Politics & Policy

Priest Walks among the Dead

Life as the best drama there is.

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.

Lopez: You write that the people in your book taught you “something about the infinite variety of human grandeur.” What is human grandeur? Is it always grand?

FATHER RUTLER: Humanity is always grand, as man is in the image of God: with an imaginative and inductive intellect capable of contemplating the existence of love and loving its source. The human race has fallen, but it can be saved from an eternal loss of its original grandeur. In defiance of every heresy against that grandeur, whether Gnosticism or Calvinism or atheism, the Church says, “Become what you are.”

Lopez: Why should “one’s social circle . . . avoid one’s equals”?

FATHER RUTLER: It is of course overstating the case to say that we must avoid our equals. But we certainly should not confine ourselves to them. Such is the pathology of adolescence. Without maturity, it becomes endless narcissism. In the crazy early 1970s, there was a student demand in one of our fashionable colleges that the professor not teach from a raised platform, because it suggested superiority. Well, if the professor is not superior, the students are wasting their time and money. Simply, we learn best from those who know more than we do. The fact that I have to point this out, illustrates what apes we have become.

Lopez: How did you come to know former baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn’s “discomfort with moral ambiguity”?

FATHER RUTLER: In using that phrase I tried to say politely that Bowie’s high sense of baseball made him angry with players who were crooks and slobs.

Lopez: How is “every day in real life . . . more thrilling than any fiction”?

FATHER RUTLER: Fiction can be fun, but people who find it more thrilling than reality should spend their days with puppets instead of people.

Lopez: Which of your lesser-known witnesses do you wish were better known?

FATHER RUTLER: Most of those I wrote about are at least relatively well known. Those who should be known better (a British Petroleum executive might call them “the small people”) figure as ciphers for all those who simply delighted in life and could give delight to others, if only those others paid attention to them. These are the cooks at life’s feast, and the doormen in life’s household. All are priceless. George Santayana tells of a judge in Boston who was told by an evangelical Christian: “You were bought at a price.” The jurist, evidently not well read in the writings of St. Paul but sensitive to charges of corruption, threatened a libel action. But the least known of those I wish were better known are those who by definition are nameless in the newspapers, but whose lives remind us that, even if we behave cheaply, we are beyond price.

Lopez: What do you wish everyone knew about Henry Hyde?

FATHER RUTLER: Henry became most animated in describing President Bush Sr. as his most consistent and loyal supporter in judicial nominations, surpassing even President Reagan. He also was victim of a singularly venomous political degradation, which he handled with dignity.

Lopez: About Bill Buckley?

FATHER RUTLER: If “God is in the details,” Bill’s character was most vivid in the ways he quietly helped people from whom he could receive no gain in return.

Lopez: How did WFB view God?

FATHER RUTLER: Bill reserved his greatest respect for those few who were brighter than himself. He knew that in this sense, God was off the charts. I do not think he was sophisticated in every way, and it is certain that in matters of religion he could be childlike. But this was different from being childish. He certainly knew enough childish people who were not impressed with God’s IQ. But to be childlike instead of childish is to accept that there are mysteries greater than puzzles, and that among these mysteries is the presence of God in his Church. Bill never separated his sense of God from his sense of the Church. He wrote essays and at least one book on what he thought of God, but in later years he spent more time in private, considering what God thought of him.

Lopez: How did Robert Frost make it into your book?

FATHER RUTLER: Frost was an early contact with a vanished century, and he was also my first encounter with someone who was completely unlike what he was said to be. What was dark and brooding in him came from those same stern cultural roots which abounded in natural virtue. While his palpable sadness appealed to my adolescent romanticism, I also noted that it did not seem tinged with bitterness or hate. His playfulness about the Holy Ghost was definitely not irreverent or supercilious, but it was ludic almost in the sense of Teresa of Avila, who was a galaxy away from his world. I do not think he would have been so playful had he not taken his subject so seriously.

Lopez: Who is the funniest witness in your book (and why)?

FATHER RUTLER: I am not sure that I would call them funny, but I cannot forget the Oxford principal Hugh Maycock in his World War I flying helmet motoring me on the wrong side of the road, and Father Barret-Lennard, priest and baronet, decorously hearing a lady’s confession through a tennis racquet.

Lopez: Those are priceless. Who’s the most profound (and why)?

FATHER RUTLER: No one is not profound. It is just that some resonate that profundity more splendidly through their virtues. If the “least of these” inherit the Kingdom of Heaven, I do not think we should search for the “most” profound. That has no be sorted out in a larger world.

Lopez: The most saintly (and why)?

FATHER RUTLER: Our culture is intoxicated with celebrity, and it is tempting to attribute the highest sanctity to the most celebrated. There are those who even want the Church to relax her test of the ages: Those who seem the bright stars today may not be so in eternity. Best to wait a while before shouting “santo subito.” I do believe that some of the people I have known are canonizable saints. For the record, I’d propose my parents. I cannot write about those who were so intimate with me, and pretend to be objective, but they weave in and out of many of the lives about whom I write, and anything good in me is from them, and all that is bad in me is in spite of them.

Lopez: Orietta Doria-Pamphilj sounds utterly fascinating. Is there anything you left out about her?

FATHER RUTLER: I have left out a lot about most of the people I describe. Most practically because of word limits, but also because of life limits. The old saying I was told as a student newly arrived in the Eternal City was: Roma non basta una vita. In the same spirit, a lifetime would not be enough to describe adequately any life.

