Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher


The Little Way of Ruthie Leming

posted by Rod Dreher

This morning we at Templeton launched a new online version of our magazine In Character, which ceases print publication with its current issue. IC is going to be a web-only publication now, and will be updated frequently. Check it out and let us know what you think. Our lead essay is a funny reflection by Joe Queenan on how the phrase “the buck stops here” has lost all its resonance, becoming now a tool leaders use to avoid responsibility. There’s also a review essay by Charlotte Hays, reflections on war and peace by Nat Hentoff, Johann Christoph Arnold and Metropolitan Jonah of the OCA, and other great stuff.
I contributed an essay distilling the random musings from this blog about my sister Ruthie’s struggle with cancer. I call it “The Little Way of Ruthie Leming.” Excerpt:

Back in Philadelphia, I phoned Ruthie one night to check on her. We spoke at length, despite her labored breathing, of the marvelous things that have come about because of her pain. So moved was I by her example that I reached out to people from whom I’d been estranged to ask their forgiveness; exchanging mutual forgiveness, a cousin and I healed a ten-year rift. Many others who know Ruthie report doing the same thing. A young hospital nurse who treated her for only a single shift wrote on the Internet that seeing Ruthie, alone of all her patients, respond to bad news without losing her smile restored her faith in the goodness of God, and made her decide not to live with bitterness. Lives are being changed. Ruthie told me that she believes that in some mysterious way, God is using her suffering for the greater good.
“I know I’m standing right in the middle of God’s will, where He wants me to be,” she said. With Ruthie, who has always worn her piety lightly, it’s not a sentimental cliché. It really is as simple as that with my sister.
I’ve thought in the days since I returned home about the meaning of virtue. Look on my bookshelf and you’ll find volumes of moral philosophy and works of theological speculation. I’ve spent much of my life thinking about God, and what it means to be good. I know a lot about this stuff, but Ruthie has actually lived it, without fanfare or deliberation, doubt or agony. She has never, at least not to my knowledge, done anything dramatically good or ostentatiously noble. Rather, she has humbly practiced everyday virtue over the course of her lifetime, showing us that heroic virtue is not just for the conventionally heroic (like, say, her husband, Mike, a firefighter and decorated Iraq war veteran). Without quite meaning to, as she faces the possibility of her own death, my sister is showing us all what it means to live well.

ruthie little flower cropped.jpg
“What matters in life are not great deeds, but great love,” said St. Therese of Lisieux, the French Carmelite called to suffer unto death early in her life. Therese wrote that great deeds were forbidden her, so all that was left to her were modest acts of love she called “scattering flowers.” After her death and canonization, Therese’s simple method of sanctification became known as the “Little Way.” It, like love, never fails. I’m seeing it for myself. An entire town is. Many of us who have strayed from the right path are returning in light of this revelation in the darkness of disease. And in its way, that is a miracle.

Read the whole thing at InCharacter.org. The role of place in this drama is something I’d like to think about this morning. I’m not talking about the virtues of our hometown, though those are present. Nor am I talking about the virtues of a small town, necessarily, because what I’m interested in can be present just as well in a big city. No, what interests me is the part taken by what the Benedictines would call stability.
Monks of the Benedictine order take vows of “stability,” meaning that they promise to remain in the monastery where they took their vows until the end of their lives, barring an extraordinary intervention. The idea is critical to the Benedictine way, because it commits the monks to living with, celebrating with, and suffering with, each other, in community, and in turn with the community of laypeople they serve. In my sister’s case, she chose to stay in our hometown (indeed, she and Mike are raising their girls right across the field from our parents’ house, where we grew up), not out of a sense of duty, but because she loved it there. It always felt like home to her. With the exception of the four years she was in Baton Rouge at college (only 30 miles away), she’s lived in St. Francisville all her life. People know her there; they always have. They’ve seen her character show itself over the course of 40 years. They know who she is; in most ways, I think, they know who she is better than her own brother, who is not (he hopes) a bad person, but who simply hasn’t been there to see all the little acts of charity and kindness that amount, over a lifetime, to the habit of virtue.
Now, had Ruthie lived in New York City, and developed through her church and neighborhood institutions a web of friendship, she might be in the same situation today: surrounded by a dense network of people showing her and her family love, and carrying them through this dark period in their lives. So it’s not just a small-town thing, at least I don’t think it is. What it is, however, is a matter of stability. We are such a hyper-mobile society, and think nothing of picking up and moving all over the place for the sake of career. I am a perfect example of this. Because of this, though, we cannot develop the kinds of thickly and deeply rooted relationships that we might if we had stayed in one place. Some of us lie to ourselves about this, in the same way that working parents tell themselves that they can adequately compensate for time away from their children by making sure the time they do spend with the kids is “quality time.” But in truth, there is no substitute for being there.
What a revelation it is to watch the community care for Ruthie and her family! One day, when this drama is done, I’m going to write more about this. I am only sorry that I can’t see it every day, because it’s a beautiful thing. I expected Julie to return sad from her four-day trip down there, and she was, but it was that bright sadness I wrote about – sorrowful over Ruthie’s suffering, but also glowing from the radiant love surrounding my sister and all those attending her. You can’t easily generate that spontaneously. It takes time, and stillness, and patience.
This is part of what Wendell Berry has called, in his essay of the same name, “the work of local culture” (collected in his book, “What Are People For?”). It cannot be conjured or forced. You cannot buy it at the mall. It has to emerge slowly, from the work of human hands and human hearts. Berry writes:

