In The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, his recent memoir about his sister’s death and his return to small town Louisiana, journalist Rod Dreher explores fundamental questions about what a life well lived looks like. While we are sometimes captivated by grand visions of changing the world, Dreher gives us a peek into cultural change that is local. But local doesn’t mean small or insignificant. “God sees things differently,” he says. In this conversation w—a prelude to a longer interview that will appear in our Winter 2014 issue—Dreher, who is Senior Editor at The American Conservative magazine and author of an earlier book, Crunchy Cons, invites us to see the significance of “little ways.”
—James K.A. Smith, Editor
James K.A. Smith: The Little Way of Ruthie Leming is such a beautiful book. My wife and I both read it on planes and felt like flight attendants were looking at us, puzzled, while we were in tears.
What’s beautiful is how Ruthie’s story testifies to a kind of sainthood out of the limelight—this sense that lives that matter and have significance and have repercussion aren’t always lives of celebrity. At the same time, you’re really challenging what a lot of us think of as the good life. I guess by “us” I mean those of us who live the sort of educated, enlightened, supposedly cosmopolitan lives that are often held up as an ideal. Was that part of the goal?
Rod Dreher: A lot of these goals I’m only learning about after the fact. I wrote this book five months after her death not because I wanted to write it so soon, but because that’s when the book deal was made. It was all still very raw. I interviewed Ruthie’s family, Ruthie’s friends. It was all still raw for them, and they didn’t have time to make her into Saint Ruthie yet. So I wrote it from my heart, and I didn’t put a lot of artifice in there. I could go back now and see it and see what was happening within me and within the community.
JKAS: So you didn’t really have an end game in mind of thinking, “Now here’s the story I want to write because it’s going to push back on our cosmopolitan ideals of the good life”?
RD: Yes, I wanted to do that because that’s what had happened within me. That was the conversion I experienced, and the precise moment of conversion was standing out under the live oak tree in front of the Methodist church in town at Ruthie’s wake, when my wife and I had lost the farmhouse we’d wanted to rent in Bucks County and realized how relieved we were. That’s when we both knew that we had been changed. What happened was it had been a long time coming, this revelation about the life my sister had back in our small town, as a teacher, as a mom, as a neighbour, as a wife, as a daughter. I knew it was a good life, in the sense of being morally reputable. She was happy.
What I didn’t know—until watching the way the town responded to her and her fidelity to them over the years and her fidelity to that place and to their children—was the depth of the goodness. In fact, it was not only a good life; it was a great life.
It really came to a head for me standing by her body at her wake in the Methodist church. It was mid September, still hot in Louisiana. It was humid. The church was steamy. There were mosquitoes coming in because the line for her wake stretched out the door and down the street. This is a town of 1,700 people. The condolence book filled at a 1,000. And people were still coming down the street.
Talking to people . . . a lot of them I had never known. They were significantly younger than me. I hadn’t lived in this town in twenty-five years or more. They would say, “Sir, you don’t know me. She was my teacher. Here’s what she did for me.” Just being gobsmacked by the difference she had made. I tell some of these stories in Little Way. There was a young African American girl who was one of her first students from one of the most broken, poorest families in town, and Ruthie gave her hope. She now works at the neuropsych center at UCLA. She’s fulfilled her dream and gotten out of poverty and broken the cycle. Three of her brothers are in prison, and she said, “Your sister was my angel.”
Ruthie was a very simple person. She just wanted to live by her heart, serve God. She was not theologically sophisticated. What a testimony to me, the brother who lives in books and lives in ideas, about what life really could mean, what it should mean. All my theology, all my cosmopolitanism, it won’t do a thing. You’ve got to have your community and your faith, so I wanted people to see that.
Ruth lived the ideas that people like me and my fraternity of intellectual types talk about when we go on about “home” and “place” and Wendell Berry. Ruthie wouldn’t have known Wendell Berry from Franken Berry, but she lived it.
JKAS: You left your small hometown in order to “change the world,” with an interest in impacting culture, changing culture from positions of influence. Yet, it turns out that Ruthie also powerfully changed culture by being rooted and, as you put it, being faithful to her callings locally. Then you see the ripple effects of it, like the young woman who eventually makes it to UCLA, and so many other stories you tell in the book. I think there’s a new generation of Christians who are interested in being culturally engaged and seeking to renew the culture, but then that quickly becomes a penchant to “change the world,” when maybe it’s enough to just change our place.
RD: Change your world.
JKAS: Right: Don’t worry about changing “the” world. Change your world.
RD: I think the Hasidic Jews have a statement that each time someone dies, a universe dies. There’s a lot of wisdom in that. My sister changed the world dramatically for some poor children who had no hope otherwise. She hadn’t set out to change the world; she set out to be a good teacher, a good neighbour.
That’s not to say coming home was easy. As I note in the book, in some ways we have not been welcome. That’s been difficult. But through that difficulty, I stumbled into Dante’s Divine Comedy.
JKAS: Which is now the focus of your next book, How Dante Can Save Your Life.
RD: That’s right. I was in a bookstore, when all this was going on, and picked it up just by happenstance, and read the first tercet about how he came to himself in a dark wood in the middle of our life, for he had lost the straight path. I said “Me too.” I came home expecting homecoming and home turned out to be a dark wood. What do you do now?
By the time I worked through it, God had worked such a healing within me. It didn’t make my dad change his mind, but it helped me to be healed.
