Father Rutler is Pastor of the Church of Saint Michael in New York City. He is the author of twenty-five books and many essays, and has lectured widely at home and abroad.
There are those of us who remember how as schoolboys, the clever use of rhythmic dactyls in Virgil's metrical Latin verses made unforgettable the sound of horses galloping. And one of my schoolmates gained fleeting fame when our French teacher announced that, as our classmate was recovering from an appendectomy, the first words he whispered as he came out of the anesthesia were from a line in LaFontaine's fable about the Crow and the Fox: "Maître Corbeau sur un arbre perché . . ."
Fables have always been entertaining ways to teach children to remember moral wisdom. LaFontaine in the late 17th century drew on stories of Aesop, a Greek slave in the fifth century before Christ. Many of those fables in the Aesopica were adopted along the way in Welsh (Chwedlau Odo—“Odo’s Tales”), Middle Low German, and even Middle Scots. Moral truths have no national borders or chronological barriers. Everyone in any place can learn a lesson from Aesop’s fable of the Tortoise and the Hare, in which the tortoise defies all odds and wins the race because the hare was so smug that it took a nap.
The parables of our Lord are different from fables, for they are about people, while fables make animals talk. Fables enliven moral consciences while Christ’s parables make moral points but also direct attention to eternal realities. When our Lord says, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like . . .” he describes a heavenly reality, and not a fantasy.
Commissioned as an apostle of the Good News, Saint Paul wrote: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way as to take the prize. Everyone who competes in the games trains with strict discipline. They do it for a crown that is perishable, but we do it for a crown that is imperishable” (1 Corinthians 9:24-25). This race is not a fable about tortoises and hares. Those are illusions, but Paul’s race is an allusion. He is speaking of real people in Corinth, where the Isthmian Games took place before and after the Olympic Games, and whose winner received a crown of wild celery instead of the Olympic olive leaf. And celery leaves fade fast.
Lent is a microcosm of life in its entirety, with all its trials. When Saint Paul speaks of discipline, he employs a Greek word used for wrestling and any struggle for victory—agonia, from which we get agony. The Anti-Christ wants us to surrender the race and tries to persuade us that life is nothing but agony without a prize. His plot is to discourage, while Christ’s Holy Church is constantly encouraging, through the sacraments and the heavenly cheerleaders called saints and angels. Saint John Vianney was convinced of a fact more fabulous than a fable: “Not all the saints started well, but all of them ended well.”