Friday, July 24

The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life (2013)

By Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher is another recent discovery whom I’m somewhat surprised not to have encountered earlier – or if I did, the name didn’t stick.  I do a good bit – far too much, if the truth be told – of what I call “net’surfing,” tending to concentrate in the more conservative political and religious corners of the Internet, but The American Conservative is not a site that I make a point to visit unless I’m taken there by some link that looks interesting. Nonetheless, given the subject matter which Dreher tends to write about, I’d be surprised if one or more of those interesting-looking links would not have taken me to something by him from time to time. Nevertheless, I don’t recall his name impressing itself upon my consciousness until just a couple of months ago. I was visiting with my mother, and we were watching The World Over on EWTN. That night, host Raymond Arroyo was interviewing guest Dreher, specifically about his most recently published book, How Dante Can Save Your Life (which I am currently reading).
You can see the interview here on Youtube:

Briefly, Dreher told how, following the death of his sister, Ruthie, to cancer, he had moved his family back to his home town of St. Francisville, Louisiana, about thirty miles north of Baton Rouge. But his return after years away had opened old emotional wounds which plunged him into a deep depression that was wrecking his health. A random visit to the Baton Rouge Barnes & Noble (I know it well!) where he picked up a copy of the late medieval poem, The Divine Comedy, had ended up being life-changing, for the better, as told in the latest book.

I was intrigued, especially by his contention that Dante has much to teach us today (I am a medievalist, after all), and put the book into my mental queue “to read” – but not right then. The fact that Dreher is a fellow Louisianan added to the appeal, of course.

Another subject that Dreher discussed with Arroyo was something called “The Benedict Option,” which is, briefly, Dreher’s belief that traditional Christians have for all intents and purposes lost the war for the soul of America, and have no real option now except to retreat from society into voluntary sub- (counter-?) cultural enclaves to preserve our own identity and what we can of traditional values while the world continues on its path toward self-destruction, but from which we or our children can reemerge at some time in the future to lead the rebuilding of a more Godly civilization – just like St. Benedict and his monks did in the early Middle Ages as the decadent world of late Roman antiquity collapsed around them, preserving some remnants of civilization and its knowledge through “the Dark Ages” (I hate that term!) until Europe was able to pick itself back up and reassimilate what the Benedictines had maintained, giving birth to the glories of the High Middle Ages. As a medievalist, as a Benedictine Oblate, as a traditionalist Catholic increasingly appalled at the course our world is taking of late, I found Dreher’s position immediately compelling, and “Benedict Option” became one of those phrases that caught my eye from time to time over the next few weeks …

… And then exploded to prominence with last month’s lamentable descent of the United States Supreme Court into judicial madness with back-to-back decisions which flew in the face of the Constitution and even reason itself. Quite possibly, I believe, we witnessed the death of American democracy – or more accurately, we had the fact that it is dead rubbed in our noses by the narrowest of margins among an out-of-control, unelected junta of “justices.” Which is off the subject of this post except that the sudden resurgence of interest in the Benedict Option – both pro- and anti- – that the rulings inspired brought Rod Dreher back to the forefront of my attention.

Continuing briefly with reference to the Benedict Option, that’s what I really wanted to read by him in a systematic, comprehensive discussion. Unfortunately, no such thing exists as yet. At this point “The Benedict Option” is an idea that is taking shape in Rod Dreher’s mind. He is in the process of refining it, figuring out for himself what exactly it means, how best it might be implemented in the modern world, and so forth, which is one reason the term is flying here and yonder around the Internet with abandon and not always – indeed, seldom – meaning the same thing to different commentators. Indeed, a certain inconsistency in Dreher’s own usage has been one of the criticisms leveled against the very idea, by Catholic blogger John Zmirak (who, ironically enough, also comes out of Louisiana State University, in his case during the early-mid 1990s when we were acquaintances through a number of mutual friends – Dreher had been there in the late 1980s). I believe Zmirak’s rather vociferous (he does not know how to be otherwise*) criticism of Dreher’s evolving vision of the Benedict Option is both accurate and unfair. It’s accurate in that Dreher himself seems not to envision it the same every time he uses the term – but unfair because Dreher recognizes and openly admits that he is still figuring out for himself what exactly it is. At this point in time, the best summary is probably his recent essay at The American Conservative, tellingly entitled, “Figuring Out the Benedict Option” (16 July 2005, LINK). In any case, he is doing so with the intention of writing a book defining it, and I am greatly looking forward to reading it, while not expecting to do so any time soon….

