Regular NRO readers are familiar with the work of Father George Rutler, the Anglican-turned-Roman Catholic polymath who is rector of the Church of Our Saviour in Manhattan. Father Rutler has, to understate significantly, a distinctive personality, and what makes his new book — Cloud of Witnesses: Dead People I Knew When They Were Alive — such a joy to read is his own appreciation for the distinctiveness of the characters with which God has peopled his life, and ours. The book is a collection of 56 word-portraits, each about three pages long, of people whose lives have intersected with Father Rutler’s. His subjects are, each in his or her own way, remarkable, but that is only to restate the fact that they are human persons. As Rutler himself writes, quite accurately, in his introduction: “My mention of them is perhaps more like the Japanese poetry that gives an impression instead of a reproduction; but it is an impression made by that unique mystery, a human person, so important that thinkers such as Aquinas and Newman have said that it would be better for whole galaxies to collapse than one of these souls be lost.”
To give the reader a flavor, here is part of Rutler’s account of the Rev. Hugh Maycock, principal of Pusey House:
His own hobby was collecting antique pawnbroker’s balls, whose history he traced to the Medici. Inordinate sleep was a necessity for him after he was bitten by a tsetse fly in Malawi as a missionary. “I can always tell what time of day it is. When I awake in my pajamas I know it is time for Mass and when I awake in my trousers I know it is time for tea.” . . . He imputed eccentricity to another only once in my presence. A maths don in his undergraduate days had developed a conceit that he was turning into a mushroom, like Gaius Caligula who thought he was made of glass. [Maycock] added, rather chillingly, I thought, that there was no truth to it.
Which raises the issue of eccentricity, on which Father Rutler makes a pregnant comment, quite offhandedly, later in the book. Describing the courage of Catholic bishop Austin Vaughan in standing up to liberal Church bureaucrats, Rutler remarks, “He was patronized as an eccentric by the self-centered.” What wisdom there is in this casual phrase! It is a great insight into the nature of personality. A society calls those “eccentric” who do not share society’s own fads and obsessions — when in fact those people may well be quite properly centered in the individuality God gave them, as opposed to ec-centric, “out-centered” in mere conformism.
Rutler reveals that Bill Buckley “regularly sent me [his novels] in the vain expectation that I would read them; they were not his best writing, and I do not read novels anyway, as every day in real life is more thrilling than any fiction.” Let not the reader jump too hastily to accuse Rutler of philistinism here; I believe he’s on to a very important truth. Why, after all, do we read fiction? Is it not, in large part, to try to understand our common human condition, to make sense of its bewildering diversity, to make joyful discoveries about it? What Rutler is celebrating is precisely that diversity that so baffles us — what John Duns Scotus called haecceitas, that irreducible this-ness that God had in mind in creating an individual. (Scotus, by the way, is a writer I have long recommended to my colleagues. “Scotus for Ramesh,” I like to say.) I think Rutler is not condemning fiction so much as contextualizing it — suggesting that fictions bear to life somewhat the same relation that books about contemplative prayer do to contemplative prayer. They help, but their orientation is toward an object greater than themselves, and the time comes when they must be left behind.
A reader of this book will have hours of fun, and flashes of happy understanding. Strongly recommended.