Saturday, February 21, 2009

George William Rutler on the Cure of Ars

Father George William Rutler is a priest I admire for his intellect, his wit, his uncompromising commitment to tradition in a world that desperately needs it, but also because he proves that a man can effectively minister to people in the real world of today despite his tendency to wear his cassock. He is parish priest at the Church of Our Savior on 38th Street & Park Avenue in New York. Like his friend the late Richard Jon Neuhaus, he knows that the real task of theology takes place at the altar, and in the confessional, and in the pulpit. Today's Roman Catholic seminaries, for the most part, are not exactly known for producing great preachers. Good preaching can be found, but it is rare. It is no surprise, then, that neither Rutler nor Neuhaus learned his preaching from Catholic seminaries. They are blessings to the modern Catholic Church from without.

Rutler, I hasten to add, is one of the finest writers in the Church today. If you are unafraid of reading writers of another communion, and with whom you will not agree in every instance, then please discover for yourself the writings of George Rutler, or if you know him and haven't read him in a while, take him up again. Aside from his humor, intricate knowledge of history, and fine writing style, he will also enrich your devotion to Christ in many of his writings.

One such writing is his book on Jean Marie Baptiste Vianney, the nineteenth century priest who served for over forty years as pastor of the same rural French parish, Ars, outside of Lyons. I share the following brief section from this book (The Cure D'Ars Today: St. John Vianney: Ignatius Press) because it is typically Rutler, & also because it is a good example of how Rutler cannot help meditating on the mystery of the Incarnation of our Lord even in the midst of a discourse on one of His saints.

"We are speaking of a real man with a real face. The insistence of the preacher persists in his case: for 'our hands have handled" him. Thousands saw him and spoke with him and watched what he did. I say it again; this was a real man with a real face. He told a fluttery visitor, 'The Queen of Sheba expected too little, but you, Madame, expected too much.' Some overestimate what he revealed; others underestimate what he concealed. Saints can look like anyone else. Perfection lies in symmetry and not in caricature. Saul was 'a head and shoulders taller than any of his fellow-countrymen'; he would have been fellow to no one had he been ten heads taller. Vianney was monumentally unspectacular that way. But he was not alone in this; freethinkers shrank from the long Jesuitical shadow of Saint Ignatius, who was a little under five feet two inches tall, about the height of Vianney. An ordinary appearance holds the most ponderous secrets; a hard face is the easiest to decipher and a soft face is the hardest to like, but the ordinary face is the confidential profile of all antecedents and homelands. Lincoln was told a beard would give him more character; Warren G. Harding had a nobler head. Eliot wrote better than Sitwell, but he looked like the bank clerk he was, while she looked like the cathedral she was not. And that is why great religious art is of necessity allegorical; a plaster statue cannot capture so free a thing as the freedom of a saint, and the best way icons represent the limitless dimensions of grace is by being totally flat. In the last analysis, only a most delicate grace may discern the barrier between banality and perfection. Banality in itself can be the very depth of imperfection: the more vindictive Henry VIII became, the more he resembled soft ice cream. A man who met both said Lenin describing his massacres looked mild, while Gladstone was positively fierce when served sherry in the wrong glass. Part of the dreadfulness in real tyrants is the way they make wickedness seem as ordinary as the saints make goodness. It is worse than legalizing a crime; it is more like legalizing everything. The mind must be acute beyond normal perception to detect in the pedestrian Saint of Ars a man walking the highest road.

"Holiness is not godlike, and so they say some men have entertained angels unaware. The nature of God requires something other than godlikeness of his creatures. God does not look like himself; as perfect Being, he is himself and is thus an analogous world's single incapacity for simile. He is the I AM and not the I AM LIKE. His own revelation conceals him; humans can fancy to see him in sunsets and stars, but when he reveals himself in human form humans do not recognize him. They become like Matthew Arnold, who wanted to replace theology with poetry and lost the point of both. Listeners arrayed on the Palestinian hills said no man ever spoke as Jesus spoke; none suggested no man ever looked as he looked. In the garden he was mistaken for a gardener, and on the Emmaus road he was treated as any other man passing by. The deepest mystery for man is not God as a perfect circle, of God as a golden triangle, but God with a human face. The Shroud of Turin, for instance, shows a scratched and swollen face, which is not what one expects of perfection. But than again is the clue; perfection cannot be like anything, because its perfection overwhelms analogy. As a saint, Vianney was not godlike: he was godly. To be godlike would mean that he lacked the capacity for God. The lesson was learned in Eden a hard way and is repeated in each human life. 'Ye shall be like gods' can only mean ye shall not be gods. The dark vow dragged our ancestors onto a creaking stage where the castles and countries were painted canvas and cardboard compared to God's lost acre.

"'The saints are like so many mirrors in which Christ contemplates himself.' The Cure's language was Pauline; the saints are able ' catch the glory of the Lord as in a mirror, with faces unveiled, and we have become transfigured into the same likeness, borrowing glory from that glory, as the Spirit of the Lord enables us.'"


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Fr. Timothy D. May, SSP said...

Thank you for sharing about this author. I found a brief piece he wrote about "renewing a solid sense of liturgy."