Lacking that, I went back to the book of which I had heard him speak a few months ago, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and at the same time, remembering his Louisiana connection, I did a little more research on Rod Dreher. What I found was personally interesting: He was born in the late 1960s in St. Francisville; he attended high school here in my own town of Natchitoches at the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts, a state-run school for gifted students housed on the campus of my own University, Northwestern State University of Louisiana. From there he returned to Baton Rouge to earn a degree in journalism from LSU, then logged a career with various newspapers and conservative journals and periodicals, turning increasingly to blogging and ultimately to full-time writing. I also discovered a little more about his conversion from Roman Catholicism to Eastern Orthodoxy, which had been briefly discussed in that same interview – how it was catalyzed by a crushing sense of betrayal over several years of reporting on the Church’s child sex abuse scandal, which brought him to the point that he could no longer remain Catholic. While I cannot agree with his solution to the heartbreak this engendered, I can well understand it. I was interested to learn as well how he came under fire for rightly identifying the underlying cause of the scandal in the presence of homosexual priests throughout the Church’s hierarchy, even to the highest levels, who for a long time have been more concerned with protecting child molesters within their own ranks than with protecting the victims of such molestation.

But I also figured out pretty quickly that just as it was published earlier than the book on Dante, a fuller and more cohesive view of what Dreher was going through when he was brought so low before he discovered The Divine Comedy in the summer of 2013 would require reading The Little Way of Ruthie Dreher. And so, a couple of weeks ago I downloaded it on Kindle and added it to my currently-reading virtual stack.

I immediately found myself immersed in a world with which I am very well familiar – small-town Louisiana. The little community of Starhill just a couple of miles south of St. Francisville, where Dreher and his sister actually grew up, sounds very much like a south Louisiana counterpart to my own north Louisiana home of Swartz, basically a small, sleepy, unincorporated farming community that has no real boundaries because it is as much a state of mind as a defined geographic location. Sure, “the big city” south of Starhill – the state capital of Baton Rouge – is considerably larger than Swartz’s “big city” of Monroe (by an order of magnitude!), but conceptually what’s the difference? A little surprisingly to me, but even more like my own background, it turned out the Drehers were Methodist before Rod converted to Catholicism as a young adult; the Hares were Baptist, but again, what’s the real difference? – I certainly thought there was more of one then than I realize there is now as a convert to Catholicism! Dreher is only a few years my junior, so in that respect as well the world of his childhood was very much like my own, being virtually completed before the advent of what I consider to be the watershed of cultural change that were the 1980s. In short, I knew these people.

Dreher’s conversion from Protestantism to Catholicism was just one thing that I quickly learned I had in common with him, and even that had its striking parallels, not least that it came after rejection of the faith of his childhood and a period when he strove to believe in nothing, but found the spark of new faith being kindled in the magnificence of that monument of medieval religious architecture, Chartres Cathedral in France. I do not remember being bowled over by the sense of the divine as was he, but I have always looked back to my 1979 high school trip to France and several days’ immersion in the remains of a very Catholic civilization as one of my own turning points – and the first place we stopped after arriving in Paris was indeed at Chartres [LINK]. But much more than that, I recognize a lot of my own youthful bookishness and consequent social awkwardness and isolation in young Rod Dreher. As in his case, I really did not fit well among my peers, or even within my family, and I took refuge in books, in comic books, in TV, and the like. As did he, I grew up in a loving home – but I was the odd man out. I have a younger brother, not a sister, but as did Dreher’s sister, Ruthie, my brother ended up being much more like our father than was I. And my father frankly did not understand me; our interests were far too different. He hunted and fished; I had no interest in either. My brother did, and shared much more in common with our father throughout his life and still engages in the same hobbies that they shared, even now a decade and more after Daddy’s passing – and yes, I did and still do call him “Daddy” (as Rod Dreher does his father) (when challenged on it as being a “childish” name for one’s father, my response has been and continues to be, “If it’s good enough for J. R. Ewing to call Jock, it’s good enough for me”). Again, make no mistake, there was not a lack of love between my father and myself; there was simply a lack of common interests, maybe even of comprehension, honestly going both ways. The same is true of myself and my brother, and although he and I enjoy a good relationship now it’s never been a really close relationship. Such was exactly the relationship that Rod Dreher possessed with his father and his sister – founded unquestionably in love but separated from them by a wall of incomprehension. Yes, there is a lot in common between the Hares of Swartz, Louisiana, and the Drehers of Starhill, Louisiana – plenty for me to connect to.