JKAS: Clearly an antidote to any romanticism about return or “place” or the small town idyll. While you recognize its virtues, you could never be suckered into Mayberry-izing it.
RD: No, no. You’re absolutely right. Even though I knew that I wasn’t moving back to Mayberry, I still had such ideals. I thought that my sister’s death . . . the graces that came forth there, the transformative graces that worked such a healing within my own heart of alienation from my home town and its culture, I thought that would be over and done, that was that, and it had worked the same healing within my family system.
It didn’t happen, and what I learned from Dante—who wrote the Commedia in exile—I learned how to depend on God. I learned how to forgive them and the importance of forgiving them. I learned about love and that sin as disordered love. I now understand when people tell me “Your sister loved you so much.” I couldn’t believe it because if she loved me, why wouldn’t she forgive me? Why did she harbour this grudge and poison her children’s minds against me? I came to see that she did love me, but for her, in her pride, in her blindness, she thought loving me meant she had to reject me for having betrayed the covenant.
JKAS: It’s funny: when I got to the end of your book, the book that came to mind, for me, was Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again. But I never thought that, actually, the book would be Dante’s Paradiso.
RD: We are all pilgrims. We’re all living in exile. We’ll only ever be home in the next life. So accept that there is no going home in this life. I see the error that my dad made. . . . And he confesses this, not in those terms, but it comes out in Little Way. He deified family and place and sacrificed his life to false gods. I realized when considering all this in the midst of my own crisis last fall, when it all came to a head, that I was looking for false security.
I realized that here I was, I’m still in pilgrimage in the desert. I was looking back to Egypt and the comfort of the idols of Egypt, and God was calling me: “No. You’ve got to keep moving forward. I have something for you.”
JKAS: You kind of wanted the resolution of the eschaton before its coming.
RD: Exactly, exactly. What does this have to say to our public life? When people read The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, I don’t want them to think, “We must all move to a small town”, but I do want them to consider that maybe you should go home. Maybe you have a calling there that you can do great work there. Changing the world doesn’t mean becoming a great theologian or a pastor or a great journalist or whatever it is. God sees things differently. We have to see it through his eyes.
But also if you go home, or if you don’t go home, wherever you live, really live there. Work to live in community, but don’t think that there is utopia here. Utopia cannot be bought here or obtained here. As a conservative, I ought to have known that.
JKAS: But there are so many forces that encourage us to forget that. We were talking about Jim Bratt’s biography of Abraham Kuyper earlier. On the one hand, Kuyper was somebody who was quite taken with really grand visions of social architectural renewal, which I think are inspiring and inform a lot of what I care about.
But Kuyper had a critic, later in the twentieth century, a totally minor Dutch theologian named Klaas Schilder, who saw how many Christians had been captivated by this, “Oh, I’ve got to move to Manhattan and change the world” mentality. In contrast, Schilder cautions, “Don’t underestimate your wise ward elder. He is a cultural force when he visits homes and prays with the sick.” To me, that’s kind of the lesson of The Little Way of Ruthie Leming in a nutshell: that God can both be working and calling people to both of those kinds of vocations. For some reason, we fall off the wagon, one way or the other, so easily.
RD: One of the greatest lessons my sister taught me when she was sick . . . I would call her from Philadelphia, and I would be overcome with despair over what she was suffering and the injustice of it all. She would calm me down and say, “Hey, we just don’t know what God is going to do with this.” For her, it wasn’t just a pious platitude. She meant that. Every time I get a letter from a reader of the book talking about what this book meant and Ruthie’s story meant to them (and they are letters that will just rip your heart out; people are honest), I share it with my mom and dad, and my dad always sits there in his armchair and cries because he’s still grieving. I say, “This is a vindication of her prophesy, because God is working miracles of healing in people’s lives.”
By the way, I should say I don’t talk like this normally. I really try to be cynical and worldly, but when you see what’s happening because of this story, it’s hard to be cynical.
RD: The title of the book, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, comes from St. Therese.
JKAS: That’s what I assumed.
RD: St. Therese, for your readers who don’t know her, was a Catholic saint, who died at age 24. Died young of tuberculosis in a convent in France in the late nineteenth century. She was a nobody. Came from a faithful family, but she was a nobody. Kind of a flibbertigibbet within the convent. After she died, the Mother Superior sent one of the nuns into her room to collect her things, and they found her writings there. They started reading them, and the scales fell from their eyes. They’d realized they had something extraordinary there within their own community.
Within thirty years, Therese was declared a saint and not just a saint. Pope John Paul II on her 100th anniversary of her death declared her a Doctor of the Church, which for Catholics means she was one of the rare saints that has the power to teach the essence of Christianity. She’s recognized as a great teacher. What did she teach? She was just a 24-year-old girl. She taught simplicity. She taught holiness through simplicity. She called it her little way. My sister was not a Catholic. She was a Methodist and not a particularly well-informed Methodist at that, but I think she was a saint because she showed how the simple life in an out of the way place can lead to greatness and to holiness.
That’s the encouragement I want to bring to people who read the book: don’t think your life doesn’t mean anything. God sees, and the people around you see. You never know what God is going to do with that. We’re all part of the great chain. That’s what Dante says too. You see over and over in El Purgatorio about the meaning of community, how Dante has to relearn this about how the chains of connection between the living and the dead, between the people in the community pray for us. What can I do for you? That’s something I’ve had to learn, not because I consciously rejected community, but it’s so easy to forget.