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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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.