A Sense of History

One of the more useful things I have learned from having leiomyosarcoma is that the emotion of anger is every bit as dangerous as the Desert Fathers and, indeed monastic tradition as a whole, has always taught. When one faces death daily, one is more aware of one’s own sins than the shortcomings of others and one sees, with a clarity quite frightening in its intensity, that anger is very rarely what angry people want it to be, viz. righteous anger, but more usually a way of expressing inner discontent and violence. Latch that discontent and violence onto a lack of a sense of history and what do we get? Sometimes nothing worse than sheer silliness, as in the current fashion for tearing down statues because of their association with things that no one in their right mind would countenance today. Sometimes the result is much more sinister and amounts to persecution of individuals or groups, as in some of the terrible genocides of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. An angry person is not merely blind to truth, he or she does not want the truth — only what supports their chosen narrative.

This morning I was mulling over the Pope’s latest Motu Proprio, Magnum Principium, disappointed to see how many had rushed online to air their views without apparently much knowledge of Church history beyond the last five centuries or so, and without any real appreciation, so it seemed to me, of the complexity of liturgical and canonical developments over a like period. Admitting one’s limitations has never been very fashionable, but blazoning one’s passion has today become a test of authenticity. So we end up with those who are ‘for’ Pope Francis treating the document as though it contained no debatable elements and those who are ‘against’ him treating it as sheer heresy from start to finish. The position we adopt proclaims that we are ‘true Catholics’, the implication being that those who take a different view are not. The real point, the document’s potential effect on our celebration of the liturgy and the way in which that liturgy expresses the belief of the Church, is lost sight of.* It has become a vehicle for expressing other views, for advancing another agenda.

To those who are not Catholics, all this may seem like just another internal church squabble with very little relevance for anyone else. The trouble is, what is happening inside the Catholic Church is very like what is happening outside. The polarisation of politics, the campaigns for inclusiveness and equality which stretch our understanding not only of history but of such fundamental matters as sex and gender, the determination  to be seen doing whatever the ‘correct’ thing of the moment may be, create a great deal of clamour but do not always lead to wise or helpful conclusions. To realise that how we are today is not how we were half a century ago, and that how we were half a century ago was not how we were half a century before then, is not merely something that historians must understand, it is something we must all try to appreciate. Without a sense of history, of how the passage of time affects us, we are in danger of perpetrating many injustices. Not the least of these is letting our anger run away with us, of forcing the historical narrative to fit our current agenda and so of perverting truth. It’s not just because I am myself a lapsed historian that I say cultivating a sense of history is essential to our wellbeing as a society. It is because failure to do so affects our judgement in many areas of life and ultimately makes us less free, less happy, less human.

• I may comment in more detail on Magnum Principium in a later post, but for Latin Rite Catholics there seems to me to be both potentially good news (eg vernacular translations will be freed from the ‘one English fits all’ kind of approach, which has led to some very deadly translations in the past) and potentially bad news (eg the Words of Consecration may not always and everywhere be rendered in the same way — think of the argument over the translation of pro multis). We certainly need to pray for our bishops.

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17 thoughts on “A Sense of History”

  1. Beloved :

    I am very sorry to hear of your illness and the pain and anguish it has brought you. I will remember you in my prayers.

    Anger, as you may well know, is the reaction to fear; and fear is the root of every sin and imperfection. Therefore, Be not afraid. May our adorable mother, Mary, bring you the serenity, peace and joy that radiates from her Immaculate Heart.

    • Thank you for your prayers but I would not say that my illness has brought me pain and anguish. I hope it has made me understand some things a little better and made me more grateful for everyone and everything.

  2. I have read and re-read this piece in order to have a clear idea of your meaning. My first reaction was to agree completely with what you are saying, particularly about an angry person not wanting the truth, only what serves his or her agenda. Maybe that doesn’t only apply to the angry person. My second reaction, I will admit, was to feel angry myself, because I thought of the vast majority who have not had the advantage of being highly educated. I felt protective towards them because they, too, are the church and often find themselves without a voice and feel powerless in the face of those who can produce arguments of which they have no understanding. I have just read your blog again. I still agree with what you have written but, this time without feeling angry, I am simply wondering where those who, for no fault of their own, do not have a historical perspective stand in all this.

    • Thank you. I have re-read my post as I always strive to write as clearly and simply as possible. I can’t see in it any implicit or explicit condemnation of anyone who has not had the educational advantages given to me, and I’m very sorry if it read that way to you or anyone else. In arguing for the importance of developing a sense of history, I don’t think I am asking the impossible. I am simply asking that we develop a sense of the passage of time. Perhaps an illustration may help. We wouldn’t wear the clothes our parents wore, would we? We instinctively feel that they belong to another age. Yet I imagine most people are happy to wear their father’s watch or their mother’s ring because these treasures transcend the limitations of time: they are loved and valued because of what they mean to us. They take us back in time without any real effort on our part. Wearing a grandparent’s watch or ring takes us further back, and I suspect most of us can recall, if we were lucky enought to know our grandparents, stories of their childhood and youth and how different everything was from what we are familiar with. It’s the same with any other kind of history. There is a difference we have to register. Unless we make the effort to acknowledge that people in past times thought and acted differently from the way in which we think and act now, I’d say we are going to end up judging unhistorically and therefore unjustly. That is not the same as saying we all need a minute knowledge of church history or the history of slavery and the slave trade or whatever before we express an opinion, but it does mean that we should reflect whether we have enough knowldege to express an informed opinion — and if we don’t, to accept that our opinion may not be as valid as we’d hope it would be.

