[The photo is of Bd. John Henry Cardinal Newman in his study at the Birmingham Oratory.]
How often do we think of the study of history as an aspect of our spirituality, as an ascetical practice that fosters growth in virtue?
Dr. Adam DeVille has published an excellent piece on the need for “ascetic” reading and writing of history. We “too often read and write [history] passionately,” writes DeVille. “To write and read history ‘ascetically’ is to do so in a way that keeps our own egos and agendas out of the way so far as possible. If we do not do this, then we write ‘passionately,’ in the sense used by Evagrius of Pontus: the disordered passions (logismoi)—or what come to be called capital sins in the West—control us, robbing us of peace and grace and the ability to see the truth clearly, resulting in distortions and disorders of every kind—moral, spiritual, and intellectual.”
If one removes the elements of vices and virtues from DeVille’s statement, we arrive at what academia calls historiography. One of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s definitions of historiography is that it is the reading and writing of history “based on the critical examination of sources, the selection of particulars from the authentic materials, and the synthesis of particulars into a narrative that will stand the test of critical methods.” I add that the more particulars one can adduce, the better, which is a point DeVille makes, especially by quoting Robert Taft, the eminent Byzantine Jesuit historian. “Though no study can ever pretend to cover all the evidence, the selection and presentation of the evidence must be comprehensive, i.e., sufficiently representative to avoid glossing over or explaining away whatever does not fit comfortably into some preconceived theory.”
Even though those of us Christians trained in the academy would present our historical research to colleagues by avoiding such concepts as vices and virtues, another of Taft’s statements points even the most secularist of academic historiographers in the direction of virtue: “Finally, one must be scrupulously fair in presenting and evaluating the evidence, sedulously avoiding caricature, and without substituting rhetoric for the facts.”
Catholics who have the ability and training to read—and possibly write—history should view this activity not merely as an academic enterprise but as a means of growth in understanding and virtue. Indeed, the original method, so to speak, by which divine revelation occurred in the Judeo-Christian tradition was “not a mere intellectual approach to the truth that is God [but prayerful reflection on] the history through which God spoke.” (Gerhard Lohfink, Is This All There Is?, 97-98). In Jesus also, “God’s reality was shown in historical happening, but now in such a way that in him God’s word became ‘flesh,’ that is, real human history—totally, definitively, and forever.” (Lohfink, 98).
It is not possible, then, to be Christian and take no interest in history. And this interest in history must be as ascetical and joyous as everything else we do as Christians.
This insight into the study of history as asceticism and prayer is why monasticism has fostered historical research. Lectio divina includes reading Scripture in order to discern God’s revelation through history—and doing so with reverence and humility, which is to say ascetically. This naturally leads to reading later historical events in the same light. Yes, this kind of reading runs the risk of being agenda-driven. But it is a risk worth taking. Too, the Anglican patrimony has something to offer in avoiding that pitfall.
Two towering intellects, both of whom could be called not only historians but also historiographers, by the standards of their day, are important contributors to English spirituality. The first is St. Bede the Venerable, who is also a doctor of the Church. The second is soon-to-be-Saint John Henry Newman (who might someday be declared a doctor of the Church as well). Though Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People focuses on a narrow scope in English history and was obviously not written with modern historical methods in mind, the fact that Bede sought to be as comprehensive as possible and wrote with integrity (i.e., ascetically) is one of the reasons he is still considered to have contributed to modern historiography.
Newman is much nearer to us in time. But historical scholarship has changed so rapidly that some of his historiography is open to challenge (though the same can be said for aspects of nearly any historiographical work that is published today). Nonetheless, Newman’s ascetical historiography stands as an example of how to avoid what DeVille calls “gotcha apologetics” in which one reads history “in one of only two possible registers: that of ‘chosen trauma’ or ‘chosen glory,’ to use the terms of Vamik Volkan of the University of Virginia.” Newman was too thorough and too honest to write history as a caricature.
The Anglican patrimony can also be helpful in reclaiming a role for historiography by challenging the periodizations of history now dominant in the Catholic Church. As DeVille puts it “among some Catholics it is as though history ends somewhere between 1958 and 1962—with the death of Pius XII and the opening of Vatican II. For others, the Church only comes alive after 1965 when the council ends.”
To be fair, there is scholarship—or research, it might be better to say—on which both of these periodizations can base some of their claims. Knowledgeable members in the former group are often meticulous in their study of liturgical texts, for example. And their grasp of many aspects of history and theology from Trent to the 1958-1962 period is considerable. But often lacking in this perspective is a comprehensive understanding of the patristic era and the Middle Ages. Since doing so would be an onerous task, even a humble acknowledgement that the Trent-to-1962 narrative is only part of the story would be reassuring.
As for the latter group, research about the early Church has been invoked as a basis for some of what has happened after Vatican II. But here too, that research has not always passed the ascetical test.
As for the Anglican patrimony, from the time of the English Reformation on, it has relied heavily on the Church of the patristic era. Because monastic theology and spirituality of the Middle Ages was largely a continuation of patristic theology and spirituality, and because monasticism was so deeply engrained in English spirituality, medieval monasticism also played an important role in the Anglican patrimony, though this was often ignored or dismissed, from the English Reformation on, for political and cultural reasons. The English reformers, the Caroline Divines, the Non-Jurors, the Tractarians, and others did not always engage in ascetical, comprehensive historiography when they read the Church Fathers. Indeed, scholarship shows how very agenda-driven Cranmer was, for example, in relying selectively on the Church Fathers. But the Anglican patrimony brings to the Catholic Church a reminder of earlier things than Trent—earlier things that have gone through their own development in the Anglican tradition.
Brother John-Bede Pauley, O.S.B.