George William Rutler, always attentive to words—and to the Word—made flesh
With intense enjoyment, I’ve just finished reading Ignatius Press’ new collection of essays by George William Rutler, convert, priest and man of letters. The name will be familiar to most readers through his fame as a preacher and his many recorded talks. As a writer, Fr. Rutler possesses a style or, as we might call it, a method unlike any other. Undoubtedly it will make some readers impatient, but I find it fascinating.
In this I surprise myself, because the reader must trip through a hundred almost randomly connected anecdotes and references before arriving at the final point. As my wife is fond of telling those with whom we discuss the spiritual life, if there is a line at the gate of heaven when my time comes, I’ll shake the dust off my feet and go to the other place. Don’t ask me about waiting for my turn at confession.
It is fortunate, then, that Fr. Rutler’s plentiful instances and asides are far more entertaining than the overheard conversations between store clerks and customers while waiting to check out, and even more entertaining (if possible) than my own prayers in the confession line while desperately yearning for short shrift. These last can be very somber, but truly—as we learn from one of Fr. Rutler’s anecdotes—“happiness is no laughing matter” (p. 195).
With a proper sobriety in mind, let me record a few necessary details: This latest collection of essays is entitled He Spoke to Us: Discerning God in People and Events. The essays are brief, far more often closer to the minimum of three than to the maximum of twelve pages. They are collected mostly from Crisis Magazine between 2012 and 2014, and also include a few homilies and convention addresses. There are forty separate items in all, on a remarkably diverse series of topics. Moreover, Fr. Rutler’s writing ability has been brilliantly honed through long service; having entered this world in 1945, he meets the quintessential definition of elderly, which right-thinking commentators properly apply only to those born before my own momentous natal year of 1948.
In any case, a single extract will explain what I mean about Fr. Rutler’s unique method or style, in this case taken from an essay somewhat humorously entitled “Hanging Concentrates the Mind”:
In Rome in 1817, Pius VII reigning, Lord Byron saw three robbers beheaded in the piazza del Popolo, and he also noted the priests attending those about to die, with banners and prayers in procession. The swift fall of the guillotine was preferable to the “vulgar and ungentlemanly” gallows in England. Although Dr. Joseph Ignace Guillotin had promoted the use of the “Guillotine”, first called the “Louison”, after its inventor, Antoine Louis, a precursor was in use in Edinburgh in the mid-sixteenth century. Regarded as a humane improvement, it was common in many European countries and was used in the Papal States for 369 executions from 1814 to 1870: a chaotic time in which severe penalties were necessary to maintain some semblance of civil order. [p. 74]
Things go on in this vein for another page or so before we learn that “the grandson of Saint Elizabeth Anne Seton, Archbishop Robert Seton, long-lived but less loved, wrote that during the course of a holiday in France as a boy, the ceremonious spectacle of a man being beheaded inspired him greatly to think of the dignity of life” [p. 76].
This is, of course, an essay on capital punishment. It proceeds not by a compelling analytical logic, but by a series of concrete reflections which lead the reader to appreciate the question in all its variety and potential human depth. And it is enormously entertaining along the way.
Fr. Rutler is not averse to interspersing his personal opinions, particularly cultural opinions, as befits a highly educated man of letters with a proportionate opposition to what many perceive as the progressive cultural degradation of the modern period. For example, from “The Quintessential—and Last—Modern Poet”, there is this:
I shall be forward enough to say that I was never drawn to Eliot. He does not thrill like Yeats. I knew some who knew him well and who invariably venerated him, although they were usually of an insecure academic sort that snobbishly dismissed his devoted and long-suffering second wife. While Eliot was to me like the old Dean in the nursery rhyme: “I do not love thee, Doctor Fell, The reason why—I cannot tell”, in a Christian sense I still find much in him to love while not confusing this bond of charity with a chain of affinity. [p. 59f]
Readers who dislike the somewhat aristocratic tinge so common among well-educated English gentlemen and those who emulate them may be somewhat put off by Fr. Rutler’s confident erudition, taking it at times as a polite and potentially entertaining refusal to come to the point. Yet those who really enjoy reading, especially if they take exception to what has been called the dull abstraction of my own methods of argument, will be thoroughly delighted by Rutler’s highly concrete and often whimsical presentation.
Insofar as one actually apprehends specific points made about the Catholic Church, the Faith, or the Christian vision of life, the reader will find not only perfect orthodoxy but spiritual sensitivity coupled with keen insight. The brilliant essay on “Newman and the Anglican Patrimony” combines the best of everything, and is by itself worth the price of admission. Yet even if an argument cannot quite be traced through to a great thumping conclusion, the reader can scarcely escape a consistent mental stimulation in a distinctively Catholic way.
For Fr. Rutler this distinctive Catholic note is his delight in the evocative “thisness”—the luminescent concreteness—of all of creation and of each human person. For everything in this vast world of time and space is at once itself and a pointer to something greater. This makes my recommendation extraordinarily simple: Reading Fr. Rutler is one way to grasp what it means that the Word was made flesh.
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