, either. The last sentence of Lumen Gentium’s opening chapter declares, “By the power of the risen Lord, [the Church] is given strength to overcome patiently the afflictions and hardships which assail her from within and without, and to show forth in the world the mystery of the Lord in a faithful though shadowed way, until at the last it will be revealed in total splendor” (LG I.8).

Such a program would rely on many materials for teaching, not just textbooks of history or civics: poems, historical fictions, biographies, original documents, art works and visual aids. No commercial textbooks on the market today meet the needs of such a program. The element of storytelling on which the study of history depends has been ignored in favor of a spurious neutrality of factual narrative, deadly to read and deadlier to the imagination. New textbooks will be called for, and old textbooks and storybooks reclaimed, that draw students into history with the same power of imagination that the secular world uses to draw them away from their past and their Church.

Many novels for children are available that recreate the sense of ages past. Most of them are already regarded as children’s classics. Ignatius Press and Bethlehem Books are reprinting the good Catholic books for children from the earlier half the century. Interdisciplinary reading with the English Reading Program is called for. If that is not possible, the history teacher should include such good reading into the syllabus of the history class.

And poems, historical, patriotic, edifying and memorable, both to be recited and to be sung, are available at every level of a child’s ability. Virtue, both private and civic, becomes part of the permanent imagination through song and memory assignments. And verse enlivens the memory as much as pictures and visual aids. The teacher can bring the study of history alive with a thousand good books, or kill it by relying solely on one deadly scrapbook for a text.

I believe it was G. K. Chesterton observed that “whatever is not ancient is soon old.” And so it has proved with all the “latest” educational notions of this century. All those projects that were not rooted in the ancient experience of the human race have grown stale and tired and been abandoned by their supporters for the next fad to rise on the horizon. The abandonment of the teaching of history in favor of the seemingly more practical and morally neutral “social studies” has already shown its failure to produce young people eager for knowledge and in love with the virtues of free and noble people. We have social-studied our youth into rootlessness.

It does not take much thought to see that the results of “social studies” are consequences of the first principle of that new discipline: its objective, “scientific” stance toward past events, and its corollary “value-neutral” content. A history without story will be value-neutral, but it will also be amoral. As Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd in the operetta sings to his lady partner, “The question of history, my sweet,/ Is who gets eaten, and who gets to eat.” “Social Studies,” as its title indicates, shifts the attention of teacher and student from the story of events, and the meaningfulness of individual lives who make those events, to the neutral and quasi-objective consideration of “societies,” mass movements, communal values and opinions, and material causes such as economics and climate, etc.

The study of history in Catholic schools awaits restoration to its proper role and emphasis, anchoring the present to the past and allowing young people to take their stand with the good and the noble of all ages. Each age has presented Christians with new challenges and new perils. Each age has offered new ideas and practices that have shaped the mind of Catholicism. To grasp the strength of our faith we need to imagine the lives for whom it has been given. Through story and the romance of the past we can create an imaginative grasp of the world we have lost, so that our young people will understand what is at stake in the world we have.

THE EARTH'S SHAME

Name not his deed: in shuddering and in haste
We dragged him darkly o’er the windy fell:
That night there was a gibbet in the waste,
And a new sin in hell.

Be his deed hid from commonwealths and kings,
By all men born be one true tale forgot;
But three things, braver than all earthly things,
Faced him and feared him not.

Above his head and sunken secret face
Nested the sparrow’s young and dropped not dead,
From the red blood and slime of that lost place
Grew daisies white, not red.

And from high heaven looking upon him,
Slowly upon the face of God did come
A smile the cherubim and seraphim
Hid all their faces from.

- (ca. 1896-1897)

THE EARTH’S VIGIL

The old Earth keepeth her watch the same,
Alone in a voiceless void loth stand,
Her orange flowers in her bosom flame,
Her gold ring in her hand,

The surfs of the long gold-crested morns
Break evermore at her great robe’s hem,
And evermore come the bleak moon-horns,
But she keepeth not watch for them.

- From the Collected works of G.K.Chesterton

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Lasseter, Rollin A. “Light to the Nations: Reclaiming the Catholic Historical Imagination.” The Catholic Faith 4, no. 4 (July/August 1998): 17-22.

Reprinted by permission of The Catholic Faith. The Catholic Faith is published bi-monthly and may be ordered from Ignatius Press, P.O. Box 591090, San Francisco, CA 94159-1090. 1-800-651-1531.

THE AUTHOR

Dr. Lasseter is a writer and professor.

Copyright © 1998 TheCatholicFaith


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