I love reading essays, and I love writing them. These days I’m enjoying reading two books of essays by Father George Rutler as preparation for an interview that I’m going to conduct with him soon via email. The interview will be published at Homiletic and Pastoral Review along with my review of his two most recently published books:
- He Spoke to Us – Discerning God in People and Events (Ignatius Press)
- The Stories of Hymns – The History Behind 100 of Christianity’s Greatest Hymns (published by EWTN Publishing, Inc. and available from Sophia Institute Press)
About ten years ago, my first accidental exposure to Father Rutler was in a no longer available Youtube video from an EWTN series of his on the stories of hymns. During the show, Father Rutler wore a long black cassock with black-cloth-covered buttons and a wide satin cummerbund around his trim waist. With his egg-shaped bald head, small mouth, and pale complexion above his clerical collar, and his studied manner of speaking, he looked and he sounded like I thought an erudite Oxford don must look and sound. (It was a surprise to find out later that he was born and raised in New Jersey.) While he talked, he moved around the set as if he was if he was in his own study, picking out a few notes on a grand piano, pausing in front of a desk or a bookcase occasionally to sum up a thought. Through that first show I saw of his, I learned for the first time that the hymn “O Come O Come Emmanuel” was translated and rearranged from the ancient O Antiphons that the Church has sung for centuries before and after the Magnificat at Vespers during the last week leading up to Christmas Eve. I love learning the connection between Catholic things. I was hooked.
I’ve been a fan of Father Rutler’s ever since. A few years ago I wrote for Dappled Things an article that expanded on what I learned from that show: History and Mystery: The O Antiphons in a Favorite Hymn and another article titled Top Ten Thoughts about Advent from Fr. Rutler. Later I signed up to receive Father Rutler’s weekly columns by email. I even follow his page on Facebook. That’s quite a compliment coming from me. I don’t follow any other writers.
Close reading of the essays of this deft, learned, and perceptive writer has started me thinking about what makes a satisfying essay. In this essay I want to explore some of my thoughts about the attractions of the essay form, and then to use snippets from one of Fr. Rutler’s essays to illustrate how his dense and many-layered, widely wandering writing style works very effectively to convey some deep and resonant truths about the Catholic faith.
Essay: To Try, To Weigh, To Ascertain the Value of
The enormous amount of enjoyment we can get out of a well-written essay is not derived merely from the subject being written about but from the journey we take with the writer as he or she applies his or her intelligence to a subject, often examining it from many angles and showing us how it connects to many other subjects. An essay of the type I mean is a reflection, refracting light onto the subject off the many facets of a brilliant mind. The whole of such an essay, greater than its parts, carries its meaning.
The word peregrinate comes to mind, a word I know well but have never had the occasion to actually use before. The English word comes from Latin peregrinatio (journey) through Old French word peregrinacion (pilgrimage). Peregrinating is a most apt word for Rutler’s essays, because he seems to be walking us around as he moves from one anecdote, one image, one historical personage or story to another. Sometimes you feel he’s lost his way. But at the end of the peregrination, he has usually brought you somewhere you have never quite been before.
Most of us know that the word essay is derived from the French word essayer, which means to attempt, or to try, or to ascertain the value of something. When we learned to write essays in school, we weren’t taught the type of essay that Fr. George Rutler writes. His are literary essays, not the kind written with a thesis stated up front and and a concluding argument.
The meaning of a pedestrian essay might be summarized in a sentence or two, but what would be the fun in that? A peregrinating literary essay doesn’t proceed like a newspaper article, which gives us the most important information first. And it’s not like a scientific paper, which gives us an abstract of its conclusions to read before we start.
How I Learned to Love Essays
I learned to love essays before I ever knew what an essay was. Ever since I was a young child, I have been an avid reader. I spent a lot of time in doctors’ offices when my Aunt Peggy would take me or one of my two sisters or her daughter, our cousin, to appointments in Boston when I was a kid, and I cut my intellectual baby teeth on the long discursive essays I read in the months-old or even years-old New Yorker magazines I picked up to read in doctors’ waiting rooms.
Later in my life, I fell in love with the New Yorker essays of John McPhee, the ultimate peregrinating writer, who takes readers into new places and new areas of human experience that range between such far-separated places as the near-wilderness called the Pine Barrens that is smack in the middle of New Jersey to the rugged lands where bush pilots, prospectors, and settlers, politicians and business people live in the state of Alaska. McPhee is still writing and still overwhelming his readers—in the best possible way—with his long discursive essays whose floods of details bring to life landscapes both exterior and interior, along with vivid glimpses into unfamiliar ways of living.
Why I Especially Love Father Rutler’s Essays
I think I love Father Rutler’s essays because they are similar in style to McPhee’s, although not in their geographic scope. As I mentioned, Father Rutler was born and raised in New Jersey, and he serves as a parish priest in New York City. He has studied abroad, in Rome and in London, but as one of his essays, “Vacation Trials and Tribulations” indicate, he actually hates to travel. He ends that essay with this quote, humorously attributing it to St. Paul, “When you live in New York, you don’t have to travel because you are already there.”
