For three decades or more, Father George William Rutler has been an eloquent contributor to thought at the intersection—or is it the collision point?—where the secular meets with the divine. Ignatius Press has just published He Spoke to Us: Discerning God in People and Events, a collection of Fr. Rutler’s essays and talks drawn from the last few years. Many of these pieces have appeared in Crisis Magazine, where Fr. Rutler is more an institution than simply a regular columnist. Nevertheless, as he himself admits in his introductory note, essay collections are never an easy sell to publishers. In his case, I suspect, it was not so hard. His work is avidly, at times rapturously, received by an audience that has grown ever more enthusiastic about the writing and thought of this New York pastor.
That said, there remains an air of mystery about the priest. His erudition is so dazzling that it is hard at times to see the man behind it. Perhaps that is as it should be, as it is his words and the impassioned thoughts that often lie just beneath the surface that really matter.
While reading this latest collection, an image came to mind: a dinner party of the best kind: convivial, excellent food and drink, and the promise of good conversation, the sort that sparkles as much as the fine wines on offer. And it is then there is a ‘knock’ at the door, ushering in our guest—Fr. George William Rutler.
Just to be clear, I have never met Fr. Rutler. So what follows is based solely on observations drawn from his essays. Nevertheless, within them there is a pattern to discern. Take his essay entitled “Humpty Dumpty’s Wedding”. Its opening is a discourse on surely one of the priest’s more engaging hobbies, working out how many handshakes he is away from the likes of Abraham Lincoln or George Washington, Queen Elizabeth or Lewis Carroll:
Recently at the opera during an intermission of “Turandot,” I put several grateful people three handshakes from Puccini. Alas, a manager of a sporting goods store near Grand Central Terminal was unmoved when I told him that he was now four handshakes from Felix Mendelssohn.
All great fun, but things soon develop. Fr. Rutler speculates on how many handshakes he is from the real life girl, Alice Liddell, who inspired Carroll’s fictional Alice. Then we move on to one of Carroll’s other creations, Humpty Dumpty, who states that when he uses a word it means exactly what he wants it to. From then on we are wrong-footed. What started out as a parlour game suddenly turns serious as the implications of words used in this way are then played out in the sphere of politics and lawmaking. The party atmosphere disappears as Fr. Rutler takes this abuse of language and brings it chillingly up to date in relation to the ongoing redefinition of marriage.
At this point, our charming guest has begun to attract the attention and the curiosity of all gathered at the dinner party. The thing is that now his words no longer provoke laughter and gaiety but thoughtful reflection. Time and again in these essays, Fr. Rutler does just that. He starts with the equivalent of a literary conjuring trick and then slowly, through anecdote and a seemingly endless supply of arcane facts, reveals to us something completely unexpected. Gradually, through his learning and insight—often informed by reflection of past events—we are guided to view a present reality in a completely new light. It turns out that the ‘trick’ is upon us. Going back to Humpty Dumpty’s Wedding, he ends the essay as follows:
Trying to redefine marriage by human fiat is to pretend that man is creator and not procreator. This old and regressive conceit began with the first lie in Eden: “You will be like God.” At the wedding in Cana, Christ’s mother said, “Whatever my son says to do, do it.” We are free not to do what he says. We are free even to play Humpty Dumpty with nature, only asking which is to be master of words instead of acknowledging the Word as Master. But when the social order has a great fall in consequence, all the politicians will not be able to put it back together again.
Both powerful and powerfully written—for the other aspect that comes through in Fr. Rutler’s writing is fearlessness. And it is the best type of fearlessness: a willingness to perceive the truth of matters. Perhaps it is not surprising then that so many of his essays end with quotations from Sacred Scripture. Neither does he shy away from unmasking the many lies that attempt to deceive us. In fact, his eye for the sophistry of the times in which we live is keen; so too is his razor wit when it comes to ripping through its pretenses.
Take for example his essay entitled “Laughing with Caesar: Religious Freedom”. It opens with the same disarming bonhomie, seemingly about bands playing at weddings and the different generational responses to this. Swiftly, however, we move to Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 address at Harvard. The Russian talked of his sense of evil present in the West. No laughing matter, I think we’ll agree, but just as we think we are heading in one direction the author throws a firecracker into the mix. A speech at Harvard the next year by the then First Lady, Rosalyn Carter, did not recognize the world of which the Russian talked:
‘Well, I do not sense that pressure of evil at all.’ She added that Solzhenitsyn would not have accused America of shallow materialism if he had known about our many voluntary organizations that bring neighbors together. Evidently, news of those wonderful groups such as the United Way had never reached the Gulag to cheer the inmates.
As happens in essay after essay, in but a few sentences Fr. Rutler’s wit demolishes the nonsense spoken by those who should know better.
There are 40 essays in this collection. The range of topics, the historical periods alluded to, the famous and infamous named, the Church documents referenced, the obscure trivia noted are wide-ranging. In addition, they come at a breakneck pace, with a guide who demands a certain intellectual agility from his readers. When this dinner party ends and as our guest departs, one is left feeling that there is much to ‘chew over’, more perhaps than when one first sat down to dinner.
In his opening note, Fr. Rutler writes of the difficulties in placing essay collections with publishers due to the lack of a ‘theme’. He then goes on to talk of what he considers this collection’s theme to be. It is one of the few things I find myself disagreeing with him over. These essays are the fruit of a mind, a personality, a soul even—based upon the real experience of life that has inspired them— surely that is their common element.
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