The Magazine

Book of Revelations

Father Rutler proves wit and God can coexist.

Apr 14, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 29 • By EDWARD SHORT
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Coincidentally

Unserious Reflections on Trivial Connections

by George Rutler

Crossroad, 192 pp., $14.95

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.

Lucy, dear child, mind your arithmetic. You know, in the first sum of yours I ever saw, there was a mistake. You had carried two (as a cab is licensed to do), and, you ought, dear Lucy to have carried but one. Is this a trifle? What would life be without arithmetic, but a scene of horrors? You are going to Boulogne, the city of debts, peopled by men who never understood arithmetic; by the time you return, I shall probably have received my first paralytic stroke, and shall have lost all recollection of you; therefore I now give you my parting advice. Don't marry anybody who has not a tolerable understanding and a thousand a year; and God bless you, dear child .  .  .

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:

For the dark and driven Richard Wagner, thirteen had mixed connotations. His own name has thirteen letters and he was born in 1813, the digital sum of which is thirteen, and he died seventy years later on February 13. His mentor Liszt, who first met him on September 13 in 1841, visited him on October 13, 1854 in Switzerland where Wagner fled from Dresden on May 13, 1849, and where he was exiled for thirteen years. Wagner finished The Flying Dutchman on a September 13, premiered Tannhäuser on a March 13 and the Ring of the Nibelungen on an August 13. With a one-hour intermission, the Ring Cycle lasts thirteen hours. Wagner first heard Lohengrin performed thirteen years after its completion, wrote thirteen stage works, was married to Cosima for thirteen years and died thirteen months after finishing Parsifal on May 13, 1882.

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:

Should I ever face an audience of a million men in the nation's capital .  .  . I would shout into the microphone portentous puzzles that escaped even [Farrakhan's attention]. I picture myself wiping my brow as I tell all those amiable and eager faces that the expenses and receipts of the Glasgow World Exposition of 1901 were absolutely identical. The applause subsides and my bodyguard draws closer as I look to heaven and cry out that the arithmetic sum of the years of Czar Alexander II's birth and death (1818 and 1881) are the same.

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:

Not to laugh at coincidences is a prescription for weeping at coincidences and that way lies endless madness. The one kind of humor that always gets this right is literally graceful. A mad world calls it madness, but in small sane pockets of that world it is called sanctity.

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.

I am not sure what we are to conclude from this review of arms and men, but it is never amiss to conjure up the victor of Waterloo in his celebrated dispatch of June, 1815: "Nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won." William Tecumseh Sherman, having graduated from West Point in the year that the capital of New Zealand was named for the Iron Duke, agreed as he surveyed the carnage of Shiloh: "The scenes on this field would have cured anybody of war." Some celestial symposium made up of all the generals from Alexander to George Patton, who did not make the distinction, would be either the jolliest of fêtes or a pitched battle, but overwhelming odds are that they would be unanimous with Wellington's motion.

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
by Continuum.