The Stories That Matter: Teaching History with Catholic Principles by Avellina Balestri
My earliest memories are hinged upon the love of stories. In time, I discovered that the same story-driven essence present in tales that enraptured me as a child was the undergirding of history, and it drew me in through my Seton Home Study programs. I owe them a life-time debt of gratitude for introducing me more fully to the stories of saints and martyrs who were consumed by the Greatest Love and dedicated their lives to the Greatest Cause.
Among them were St. Elizabeth Ann Seton (“The Glorious Daughter of America”, whose shrine I have prayed at throughout the course of my life, since I reside on the outskirts of Emmitsburg, MD) and St. Edmund Campion (“The Diamond of England”, who I developed a special devotion to as a life-long Britophile). Each one of these saints had his or her own unique calling and path to holiness, and yet they all responded to the same Universal Vocation.
Beyond just the contributions made by saints, there has been much discussion about how a Catholic should view the unfolding of world events as a whole. My conclusion is that perhaps a Catholic perspective of history is not so much a given interpretation of specific events as a broader guide to story-telling in general. After all, history is made up of interlocking stories, a mix of fact and fable meant to convey the multi-faceted nature of the human experience and the sometimes subtle, sometimes overt Hand of Providence.
Our very act of retelling them is a testament of our own innate knowing that we are part of a grander plan. Without this understanding, there would be no such things as adventures to recount; things would just happen, all clutter and clamor signifying nothing. But life does have a purpose and our actions do matter, universally and cosmically. We are spiritual beings, endowed by our Creator with intellect and free will. That is why we must tell stories; it is in our very blood to “sub-create” and reveal the image of the Divine reflected in our lives. As Catholics, this is the spiritual vision that characterizes our view of the oft-times muddled saga of human affairs.
In addition to this, I believe the three most important elements of historical story-telling should be truth, charity, and balance. History is made up of human beings, and thus we are bound to show them the same justice and mercy as we should to our living, breathing neighbors. In fact, since the dead have no way of defending themselves, we should be especially mindful of how we interpret their actions and perpetuate their memory. Being more willing to extend the benefit of the doubt in cases of subjective judgments may not be a bad policy at all. Also perhaps taking to heart the via media (“middle way”) advocated by St. Thomas Aquinas could help put many a historical conundrum into balance.
It is easy to fall into the trap of judging the past by present standards, but context is vital in all things. This does not mean that the actuality of right and wrong alters over time or before God. However, there were those who were conditioned by their surroundings to see certain aspects of life that we would now consider to be indefensible to be quite acceptable, thus sinking into a state of invincible ignorance. It was only very rare figures, such as William Wilberforce who spent his whole life dedicated to ending the British Slave, who had the foresight and insight to rise up and challenge the norm and the establishment of their society.
Instead of trying to blot out the sordid realities of the past, we must face up to both the individuals and the eras that make up our heritage and come to terms with their complex legacies. We can be thankful that we have evolved in our moral consciousness and human empathy in some ways, while at the same time showing the proper respect to our admittedly flawed forbears, without whom we could not have progressed as far as we have. Needless to say, it would be an act of great arrogance if we claimed that we did not have flaws of our own equally egregious.
Perhaps the crux of the matter is this: every age brings with it unique triumphs and tragedies. We are living with the benefits and consequences of our own set. While we may have done away with many of the abuses of the past, we have heaped up many more to be dealt with in the future. It is part of the cycle of fallen humanity. Nevertheless, there is also goodness and beauty in each era that we should have cause to honor. We should not learn history only as a means to avoid repeating it; rather we should study it to tap into our cultural bloodstream, lamenting what should be lamented and celebrating what should be celebrated. The glass which we look through must be neither dark-hued nor rose-tinted; it must be clear, with a hint of our own reflections so that we may see ourselves before judging others. It is a multi-layered ritual.
For Catholics, history can also been seen as a journey among the souls who have gone before us and for whom we are obligated to pray. Not just for the souls of deceased Catholics either. We are all Children of God by our very natures, and therefore inextricably interconnected with one another. According to the same reality, we must extend fairness to non-Catholics in history, and let them stand on their own merit or lack thereof, just like their Catholic counterparts.
Due to the injustices levied against Catholics by many non-Catholic/secular historians, some Catholics are tempted to go in the opposite direction when relating the broad sweep of history. But we should never feel the need to fight fire with fire, but rather overcome the evils we may experience with all the good that we can give. We must extend to them the fair historical treatment they may not have been willing to extend to us, marking us out as Catholics by being living examples of the brotherly love that Christ taught us to put into practice in all our undertakings.
With regards to teaching history to students, attempts to make it more relevant to modern audiences with artificial appendages commonly collapse in on themselves. Either they try too hard to make a complex domino effect hypothesis or attempt to tag a clumsy moral with political connotations onto the end. Perhaps the key is to hold history lightly, like the beater of a bodhran drum, and let the stories naturally fall into rhythm. Assuredly, we all have our own opinions and theories which we are free to express, but the most powerful ability of a good story is made manifest when it speaks for itself.
Contrary to sensationalist historical fiction mini-series (i.e. Wolf Hall, Sons of Liberty, and the fantasy/history/unfit-for-general-audiences-of-any-age amalgamation Game of Thrones), history is not just about corruption, revenge, lust, and hypocrisy…nor is that the reason we should want to delve into it. The very fact that such a description would tempt the masses is decidedly disturbing. It is the result of letting the bar of our humanity fall so low in the realm of what is supposed to be entertaining to us. But cynicism, in the end, is self-defeating for it blocks out the spiritual nourishment that comes with the Light of the Son.
Catholics, by contrast, view history as we view humanity: scarred, but not slain; bent but not broken. As Chesterton said, “For there is good news yet to hear, and fine things to be seen.” There is still the life of the spirit in us, even in the darkest of moments. History reveals these lights, some famous and others obscure. Even amidst the torrent of human depravity, we still can find stories of honor, mercy, friendship, loyalty, courage, and fortitude. In short, we can learn from history about the many facets of love, placed in our hearts by Love Incarnate.
These are the stories that must be remembered amidst the gloom. Sacred Scripture exhorts us: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.”
In conclusion: as we sojourn here in this Valley of Tears, we as Catholics must seek to strike the balance between accuracy and art, wisdom and innocence, justice and charity, recognizing our fallenness, but also glorying in our redemption. So it is with the book of history. So it is with the Book of Life.