Cloud of Witnesses: Characters I Have Known

This is the time to put a few cats among the pigeons. I homophonically cast among these pigeons the parish priest who is obliged by the current liturgical books to worship Almighty God in pidgin English. While I am in no rush for the liturgy in the local vernacular, since there are more than 60 languages spoken in my two-and-a-half-square-mile parish, I long for the day when there might be a translation in English that would not be failed by a grammar master. Androgynous translations also offend grammar’s God, by replacing the living Word with politically correct corrections. God is served by translators but not by imperial editors.

Days ago I was obliged to preach from a twisted text (Luke 18:9-14) in which “two persons” went up to the Temple to pray. A stickler could argue that “anthropoid duo” might be neutral, but Christ’s meaning is clear particularly with respect to Temple custom. The Greeks use “anthropos” as “aner” (male) in their marriage rite, and they should know. As the Church has every right to translate the canonical Scriptures but no authority to replace them, I ignored the risible version. I publicly announce this so that if I am arrested by the liturgical police, you may visit me in prison and give me, like Ezekiel (1:1-3), a tasty scroll to eat.

Frail familiarity with Greek gives social engineers a free hand denied to the classicist. It also obscures an understanding of the Greek “karakter,” which I want to make the theme of this new series of columns. To say someone is a “real character” or “has a lot of character” or “lacks character” resounds with the classical sense of a “karakter” as something stamped. Humans are stamped by God. It is the only plausible explanation of personality. We are what we are because we are imprinted by One who is other than we are. Moose and whales have their appeal, but they are not great characters. The saints are the greatest characters because they are most impressionable to the Divine Will. They are, as St. Teresa of Avila said, already in heaven or on the way to heaven. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” Souls that are perfectly impressed by God are perfectly unimpressed by themselves. This is the blessedness of the “poor in spirit.” A heart so hard that God does not impress it will be chiseled by mere creatures until it breaks.

I want to write about characters I have known and who have impressed me because God in different ways impressed them. Perhaps most of them were not perfect saints, and some decidedly were not so blessed, but each of them taught me something about the infinite variety of human grandeur. People are living Gospels written in black and white by deeds and misdeeds, and together they form a “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1), stormy and serene. Some of these characters were well known, and some may be remembered only by me. The justice without which there is no charity requires that I write only about those who have finished their earthly lives.

The greatest film ever made, and here I pontificate as one infallible in matters not touching faith or morals, was How Green Was My Valley, John Ford’s 1941 version of the novel Richard Llewellyn wrote in 1939 about a Welsh mining village. Walter Pidgeon (not a translator of the liturgy) starred with the radiant Maureen O’Hara, who told me, after a mission I preached, charming details about the production, but nothing so charming as the words beyond charm of the character Huw Morgan looking back on his boyhood. They set the tone for the “witnesses” I want to invoke in this new series of columns: “I saw behind me those who had gone, and before me, those who were to come. I looked back and saw my father, and his father, and all our fathers, and in front, to see my son, and his son, and the sons upon sons beyond, and their eyes were my eyes. As I felt, so they had felt, and were to feel, as then, so now, as tomorrow and forever. Then I was not afraid, for I was in a long line that had no beginning, and no end, and the hand of his father grasped my father’s hand, and his hand was in mine, and my unborn son took my right hand, and all, up and down the line that stretched from Time That Was, to Time That Is, and Is Not Yet, raised their hands to show the link, and we found that we were one, born of Woman, son of Man, made in the Image, fashioned in the Womb by the Will of God, the Eternal Father.”


  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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