No matter, the wide range of his expertise is not geographical, it is religious and historical, political and cultural. The more I read Father Rutler’s essays the more I get out of them. They are dense with poetic, learned references, lightened with flights of fact and fancy and dry rarified humor.
He starts out with one subject, which leads to another, and to another, and you find at the end that all of the facts he brought in come together. Ah yes, you finally think. I see what he’s getting at.
And if you don’t get any one person or thing or historical event he mentions in one of his essays, you file it away mentally so you can find out more about it later for yourself. The unknowns he refers to are embedded in your mind like little hooks for future study and research. Like the writings of T.S. Eliot and others, Rutler’s writings are going to leave most readers lost in one or several particulars. But that’s okay. “To learn gives the greatest pleasure.” You can catch up later with the facts about the things you don’t already know.
One writer referred to the method of writing as practiced by Eliot and Pound, McPhee and Rutler as bringing in everything but the kitchen sink, and then the sink too. That suits me fine. I love wallowing in details. Don’t they say God is in the details? Bring them on!
You probably won’t agree with him on everything. I ran across one blogger who was irate that Father Rutler wrote one essay against the long-standing practice of having pews in churches. I don’t know if I’ve been convinced by Father Rutler’s arguments against pews either, but I, for one, enjoyed reading what he had to say.
“The Transfiguration of the Church”
The essay titled “The Transfiguration of the Church,” is the first essay in Father Rutler’s collection He Spoke to Us, and it starts with the story of an eccentric Oxford don who kept a small menagerie, including a mongoose and an eagle, in his rooms. Fr. Rutler writes that the eagle one day flew from the don’s rooms into the cathedral and tried to mate with the brass eagle-shaped lectern, which, Fr. Rutler, notes with sly humor, “was cold and unresponsive.”
At the time the eagle landed, the choir, we then learn, was singing Mendelsohn’s “O for the wings of a Dove.” Rutler’s inclusion of an aside that Mendelssohn had recently dedicated his “Scottish” symphony to Queen Victoria is arguably an extraneous fact. But Father Rutler then moves quickly on to remind us that the dove and the eagle represent differing aspects of the spiritual life, and after a few comments about the existence of eagle lecterns in churches all over the world, he ends the dense first paragraph by reminding us that the eagle symbolizes St. John, “whose record of the saving Gospel soars on wings not of this world.”
In the next paragraph he finally uses for the first time the central word of the essay, when he notes that it is curious that “Saint John is the only evangelist who does not record the ethereal mystery of the Transfiguration, and especially so since he was there.”
Father Rutler then tells us that even though St. John did not record the Transfiguration, some say John’s Gospel is one long Transfiguration. Besides, John was “the only evangelist who recorded the marriage at Cana,” which Rutler argues can be seen as a kind of prototype for the Transfiguration.
After a few more interesting asides, Father Rutler begins to bring us to the meat of the essay. He leads us to realize that we are not transformed by ideals no matter how much we idealize them, but by being transfigured by the glory of God, with observations such as these:
“The Church Militant, which in its weakest moments may seem like a scattered and tattered regiment of the Church Triumphant, has supernal guarantees that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Any reformation of the Church that is not a transfiguration by the light of that confidence becomes a deformation. With the best intentions, sectaries spring up to fix the cracks they see in the Rock which is Peter, using some principle other than his power to bind and loose.”
Father Rutler makes the excellent point that, as truly laudable as the morality of those denominations created by reformist sectarians often is, whose followers’ moral lives “often excel the practice of Catholics,” the Church is not perfected based on any mere theory, or on striving for perfection, but on the saints who are perfected by their experience of the glory of God. “The perfectionist wants to make himself good, better, best. But the Perfect Man said, “apart from me you can do nothing (Jn 15:5). That is why he gave us the Church as his body . . .”
He is showing that apart from Christ, apart from His Body the Church, we can not achieve anything real value. Reformers who try to set up an alternative to the Church are going about it all wrong, based on their own efforts and the ideals they have constructed for themselves. These ideas of his are perhaps especially convincing because Father Rutler is a convert himself from Episcopalian (Anglican) denomination, and he knows from close observation the failures of the innumerable sects that sprang up from idealistic humans determined to reform the Catholic Church from outside. The saints, he tells us, know better.
“The saints, having seen the glory on the mountaintop, do not gaze at themselves but ‘see only Jesus’, who rather than transforming them into goodness, transfigures them into glory.”
There’s a lot to think about in just the first part of that essay that I’ve touched on here. And there is much, much, more. I hope you’ll read the rest of this essay and more of Father Rutler’s essays yourself and enjoy them as I do.