At noon on Good Friday at St. Michael’s Church in midtown Manhattan — just blocks from Penn Station — Father George W. Rutler, author of The Seven Ages of Man: Meditations on the Last Words of Christ, will be leading a meditation. For many years in Manhattan, he has led such a meditation on the last words of Jesus, from noon until the hour His death is commemorated at 3 p.m. Father Rutler is rapidly becoming one of the authors with the most books on my bookshelf, including his most recent books: The Stories of Hymns: The History Behind 100 of Christianity’s Greatest Hymns and He Spoke to Us: Discerning God in People and Events. We discuss Good Friday and these books — as well as William F. Buckley Jr. and his faith, too. — KJL
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Why is it so crucial to focus on the seven last words of Christ on the cross on Good Friday?
Father George W. Rutler: Preaching on the seven last words is not part of the Solemn Liturgy of the Passion, which is among the oldest rites (for instance, the hymn called The Reproaches, or Improperia still retains Greek as well as Latin even in the Western Rite.) In the 18th century, missionaries in Peru used the hours from noon to 3 p.m., representing the time of the Crucifixion, to explain the essential theology of redemptive suffering. The custom spread, encouraged by Pope Pius VII. Having been neglected for some years, it seems to be reviving.
The seven last words are a compilation of the utterances from the Cross, quoted variously in the Gospel accounts. The seven homilies are interspersed with music and prayers, which vary since it is not a formally prescribed liturgy. The seven “days” of creation are paralleled by the seven times Christ spoke, representing how the sacrificial death on the Cross restored a fallen creation. I have preached on Good Friday for about 45 years, and there is no limit to the depths of what these last words contain. For half a dozen years after my former church St. Agnes burned and was being rebuilt, I preached the “Tre Ore” in the ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria hotel, and what began as missionary preaching to the Inca people of Peru worked as well for New Yorkers.
Lopez: Why do we need Lent? And what if we didn’t have a good or prayerful one this year? Is there a chance to make up for it this Holy Week?
Rutler: The 40 days are a time to take an inventory of our souls: What is the condition of our intellect and moral will? It is also a time to discipline the human appetites. Lent is a kind of gymnasium for our spiritual health, a development of what was the Socratic rejection of the “unexamined life” more than four centuries earlier. Saint John Vianney said that not all the saints started well, but they ended well. Around the year 400, Saint John Chrysostom preached his famous Paschal homily, the “Hieratikon,” in which he said that those who come to the feast last have a place at the table with those who fasted from the start. That is not a formula for laziness, but it is a humbling lesson in God’s mercy. Chrysostom was paraphrasing Christ, so he had a good source.
Lopez: On another matter: How are penguins morally exploited?
Rutler: I assume that this question refers to my essay on the subject in my book He Spoke to Us. That was about the publicity surrounding two male Chinstrap penguins (species Pygoscelis antarctica) named Ray and Silo in the Central Park Zoo that the New York Times, in one of its more risible articles, proposed as models for same-sex marriage in the animal kingdom. I enjoyed writing that essay, since it occasioned the satire that is the only sane response to many absurd social-engineering articles in what used to be a serious newspaper. But it is difficult to fault clowns for being clownish. The Times then went on to confuse bottlenose dolphins with killer whales, which should disqualify its editors from running an aquarium.
Lopez: How can one best discern God in people and events? Right now, this very day?
Rutler: Albert Einstein said that he was not much more intelligent than many others, but he paid more attention. I think that discerning the hand of God in events and human lives is simply a matter of paying attention. It also helps, and really is necessary, to know history in order to detect precedents in personalities and social developments. Sadly, the present age is to a large degree historically illiterate.
Lopez: Why are the stories of hymns so important?
Rutler: Great hymns, like any form of classical music, transcend time and personality, but are better appreciated by knowing the historical and biographical contexts that inspired them.
Lopez: Who was Reginald Heber and why do you call him “the brightest and best hymn writer in recent centuries”?
Rutler: He was a classical scholar of Oxford who became an Anglican missionary bishop in India and a vast sweep of land on the South Pacific. And he was a brilliant poet who wrote unsurpassed hymns in the golden dawn of the British Empire.
Lopez: Is the hymn “When I survey this wondrous cross” important this week? What about “O sacred head, sore wounded”? Why that translation?
Rutler: The first was written by the prolific versifier, Isaac Watts, a Congregationalist of vague doctrinal commitments and a chronic invalid who found inspiration in the sufferings of Christ. Though he was a nonconformist in religion, his verses drew on the medieval mystic Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. Watts also wrote “Joy to the World” and “O God, our help in ages past.” It is a trope or poetic commentary on the events of the Passion. “O sacred head,” of course, is from Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” which used a translation of the Cistercian poem “Salve Mundi Salutate” by a postal official in Leipzig named Henrici. The English translation I prefer is that of Robert Bridges who was poet laureate of England from 1913 to 1930. Bridges knew his Latin and replicates the right cadences.