      • Thank you. Likewise, I can’t see in my comment any suggestion that you were condemning those less well educated. I speak from the perspective of one who worships and socialises with such people whom I call my friends. If we were having a discussion about the language of the liturgy and I were to say we need a historical perspective, they would not find it helpful because they would think that to have this would require a knowledge of church history. Therefore, when I hear the term, I tend to do so with their ears.

          • I am not continuing the conversation either. I would, however, like to say that when I comment on blog, or an article, that comment is usually a thought which arises from my reading, not a criticism of it. Perhaps I am too much of a lateral thinker. I would never twist what you have said in the way you read my comment and, in fact, tried very hard not to sound as if I were doing so. I failed!!!!

          • I did not say that you had twisted what I said. I did not say that you had criticized what I wrote in the sense that you appear to use the word, ie. criticize = condemn. I thought we were engaged in discussion. I said I was trying to understand what had made you angry about my writing because I could not see in my post any implicit or explicit condemnation of those who hadn’t the advantage of being highly educated (an advantage you referred to in your first comment). I tried to use examples to explain further and to give context to my remarks. In saying ‘I would never twist what you have said in the way you read my comment and, in fact, tried very hard not to sound as if I were doing so. I failed!!!!’ you have cast a slur on me. I don’t care for it, but I am grateful that you did so openly.

  3. Anger is a natural reaction to events or circumstances quite often beyond one’s control. Even our Lord Jesus riled against the traders in the Temple and against Simon Peter for missing the point he was attempting to make. Anger is a human emotion. The important thing is to recognise that one mustn’t let one’s anger impact on others either directly or indirectly other than in a positive way. One has to question why there is anger and to respond in a way that is helpful to all concerned.
    Dear Sister Catherine, your illness would tempt the patience of a saint and cause most suffering it to be more than angry. But you have inner discipline based on reason and love for and from the Lord to channel your thoughts and actions for the good of others.
    What has happened in history we cannot undo but we can learn from others mistakes in an attempt not to repeat them. We can seek to improve the lot of humanity. Love replaces anger. God loves us and asks us to love one another. May He bless and heal you. Without you the world would be a worse place.

    • Monastic tradition advises us to keep close check on our anger but to do that we have first to become ruthlessly honest with ourselves. I can assure you I haven’t got there yet. Illness alerts us to the destructive power of anger.

  4. I would always acknowledge your superior knowledge of history, dear Sister. However, as someone who lives in the former Confederacy, and whose home town is New Orleans, I am disturbed by what you call “the sheer silliness as in the current fashion for tearing down statues because of their association with things no one in their right mind would countenance today.” There are, unfortunately, lots of white people in the South and elsewhere who are, as you would say, not in their right minds with regard to white supremacy and do countenance it. The hate, anger, and prejudice of white people is very much alive and active, to my deep dismay. These statues, usually erected in places of honor, were put up not during the Civil War, but in the time after Reconstruction called the “Jim Crow” period, (approx 1900-1965) when those in power retrenched and glorified the denial of all civil rights to black people. It is often said that history is written by the victors. Removing these statues from their former places of honor to another place tells the world that hatred is no longer worthy of honor and glorification in a decent society.

    • Thank you for your illuminating remarks about the situation in the USA, about which I am not well informed and therefore would not comment. Here in Britain there is enough grist for my mill. In late August this year Afuah Hirsch published an article in the Guardian calling for the removal of Nelson’s Column from Trafalgar Square on the grounds that he was a ‘white supremacist’ and had friends who were slave owners. It would have been very difficult at that time for anyone in Nelson’s position not to have slave owners among their social cicle, and as to the charge that he was a ‘white supremacist’, that is to read history backwards in a big way. The #RhodesMustFall movement, imported from South Africa, led students in Oxford to call for the removal of Rhodes’ statue from Oriel, but not apparently the ending of the Rhodes Scholarships. Rhodes was a thoroughly nasty character, but does anyone think he is glorified or even particularly honoured by his statue, perched up high where no one really notices it, or if they do, probably need to be told whom the figure represents? I don’t. Then there is the statue of Christopher Codrington, former governor of the Leeward Islands and benefactor, as his name implies, of the Codrington Library at All Souls — his statue has also been targeted because of his association with slavery and the slave trade. For some years there have been rumblings about the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol, conveniently overlooking the fact that he was one of the city’s chief benefactors. I could go on. My point is that this is silliness in a country that has much more anti-racism and pro-equality legislation than many other countries and where a simple plaque added to the plinth of a statue anyone has qualms about could explain bott he historical significance of the figure and any doubtful enterprises he or she was engaged in. Otherwise, taken to its logical conclusion, we’ll be left with a few statues of Wilberforce and no one else. Cromwell will have to go because of the unspeakable things he did in Ireland and so on and so forth. It will be a new iconoclasm that will deprive our public spaces of some beautiful (as well as not so beautiful) historical monuments.

      • I regret that I did not know what was happening in Britain. It is clear that there is deep suffering at the root of these movements, but you are right: we often cannot judge our forebears by the — one hopes — more developed and enlightened standards of our day. When I think of the progress in race relations in the States in my own lifetime I am both grateful for the enormous progress, and dismayed at the continuing evil fruits of slavery still alive and at play. There is a middle way between glorifying and valorizing past perpetrators of what would be unthinkable today, and taking the long view of history with sensitivity and charity. We cannot just make the evil go away by moving things that make us uncomfortable: we must also come to terms with the evil involved. A recommended read: the speech of Mitch Landrieu, mayor of New Orleans, on the moving of Confederate leaders’ statues from places of honor.

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