But there are differences, most notably that my sibling is alive and well. Thus far this review of The Little Way of Ruthie Leming has barely mentioned Ruthie Dreher Leming, even once I turned from my personal contextualization of how I came to read it to discussing the book itself. It’s been all about Rod Dreher – and myself. In fact, the book is as much an autobiography of Dreher as it is about his sister, her diagnosis and battle with cancer, her death and its aftermath. Both threads are frankly and sensitively told; have tissues handy as you read the ordeal that Ruthie endured and how it affected those around her. But most of all this is a book about how his sister's losing battle changed Dreher, engendering in him a reassessment of his entire life and his core assumptions, and ultimately inspired him to return to his roots, to attempt to go back home again.

Most crucially, Dreher witnessed how the entire community of Starhill, indeed the greater local community of St. Francisville and East Feliciana (the parish of which St. Francisville is the seat – in Louisiana, what the other states call counties, we call parishes) came together in support of his sister, her family, and her parents, as they all went through the year-and-a-half battle together. He witnessed how the simple faith and goodness of a sister with whom he had a mostly amicable but sometimes strained and by no means close relationship drew people whom she had influenced, often through her teaching, back from where they had moved sometimes hundreds of miles away to be part of the support given to the Leming and Dreher families. And he realized that such a deeply rooted network was quite simply unavailable to him and his own wife and children, who were essentially rootless from frequent moves over the course of his career. They had acquaintances, even friends, in many places, but not the deep, abiding relationships formed over a lifetime and even spanning generations. The lack of those resources can be, however, devastating in a time of crisis such as confronted the Leming-Dreher families in 2010-2011:

Never would I have imagined that I would spend the morning of my little sister’s forty-third birthday in the graveyard, watching workmen heave her tombstone into place. But nobody ever things about these things when they’re young. Nobody things about limits, and how much we need each other. But if you live long enough, you see suffering. It comes close to you. It shatters the illusion, so dear to us, of self-sufficiency, of autonomy, of control. Look, a wife and mother, a good woman in the prime of her life, dying from cancer. It doesn’t just happen to other people. It happens to your family. What do you do then?

The insurance company, if you’re lucky enough to have insurance, pays your doctors and pharmacists, but it will not cook for you when you are too sick to cook for yourself and your kids. Nor will it clean your house, pick your kids up from school, or take them shopping when you are too weak to get out of bed. A bureaucrat from the state or the insurance company won’t come sit with you, and pray with you, and tell you she loves you. It won’t be the government or your insurer who allows you to die in peace, if it comes to that, because it can assure you that your spouse and children will not be left behind to face the world alone.

Only your family and your community can do that.

Because of our own mutual brokenness, the considerable affection Ruthie and I had for each other did not penetrate either of our hearts as it ought to have done. But through Abby, Tim, Laura, Big Show, John Bickman, the barefoot pallbearers, and everyone else in the town who held our family close, and held us up when we couldn’t stand on our own two feet, I was able to see the effect of Ruthie’s love, given and returned, in steadfast acts of ordinary faith, hope, and charity. The little way of Ruthie Leming is the plainest thing in the world, something any of us could choose. And yet so few of us do. …

I have wandered in my own way for half my life, and have no regrets. That was my role for a time. Now, though, I want to track, at my own pace and rhythm, the Little Way of Ruthie Leming” (pp. 266-267/91%).

The simple faith and goodness of a small town in south Louisiana, and the people who lived there, that he had turned his back on in his youth, now called to him, and he answered, uprooting his wife and children one last time – one trusts – to come home.

Incidentally, it was in that realization that at least one aspect that must be part of the Benedict Option was born:

Coming home to the place where I grew up would not be easy, but if I was going to live more like Ruthie, I was obliged to stick it out, come what may. In this my patron saint, Benedict of Nursia, came to my aid. St. Benedict was a fifth-century Italian monk who more or less founded monasticism in the West. In his famous rule Benedict required his monks take a vow of what he called ‘stability.’ That means that the monastery in which Benedictine monks profess their vows will in most cases be their home for the rest of their lives. St. Benedict considered the kinds of monks who moved from place to place all the time to be the worst of all. They refused the discipline of place and community, and because of that, they could never know humility. Without humility they could never be happy.

