Review: How to live a scholarly life with gratitude and grace
Luck is a fine thing. It provides us with some of our greatest opportunities. Sometimes it even provides us with our greatest cover; what some might chalk up to “luck” is really a humble way of avoiding saying that the individual has accomplished their great achievements through determined hard work, cultivated intelligence and focused endeavor. Most of the time, it is a profitable confluence of these factors that leads to success. In the case of one Jesuit from Tiltonsville, Ohio, the true value of “luck” is a lesson for us all.
In his recently published memoir, The Education of a Historian: A Strange and Wonderful Story, John W. O’Malley, S.J., the lauded historian and author, offers a charming, insightful and deeply, unabashedly honest account of his life that is infused with wit, humility and sagacity.
O’Malley puts forward the purpose of the book rather directly. Providing more than a little color from his own life, he sets forward his method of work, including how and why he approaches his subjects of study. He also stresses his conviction that all people, even historians, are embodied spirits who are observing and analyzing facts from a particular cultural and historical perspective—a conviction exemplified by O’Malley’s presentation of his own life and work.
In The Education of a Historian, John O’Malley, S.J., highlights the Second Vatican Council and General Congregation 32 as two of the most influential intervening moments in his own life.
Memoirs by scholars and notable personages frequently fall into the trap of settling professional scores, leveling charges or jumping or defending ideological fences, or they fail altogether to escape the dual failings of self-aggrandizement and self-justification. O’Malley stays far away from these arenas of autobiographical turpitude. Rather, what he offers is a unique homage to those who have made his life better, displaying effusive and continued gratitude for his family, his brother Jesuits, his confrères in the world of scholarship, his academic mentors and the many friends he has made in his long life. With what can only be described as a sunny disposition, O’Malley begins with gratitude in all things.
Born in Tiltonsville, Ohio, in 1927, O’Malley describes his childhood in terms of classic Americana, with its ethnic neighborhoods and churches, the boom and bust of the Depression and the onset of the Second World War. O’Malley entered the Society of Jesus in 1942, was ordained a priest in 1957 and went on to secure his doctorate from Harvard University. He studied at I Tatti in Florence, worked in Rome during the Second Vatican Council and later took a professorship and subsequent leadership roles at the University of Detroit (now the University of Detroit-Mercy).
He went on to participate in the 32nd General Congregation of the Society of Jesus in 1974-75 (a monumental event in the order’s history). He published four books and edited eight more; taught at Weston Jesuit School of Theology and Georgetown University; delivered countless papers, lectures and speeches; and received numerous accolades. He is now university professor emeritus in the theology department at Georgetown University. In 2019, he published his latest scholarly work, When Bishops Meet, at the age of 88.
In 2019, John O'Malley, S.J., published his latest scholarly work, When Bishops Meet, at the age of 88.
O’Malley chalks up the successful outcome of each of these phases of his life to luck. He is so honest about his life that it is difficult to believe, even when he explicitly notes it, that so many of his journeys were the products of nothing more than good fortune. He is straightforward about his experiences with the Detroit riots of 1967, of how he felt secretly witnessing an interracial marriage in Chicago, of battling depression while living in Austria and of the challenges and difficult discernments he made throughout his life.
Amid this chronicle of his long academic career and many publications, O’Malley never lets himself or the reader forget that this is a human story, one where the unexpected can intervene in substantial ways. Sometimes it really does come down to luck. Through the honesty that he has employed in his research and writing over the last 60 years, the historical method that O’Malley wishes to describe to readers is best exemplified here in this memoir, in the way he shapes the tale of his own life: fortune, fate, human endeavor and community.
For O’Malley, life’s journey is not identified solely by one’s responses to external and internal events, but by the way these intersect. In his own experience, O’Malley highlights the Second Vatican Council and General Congregation 32 as two of the most influential intervening moments in his own life. Both events formed his views on the mission of the universal church (a term he would challenge the reader to define) and the Jesuits, and what his own role as a historian meant for his relationship with these institutions.
Throughout the book we are offered insights on life, including many clear and carefully chosen examples of how to approach serious work with candor and care and how to lead a fulfilling life. In this letter of affection to the church, the Society of Jesus and the academy, O’Malley provides a personal example of thoughtful and discerning service, brilliance in the pursuit of truth, humility in the face of accomplishment and gratitude for those with whom we are blessed to make this earthly journey. We are lucky to have such a record for future generations.
This article also appeared in print, under the headline “A Scholar’s Lessons,” in the April 2022, issue.