U.S. Intellectual History Blog

My Fathers, My Fathers: The Pastoral Work of History

The most extravagant, marvelous gift that anyone has ever given me was a set of books:  all 38 volumes of The Ante-Nicene, Nicene, and Post-Nicene Fathers.

These were a gift from a family friend, an old pastor in California who had retired and was getting ready to move in with his children.

But these weren’t books from his own downsized library.  No. He ordered these for me, brand new, and had them mailed to me. It was a complete surprise — boy was it ever! I had no idea what in the world these three boxes from Christian Book Distributors, of all places, were doing on my doorstep.  But I dragged them inside and opened one up.  There was a gift receipt on top, with a note that said, simply, “Merry Christmas, Lora.”

And underneath were these beautiful books.

The tradition I grew up in had little sense of history — not even Protestant history, never mind the medieval Church history.  There were certainly no Saints, or Fathers, or Doctors of the Church.  I had to go find the Fathers on my own, a quest I began accidentally as a freshman in college, when I read The Confessions of Saint Augustine.   Read it, loved it.  Loved him.  Still do.

And I loved to talk to my old preacher friend about Augustine — and, later, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Irenaeus, Cyprian, Chrysostom, and the gang.  Their names and their ideas did not mean as much to my pastor as they did to me.  But what meant a great deal to me, then and now, was the time my friend spent talking with me about these authors he too had never read, these texts he too had never studied.  Because I was interested in them, he became interested in them.  He was doing his best to care for my soul by nurturing my mind.  I do believe that was a wise approach.

And after I moved away, every once in a while, he would send me an envelope with photocopied articles, or news clippings, or a few pages torn out from National Geographic.

And then, when he was selling his home and giving up his life of independence, he sent me those books.

I decided the best thing to do was to read them through, from the first volume to the last.  Because, you know, I had some catching up to do, and if I skipped around I might miss something important.  So I started with Volume 1, The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus.  In the middle of that volume I came across the fragments of Papias, who was born one generation after the death of the apostles, and who wrote some time in the early decades of the second century.

Papias wrote:

But I shall not be unwilling to put down, along with my interpretations, whatsoever instructions I received with care at any time from the elders, and stored up with care in my memory, assuring you at the same time of their truth. For I did not, like the multitude, take pleasure in those who spoke much, but in those who taught the truth….If, then, any one who had attended on the elders came, I asked minutely after their sayings — what Andrew or Peter said, or what was said by Philip, or by Thomas, or by James, or by John, or by Matthew, or by any other of the Lord’s disciples….For I imagined that what was to be got from books was not so profitable to me as what came from the living and abiding voice.

Papias’s entire literary remains cover three pages in this edition of the Fathers.  These fragmentary texts are all that is left of Papias’s living and abiding voice.

Every text is this: a remnant of a living voice.  Whether it’s a sermon, or an advertisement, or a bawdy joke, a broadside ballad, an inventory incised into a clay tablet, a sorrow song learned by heart, a work of historical synthesis, the last print copy of Newsweek, a bit of doggerel scrawled on a bathroom wall, a Tweet — those are all texts, all expressions of thought, all attempts to communicate ideas.  And all of them are available to the intellectual historian.

Just as the questions we ask, never mind the answers we find or are able to fashion, may often depend most on what sources are available, so also our choice of particular texts, our judgment of their usefulness, will depend on the questions we are asking.

We must each exercise our own judgment in giving attention to those questions we believe to be important now.  It is this autonomy of each historian in choosing a subject and an approach that makes history a pluralistic and productive inquiry.  But we should beware of making bold claims about what questions will be important.  We do not know what questions the future will need to ask of our time.  When we are gone, all that remains of what we felt, and thought, and loved, and hated, and feared, and kept on believing — all that remains of any voices that might give answer to those questions — will be in the texts that survive us.

Among those texts are the very histories we write.  In our work, in our present inquiries, we historians bundle up little bits of the past as neatly as we can– fragments, remnants, scraps — to hand forward to a future that we cannot see.  This is an act of faith.  But we pass down not just fragments of the past; we also hand forward fragments of ourselves.