The implication for me was clear: if I wanted to know the inner peace and happiness in community that Ruthie had, I needed to practice a rule of stability. Accept the limitations of a place, in humility, and the joys that can also be found there may open themselves” (p. 224/77%).

But, to return to the necessity of family and community in a time of crisis, I have had that impressed upon me once again over just the past few days, with the sudden severe illness of a friend of several years, a member of the Bible study group I lead on Monday nights. On the Saturday just previous, after a headache mounting over several days the pain was so intense as to cause nausea and – surprising to hear of from a big, strapping, healthy man such as he is – a plea for his wife to take him to the Emergency Room of the local hospital. There it was determined that he was suffering from a brain aneurysm. He was immediately airlifted to Shreveport where he underwent a procedure to alleviate the condition. He is still in Intensive Care, and will be for several days, but is reportedly doing excellent considering the seriousness of the situation.
I relate this story for a couple of reasons: First, because it was Sunday morning, sitting up in the ICU waiting room with my wife and his, that I finished reading The Little Way of Ruthie Leming; Second, because, in that context, with a friend’s – and by extension, my own – mortality very much on my mind, I did some deep thinking about how we, my wife and I, could find our own “Little Way of Ruthie Leming.” We were, of course, up there to offer support to our friends – whom we have known for only about seven or eight years. None of us are natives of the community in which we now live: My wife and I grew up in separate towns at opposite ends of Louisiana, then lived a half-dozen years in south Arkansas before a decade in Baton Rouge and ultimately the past fifteen years here in Natchitoches; Our friends, a few years older than us, moved here to Natchitoches from Ohio about eight years ago, shortly before we met. My wife and I were not the only ones making the hour-plus trek to Shreveport, either; and phone calls as well as emails and Facebook messages were flooding in, assuring our friends of support, love, and most importantly prayers. Partly it has to do with the fact that our friends are genuinely good people, but I think also with the fact that she, especially, has been heavily involved in our church and community in various capacities from the moment they set foot in it. Both are important considerations in assessing the astonishing outpouring of love, prayers, and support, that came as word of his condition spread, but I want to focus on the latter here. The sense of “community” that is key to the “Little Way” is doubtless enhanced by ties of blood and years or generations of geographically-based roots, but it can be based on other things as well, most obviously – as in this case – in faith. Some time back I came upon an article arguing, if I recall correctly, that when a total societal collapse comes (as seems more and more inevitable), those people who are well-integrated in some kind of faith-based community will stand the best chance of survival. As is often the case when I come across these things in passing, I read it, find it interesting but move on … and cannot find it again. Nonetheless, especially after what I witnessed this past weekend, I think there is a lot of truth in the idea. And although I would be the last to say that ties of blood are not crucial to the idea of “family” – despite current misguided efforts to redefine that societal institution as a corollary to the attempted redefinition of marriage – a sense of family need not be limited to ties of blood. In one of her conversations with relatives in Ohio, our friend assured them that she was not facing the situation alone because some of her “Natchitoches family” were there along with her.

The point is that, even in today’s society where many of us have been uprooted from our native communities to make new homes sometimes far from where we began, and far from any others with whom we share a relationship based in blood, the “Little Way of Ruthie Leming” is still there to be found and followed. And that is a great comfort as I and my wife slowly advance in years in a town that was neither of our home until fifteen years ago but from which we have no intention of departing short of death – or, as in the case of the Dreher and Leming families or my own friends this past weekend, face the unknown possibility of a crisis that could strike tomorrow – I believe we do have those who love us, will pray for us, and support us to carry us through whatever comes.

Of course, there is a saying, “You can't go home again,” and Dreher's story could well have ended, to be continued....

That's what I'm currently reading.

Thanks for your reading.
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* In the course of writing the later parts of this post I found another by Zmirak which actually, in my opinion, goes beyond vociferous to what I may term uncharitably strident and niggling: “The Benedict Option Isn’t One,” The Intercollegiate Review (20 July 2015, LINK).

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