Fr. George W. Rutler is a Roman Catholic priest of the archdiocese of New York and a former Anglican. He’s a familiar character at National Review, a longtime friend to our late William F. Buckley Jr., and a frequent writer here and elsewhere. (He is also pastor of a parish neighboring National Review World Headquarters in Manhattan, Our Saviour.) He has a new book out, Cloud of Witnesses: Dead People I Knew When They Were Alive (which is available for the Kindle), a contender for the best-book-of-the-year title, from Specter Publishers. He talked to National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about some of the people he profiles in Cloud — including Robert Frost, Mother Theresa, and WFB.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Was there any concern the subtitle was a little undignified?
THE REV. GEORGE W. RUTLER: The subtitle is only sub, and I did not plan to have one until friends asked what the book was about. The subtitle was my immediate and direct answer. I thought it might be infra dig. But a couple of pious counselors thought it fine for a subtitle. It avoids the euphemisms for the word “dead,” which is one of the few remaining words which our coarse culture considers tasteless. It does have the merit of avoiding terms like “passed away,” which made Evelyn Waugh tremble with glee. I suppose that if I had been St. Martha speaking of Lazarus, I might say today: “My brother who passed away is not well preserved,” but I prefer the sturdy English of the golden age of English: “The sister of him that was dead, saith unto him, Lord, by this time he stinketh.” At least this little book justifies my thesis that there are more dead people now than there used to be.
Lopez: Is there a literal cloud of witnesses?
FATHER RUTLER: I do not know how people see in Heaven, without biological eyes, but their vision is better than 20/20. They see the essence of each other. Whatever that essence is, we can only surmise that it is akin to what was seen by Jesus when he looked into the hearts of men. In that sense, the “cloud of witnesses” consists of people who have become with inexpressible vividness what they were meant to be in this world.
Lopez: How are “the lives of people themselves the best schools”?
FATHER RUTLER: Geology teaches things about rocks, but none of us would be happy if we only knew about rocks. It is knowing about each other that makes us happy and wise. My favorite books are biographies for that reason. Autobiographies are second best, because the artist is too close to the canvass. But any kind of biography teaches more about the world than any other kind of study, since man is the highest product of creation, and is its most significant creature.
Lopez: “It is an indictment of our time that [saints] are largely ignored, almost self-consciously so by our schools”?
FATHER RUTLER: No explanation, sociological or psychological or anthropological, can adequately explain how saints get to be saints. They are the evidence of divine grace, and to acknowledge their existence is to acknowledge that grace. So most of our schools prefer to destroy the evidence. Thus the greatest people who ever lived are treated nervously or ignored altogether. This is the biggest and most blatant lacuna in our curricula. For instance, how many Ph.D’s have ever heard of St. Lawrence of Brindisi? Yet, a good case may be made for saying that there would be no Doctors of Philosophy today, and no civilization at all as we know it, had it not been for him.