Lopez: Do you have a favorite Easter hymn?
Rutler: Hard to choose, but as a choirboy I was imbued with the strains of “Jesus Christ is Risen Today” which was a 14th-century Bohemian carol. The text is by Nahum Tate (1652-1715) and Nicholas Brady (1659-1715).
Lopez: Do you have a favorite story of any hymn?
Rutler: There are lots of interesting stories, like that of “O Come All Ye Faithful,” which was written in Latin as “Adeste Fidelis” as late as the 18th century by English Catholics exiled in Douai, France. And then “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” which is a clever Latin acrostic, and “Lead, Kindly Light’ written by John Henry Newman while nearly delirious with a fever on a ship carrying oranges from Italy to England. I am partial to “Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending” simply because I recall choristers singing it when my mentor, Cuthbert Simpson, then Dean of Christ Church in Oxford, arrived in the college meadow by helicopter.
Lopez: Could The Stories of Hymns be used as a hymnal in churches? Would you even make a pitch for it?
Rutler: Well, it only has the melody lines and consists of only 100 hymns. I could write another volume with many more. But it would make the angels happier than much of the poor music we have in churches today. Even Pope Francis, who spends most of his time addressing other matters, took time recently to lament the “banality” of many modern hymns.
Lopez: You regret the existence of missalettes. Why do you feel so strongly? Is there a chance of turning around?
Rutler: Missalettes are for Christianettes. We need the songs of the saints and angels. Above all, we need to understand that the Mass itself is the greatest hymn: Vatican II said it was the song of the heavenly Jerusalem come to us. Plainchant, that is, Gregorian chant, is the signature music of the Latin Rite, and it takes precedent over all other hymnody.
Lopez: Why did Bill Buckley name his “Catholic” book Nearer, My God? Did you discuss this much with him?
Rutler: The title was his choosing. Some of our conversations are in it. The book is honest about his questions concerning the faith and is a model of his often-unappreciated humility. By his difficulties in understanding some doctrines while keeping his faith, he illustrated Newman’s maxim that “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.”
Lopez: What were his favorite hymns?
Rutler: He never mentioned any and made no provision for the music at his funeral. I chose the hymns for the Memorial Mass at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral and thought it appropriate to include “He Who Would Valiant Be,” paraphrasing John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress.” Particularly fitting were the lines: “Though he with giants fight / He will make good his right to be a pilgrim.” I am told that the atheist Christopher Hitchens, who attended in tribute to his late friend, sang all the hymns lustily. As a postlude, we had the third movement of Bach’s second Brandenburg Concerto, which was the theme music for Firing Line.
Lopez: What is the difference between righteous anger and the “twisting of courage” Saint Gregory of Nyssa describes?
Rutler: Righteous anger is directed at the Prince of Lies and all his works. That takes courage. When it is twisted it becomes a wasted passion. Sinful anger consists in losing temper. Righteous anger is directed at the source of all the world’s misadventures and sorrows.
Lopez: How does the Holy Spirit channel energy so we don’t spiral into sinful anger?
Rutler: By wiping away sin. The best way to turn sinful anger into righteous anger is to go to Confession. If you’ve lost your temper, Confession is where to find it.
Lopez: How was Christ a gentleman?
Rutler: Charles II said that a gentleman is one who puts those about him at ease. Christ is the Lord but, in his gentleness, he does not “Lord it over us.” Before he fed multitudes, he saw that there was grass for them to sit on in comfort. When he raised the daughter of Jairus from the dead, he gave her something to eat. Above all else, he carried the Cross instead of making us carry it for him. His stern imprecations were directed at those who would not shepherd the weak.
Lopez: One of your many books is titled A Crisis of Saints. Is that our main problem today in the world? Maybe especially in the United States? That we’re not trying to be saints? That we don’t know becoming a saint is our call? Or that we do know it, but we’re indifferent to it? How can that change?
Rutler: Sanctity is sanity. That is, a saint simply is someone who lets the Creator create through him. Sinners make good saints, once they turn around. The real enemy of holiness is mediocrity. The Book of Revelation says that “lukewarmness” makes God vomit. Saints do not seek “safe spaces” like the ill-formed “snowflakes” in our universities. Saints are the greatest of all human specimens, and it is telling and indicting that they are almost entirely ignored in what is taught in our schools today. That can change, as it always has in times of crisis, by harsh contact with reality.
Editor’s note: We’ve made a correction since posting. — Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor-at-large of National Review. Sign up for her weekly NRI newsletter here.