Lopez: Did Avery Cardinal Dulles really “confuse his washing machine with the dishwasher”?

FATHER RUTLER: Yes. But I have done similar things and have survived. Machines can be confusing, and our dignity is salvaged by the recognition that we made them and they did not make us. The last time I drove an automobile was about ten years ago, and yet I live, and many others are alive today, probably, because I do not drive.

Lopez: He prayed the Rosary before and after he wrote?

FATHER RUTLER: Cardinal Dulles prayed the Rosary, the Church’s greatest prayer, after the Eucharist, at least once a day, and I expect more than that. But ordinary work, whatever it is, writing a theological lecture or tiling a roof or mowing a lawn, can be a prayer and not an interruption of prayer.

Lopez: How is Cloud of Witnesses a celebration of the priesthood?

FATHER RUTLER: I do not know of any condition of man, any state of life, which gives such immediate access to so many people of all kinds, as does the Catholic priesthood. That is why the devil especially hates priests. The moment a priest is ordained, he may hear the confession of a king or a beggar, and whatever palace or hovel he enters he is “Father.” This is not romance, except of the divine kind: It was ordained by Christ the night before he died. So when I write about people, I celebrate the fact that they were able to look over my frail shoulders and see a much bigger Man behind me.

Lopez: You’re a pastor in New York City. How do you find time to write? Do you have a spiritual routine when you do?

FATHER RUTLER: Routines are easy, since nature builds 24 hours into each day. The best way to make use of them is to pray. Pray for ten physical minutes and morally you will have ten extra minutes that day for what you have to do. Pray for an hour, and you will have an extra hour for what has to be done. I do not know how that works, but it is the effect of eternity on time. And eternity was around a lot longer, to misapply a term, than time. No argument. Just try it. Then, of course we have to do our part. No mobile phones (unless someone is dying and there is no other way to call an ambulance). No listening to music on portable machines (except for Haydn, and Chopin’s nocturnes). Definitely no television. You can always watch the only worthwhile thing on TV — Antiques Roadshow — on their website archives (and you get to skip over the Majolica and Arts and Crafts furniture). Of course, it is best not to travel. But this can only be achieved if you live in New York City, since you are already there. And do not waste time watching professional sports. It is good to play sports, and I behave foolishly doing so myself, but never pay money to watch other people play games. Eating is necessary, but it is bad form to watch other people eat. So with watching other people play at games. If someone fumbles a ball, we should not get more excited than if someone drops a baked potato. Listening to the commentators on the sports channel makes one wonder why anyone bothered to invent anesthesia.

Lopez: What’s your favorite Mother Teresa memory?

FATHER RUTLER: My favorite was when she asked me to correct a mistaken report in a newspaper. I said that I’d pray about it and write. She said, “No, we need this right away. I pray. You write.” And, I fear, she could also read my mind. I have proofs of this.

Lopez: How did Pope Benedict XVI channel Erik Von Kuehnelt-Leddihn in his first encyclical?

FATHER RUTLER: Both represent the highest achievement of Bavarian-Austrian baroque, aesthetically and intellectually, with none of its concomitant enormities. Pope Benedict treats of Eros in the mystical life of the marriage of heaven and earth, an attraction and consummation beyond simple sensuality. This was a theme of Kuehnelt-Leddihn.

Lopez: You tutored an archbishop of Canterbury? Is there penance for that given the current state of your former church?

FATHER RUTLER: No, it was the opposite way: In Oxford, the future Archbishop of Canterbury tutored me. He was kind and patient and prepared me well for my Viva — the oral — and written examinations. He may want to do penance for that now. A fly on the wall during our tutorials could have gotten an amusing book out of them. Fittingly, we overlooked the garden that inspired Alice in Wonderland.

Lopez: What’s the most important lesson these people all helped impress upon you?

FATHER RUTLER: They only proved to me the doctrine of the greatest doctors of souls from Basil to Augustine to Newman: Each human soul is worth more than the entire universe.

Lopez: Is the main point of your book to love one another?

FATHER RUTLER: Yes, of course. But it is much easier to love one another than to like one another. I am happy that we are not commanded to do the latter. The folks in this book were not only loveable but likeable. They made life easier for me.

Lopez: Who do you miss the most? Who influenced you the most?

FATHER RUTLER: I miss them all, in that we no longer have conversations. But I also feel closer to all of them since time and space are no longer barriers. This is the communion of saints and, for those who have not attained that dignity yet, the fellowship of the Church Expectant. Those I miss most in the natural way are those who influenced me most: my parents, first of all, and then my teachers, from kindergarten onwards.

Lopez: What’s the next book?

FATHER RUTLER: I am gathering for a book very interesting, and nearly lost, information on some unsung heroes of the war years 1942–43 — and, obliquely, on some of the villains who helped make them heroes. On my back burner is my literary pot-au-feu, slowly coming to boil: a life of Louis IX of France, one of the greatest men who ever lived. Statesman, jurist, and leader of armies. How many members of the current administration or Congress have heard of him? But at the moment I am redoing a couple of oil landscapes, when time permits — for an artist’s paintings, however amateurish, are never completed. And I am practicing two Beethoven sonatas for piano and cello in response to a wager. I fear they are beyond me and may still be so by the end of August, but my excuse is that the piano is out of tune.

– Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of NRO.

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