Prayer and the study of history

My Muse, Clio

Yesterday I read the following lines in The Breath of the Soul by Joan Chittister.

“When we are really wrapped up in the awareness of God in ourselves we come to understand that it is the nature of God who is everywhere to be present to all of us as well as to ourselves. We begin to see ourselves more and more as a member of the human community rather than as a unique and freestanding individual. We know now in a way we have never realized before that we are not a world unto ourselves.”


Sister Joan Chittister

Sister Joan is Roman Catholic nun, a member of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Pennsylvania, where she served as prioress for 12 years. She holds a Master’s Degree from Notre Dame and a Ph.D. in speech communication from Penn State University. She writes and speaks extensively on women in the church and society, human rights, peace and justice in the areas of war and poverty and in religious life and spirituality. I consider her a contemporary prophet. Like Dorothy Day, Sister Joan “comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.”

Dorothy Day--1968

While these words were written about prayer, as I reflected on them it occurred to me that they are just as applicable to the study of history. I understand that to really study history, inclusively, broadly, not merely political and military history but all the chronicles of human experience I can get my hands on, enables me to understand myself. Repeatedly I come to know that I am not a world unto myself but rather part of the community of humankind which far, far back, which reaches around the world, and which reaches forward. Like good prayer, good study of history can make many hours seem to be mere minutes. Like good prayer, good study of history does not cause me to become lost within myself but rather increases my awareness of my connections to humankind.


In Sister Joan’s book, on the same page, she writes: “We become our brother’s keeper, our sister’s best support. Our own hearts, like God’s, begin to beat with a heart for the entire human race.” I believe that is what the good study of history also does. I this idea certainly is not new or original with me. It’s what Jesus talks about in the story of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25:31-40 and beautifully illustrated in one of the last scenes in the film version of Grapes of Wrath with Henry Fonda portraying Tom Jodd. As Tom prepares to leave his family in order to avoid arrest, his mother worries about seeing and hearing from him. In response, Tom declares:


“Well, maybe it’s like Casy says. A fella ain’t got a soul of his own, just a little piece of a big soul– the one big soul that belongs to ever’body. Then…then, it don’t matter. I’ll be all around in the dark. I’ll be ever’where – wherever you can look. Wherever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad — I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise, and livin’ in the houses they build — I’ll be there, too.”

In September of 1918, when Eugene V Debs was convicted of a crime for speaking against the “Great War,” he began his statement to the court by saying,Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

Debs upon his release from federal prison in 1921

Professor Dexter Perkins, a distinguished American historian, wrote, “History is a kind of introduction to more interesting people than we can possibly meet in our restricted lives; let us not neglect the opportunity.”

Yes, I believe history is an art, which like music and poetry, makes us alive and connected. . . and thankful.


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