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: