Coincidentally: The Madness of Many


June 1, 1999

Your scrivener writes these words with caution, for he is well aware of the power of coincidences to drive men mad. When someone mistakenly attributes a coincidence to enigmatic causes, the mind can reel right off the edge. I think of that woman who went bonkers ever so briefly when she blamed the New York City blackout of 1965 on her electric iron. Every freshman knows from the most cursory reading of the etiology of psychosis, that there are varieties of mental dilapidation, and not all are caused by mistaken causality. Neither are all clinically insane people unproductive. While confined to institutions for the bewildered, Christopher Smart (1722-1771) wrote hymns, Richard Dadd (1817-1887) painted elves, and Ezra Pound (1885-1972) edited his dithyrambs on Mussolini.

Neither does everyone, thankfully, respond the same way to coincidences. Let me cite traffic as a case in point. As early as 1806, Napoleon had furiously demanded the removal of Ercole Cardinal Consalvi (1757-1824), the papal secretary of state, but he grudgingly respected the cardinal’s character. Returning to Italy from Beziers, Consalvi’s coach rolled through Frejus at the moment Napoleon’s coach passed in the opposite direction on the way to his first exile in Elba. Their eyes met and Napoleon remarked of His Eminence, who was a deacon: “There, that man who would never become a priest, is a better priest than them all.” So Napoleon kept his cool and was even edified by the phenomenal coincidence. On the other hand, Lady Caroline Lamb (1785-1828) was absolutely uncool in traffic. The novelist had a nine-month love affair with Lord Byron while she was married to Lord Melbourne. In 1824, she happened upon a funeral procession passing along the road and, learning that it was Byron’s, she immediately went berserk. The Duchess of Devonshire behaved almost as extrav-agantly at Cardinal Consalvi’s wake.

A Berlin carpenter named Joseph Friederick (1790-1873) built a miniature ivory model of the Church of St. Nicholas in Potsdam. A crack appeared in one of the columns and, a few weeks later, an identical crack appeared in the same spot in the real church. Friederick inspected this and went crazy, never to become quite whole again.

There have always been oddities among the religious. Clinical psychologists often apply to them the term “nut.” Like Herostratus who set fire to the fourth temple of Diana in Ephesus in 356 B.C., on what turned out to be coincidentally the traditional birth date of Alexander the Great. Some are only crazy like foxes: Fr. Divine, for example, who claimed to have killed a civil judge by the power of prayer. Others are simply loony. Ludowicke Muggleton comes to mind. In England in 1651, he and his cousin John Reeves capitalized on the excitement surrounding the Navigation Act for the seizure of Dutch vessels to advertise themselves as the “two witnesses” of Revelation 11:3¬6. They promised to prophesy for 1,260 days. When they finished, nothing happened, unless you want to count the Tartar invasion of Poland.

Lenin died when the Anglican bishop of Birmingham publicly condemned bridge-playing as a wasteful activity. It is unlikely that Lenin died in reaction to the condemnation. It is more likely that the bishop, not heedless of Lenin’s ill health, misread the significance of the moment. We should say the bishop was not mad, but only lacked a sense of proportion.

Many of the above may have been fanatics rather than madmen. Mr. Dooley said a fanatic is one who thinks God would agree with him if He had all the facts. The fanatic has no sense of humor because humor requires perception of imbalance. The madman may have a sense of humor, but it is backwards; it perceives balance and laughs at that. Not to laugh at coincidences is prescription for weeping at coincidences, and that way lies endless madness. The one kind of humor that always gets this right is literally graceful. A mad world calls it madness, but in small pockets of that world it is called sanctity.


  • 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.

Join the Conversation

Comments are a benefit for financial supporters of Crisis. If you are a monthly or annual supporter, please login to comment. A Crisis account has been created for you using the email address you used to donate.

tagged as:
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...