Book of Revelations
Father Rutler proves wit and God can coexist.
Apr 14, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 29 • By EDWARD SHORT
The parent tradition of English literature includes many subsidiary traditions. There are the poet-critics John Dryden, Samuel Johnson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Matthew Arnold, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, and William Empson. There are what Penelope Fitzgerald called the "kitchen-table" novelists, female heads of families who, like Mrs. Oliphant and Frances Trollope (Anthony's mother)--and, indeed, Fitzgerald herself--wrote books to keep the bailiffs at bay.
When Oliphant's husband died of tuberculosis, she was pregnant with her third child and deep in debt. She paid off the debts, reared her children, looked after her bibulous brother, and in the evenings at the kitchen table, wrote--98 novels, 25 biographies, and about 50 short stories. Mrs. Trollope was left in equally parlous straits by her husband--a feckless clergyman who went to his grave attempting to write a history of ecclesiastical rites--but she recouped the family fortunes by writing the bestselling Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832), after which she churned out no less than 35 novels.
Then there are the comedians of class, about whose subjects V.S. Pritchett once remarked: "One glance at the English upper classes imposing their private fantasies on whatever is going on, treating everything from war downwards as though it were happening in one of their country houses, has been enough to provide comedians with material for a lifetime." Henry Fielding and William Makepeace Thackeray were the masters of this tradition.
But no group produced wittier writing than the witty divines Jonathan Swift, Laurence Sterne, and Sydney Smith. The letter that Smith wrote to the daughter of a lady friend is a good sample--which, coincidentally, concerns a subject dear to the author under review.
The divine most responsible for rejuvenating this lively tradition is George Rutler, Roman Catholic pastor of the Church of Our Saviour in New York City. Author of 14 books on theology, history, cultural issues, and the lives of the saints, Rutler is also host of a weekly television program on EWTN. This latest book is an entertaining jeu d'esprit on the role coincidence plays in life and history. Catholic in scope, it includes chapters on everything from geography and mesmerism to baseball and Napoleon. It should amuse and instruct a wide audience.
Here is a typical effusion:
Numerological mania has never been given a funnier send-up. In Remote People (1931), Evelyn Waugh described traveling through Ethiopia in the company of "rival Byzantinists at variance." In Rutler's Coincidentally, readers will meet with similarly choice absurdities.
In one chapter Louis Farrakhan is described expatiating on the number 19 to the "million men" on the Mall in Washington. The 9, Farrakhan explains, stands for the length of time that we spend in the womb. And the 1 before the 9? It stands for "something secret that has to be unfolded."
Rutler marvels at the electrifying effect that this vatic pronouncement has on Farrakhan's auditors, and then says:
I won't spoil things by quoting the peroration. Suffice it to say that here is a skit tailor-made for one of Rutler's television programs.
Most of us are conscious of coincidence as a kind of ironic commentary on the text of our lives. Rutler shows that coincidences may not be as rare as we are accustomed to imagine. In this, he agrees with G.K. Chesterton, who remarked in one of his Father Brown stories that "there is in life an element of elfin coincidence which people reckoning on the prosaic may perpetually miss."
Are coincidences mere chance? Or proof that God intervenes in the unfolding of events? Rutler recognizes that "an irresponsible mind may make too much" of coincidence. But he also recognizes that only the barbarous mind can be indifferent to connections that argue not only the coherence but the wonder of history. He also sees in coincidence a summons to sanity:
Recently, many have alleged parallels between Iraq and Vietnam. Apropos arma virumque, Rutler has some timely truths to impart, which should give pause to those who hear only the counsel of defeatism in such parallels.
Here, the wit in Rutler gives way to the sage, but whether he is being witty or wise, or both, he is always a delight. Coincidentally is a comic tour de force that gives new life to Sterne's great motto: "Vive la bagatelle!"
Edward Short is completing a book about John Henry Newman and his contemporaries, which will be published