For writing history is an act of moral inquiry.  Whatever else it may give us, historiography preserves and holds up to the reader’s judgment the judgment of the historian.  In our work, the “moral of the story” — if there is such a thing — is never in the past, but in the telling of it:  in the living and abiding voice of the historian, in how well and how wisely we manage to lift up the past’s vanished voices in our own.

My dear old preacher friend is one of those lost voices now.  I found out yesterday.

So I commend him to you today:  this dear old man, this shepherd of souls, this giver of books, who gave me the Fathers.

 11 And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.

12 And Elisha saw it, and he cried, My father, my father, the chariot of Israel, and the horsemen thereof. And he saw him no more: and he took hold of his own clothes, and rent them in two pieces.

13 He took up also the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and went back, and stood by the bank of Jordan;

14 And he took the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and smote the waters, and said, Where is the Lord God of Elijah? and when he also had smitten the waters, they parted hither and thither: and Elisha went over.

II Kings 2:11-14

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Well done, Lora. I’m sorry for your loss, especially for the loss of a past friend, conversationalist, and perhaps mentor (speaking broadly).

    I haven’t read broadly in the Church Fathers, and don’t want to at this point in my life, but I’ve read narrowly in them. And when I’ve read them, I’ve enjoyed their surprising frankness—as well as their simultaneous respect for the past, present, and future.

    With regard to yesterday’s conversations, I very much liked this passage of your reflection:

    “Whether it’s a sermon, or an advertisement, or a bawdy joke, a broadside ballad, an inventory incised into a clay tablet, a sorrow song learned by heart, a work of historical synthesis, the last print copy of Newsweek, a bit of doggerel scrawled on a bathroom wall, a Tweet — those are all texts, all expressions of thought, all attempts to communicate ideas. And all of them are available to the intellectual historian.”

    Thanks again for bringing a piece of yourself here. – TL

  2. Thanks Tim.

    I think I should have made more clear in the post that I was putting Papias’s text to an unanticipated use. IOW, he preferred oral tradition to written history, because he had confidence in the character and probity of those who were passing on the teaching they had received. And probably because he enjoyed learning in the company of friends. But this particular fragment represents a brief apologia for care in the methods we use to hand the past off to the future, as well as for care in the kind of people we prove ourselves to be in the process. That much we have in common.

  3. Sorry to hear of your loss and glad to hear of the impact he had on you … through his kindness and care. Very beautiful sentiments.

  4. There is a sense of the tragic loss and retrieval of thought in this post that appeals very strongly to me. I find LD’s meditation on intellectual inheritance to capture precisely the kind of thinking that has made this group and a blog to which we contribute a rewarding endeavor. Like us all, LD can put on display her credentials and those of whom she works with and reads about to great effect, but why? Rather, she generously shares a glimpse into the humaneness of our collective endeavor. It reminds me of an inheritance I received when Vincent Fox, a priest I count among my most important intellectual mentors, died just as I entered my doctoral program. I came to intellectual history not through texts (!) but through conversations–among the most important were those I had with Vinnie after he said mass at a little church I attended in Woodstock, NY. I was not a voracious reader but I enjoyed a great conversation. And so he would chat with me, after mass, over breakfast, in light of his unbelievable scholarly training (which I didn’t appreciate at the time) and the affairs of the day. Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to engage him in discussions about the hundreds of books I read after I entered graduate school and became a historian. I tried to acknowledge his influence by dedicating my God and War in part to him. But, not surprisingly, he had the last word: after he died, my mother told me a year or so later that Vinnie had left me something. He gave me his sermons, and I would read them now that he was no longer around to preach them. I have those texts, and while significant, they are a shadow of the life that created them.

    • Thank you for the kind words Ray. And thanks for adding this little piece of your own history.

      As to our collective endeavor…

      History is a poor substitute for resurrection, but it will have to do.

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