This loss of local knowledge and local memory–that is, of local culture–has been ignored, or written off as one of the cheaper “prices of progress,” or made the business of folklorists. Nevertheless, local culture has a value, and part of its value is economic. This can be demonstrated readily enough. …[But] when a community loses its memory, its members no longer know one another. How can they know one another if they have forgotten or have never learned one another’s stories? If they do not know one another’s stories, how can they know whether or not to trust one another? People who do not trust one another do not help one another, and moreover they fear one another. And this is our predicament now. Because of a general distrust and suspicion, we not only lose one another’s help and companionship, but we are all now living in jeopardy of being sued.

And we are, many of us, in greater danger of suffering alone, because no one knows our stories. Contemplating the role of place in Ruthie’s “little way” brings me finally to this 2005 essay by Peter Augustine Lawler, on how the health care crisis reveals a hidden weakness in our conception of ourselves as independent free agents, whose freedom is measured by our ability to go wherever we want, do whatever we like, and live as we please. Excerpt:

We may well have a crisis today because aging citizens look too quickly to the government and not to themselves in securing their financial futures. But we have another, surely more intractable crisis, as the individual’s need for care increases in a society where the ties of family and fidelity have often weakened and the supply of voluntary caregivers has diminished. No government program, insurance policy, or personal savings account could possibly replace what Americans have done for one another without compensation.
This potential crisis in long-term care is due in part to the last century’s great advances in medicine. People are living longer and longer, but often at the price of living with severe infirmities–bodily or mental–that render them incapable of taking care of themselves for long periods of old age. At the same time, fewer and fewer people are available to serve as voluntary caregivers: today’s baby boomers had fewer children than their parents; these grown children are more geographically dispersed; and family bonds are increasingly complicated by the high percentage of divorce. And there is no reason to believe that there will be enough professional caregivers to fill these gaps. The cost of decent professional care is increasingly daunting, and fewer and fewer of us will be able to provide it ourselves or pay others to provide it well for those we love.
But this crisis does not arise simply from demographic shifts or shortages of manpower and money. It is, at bottom, a crisis of culture, a crisis about “caring,” a product of our society’s opinions on freedom, dependence, and care. It confronts us with one of the peculiar ironies of our time: The more we understand ourselves as independent of others (i.e., in pursuit of our own self-interest and self-preservation), the more dependent we ultimately become on others (i.e., more in need of the care that all human beings rely upon, especially in their old age). Our spirit of ownership and the realities of our dependence inevitably come into conflict, and this conflict is not easily resolved.

As we face our own mortality — as all of us must; Ruthie just has to stare it down earlier than most — we have to consider: who is more free? A person like me, who made no long-term commitment to a single place (hometown or not) but kept himself at liberty to move wherever he wanted to go; or a person like my sister, who, having submitted herself to the disciplines of place, now finds herself at liberty to confront this crisis with joy, knowing that an entire community has got her back, and will care for her husband, her children and her parents?
[Photo of Ruthie Leming courtesy of the gifted Jeannie Frey Rhodes, who shot it last week in Starhill.]



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trotsky

posted March 2, 2010 at 11:52 am


Web only? Rats. In Character’s the kind of book that bears reading in the calm of the bathtub. Oh well, at least you’ve still got Queenan.



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bill holston

posted March 2, 2010 at 2:23 pm


Excellent post about stability. I feel like I’ve lived very counter culturally in that regard. Married for 25 years, same church for 20 years, same house for about 24 years, same job for over 20 years.
There are times I feel like I don’t get the pay off for that stability, however because in most of those, I am the exception. Say with regard to church. The people who have stayed in our church have the benefit of history and context. I taught some of the college age kids, when they were 2. That sense of history and connection can’t be created anew.
Your sister is seeing the benefit of that grounding.
I know of a legal case, where the people are settling a personal injury case and returning to Africa, because it is much more likely neighbors will be helpful in caring for this injured person long run. Here, she does not know the neighbors.



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MikeW

posted March 2, 2010 at 2:44 pm


“…who is more free? A person like me…”
I don’t think that’s the right question, Rod. There’s stability of place and stability of relationship, and I think it is easy to confuse the two. Your sister is certainly reaping the benefits of living her entire life in one community, but I suspect the response to her cancer would be different if she wasn’t the type of person that she is. People love her and her family not because she’s a local, but because of who she is.
When asked for advice from some graduating seniors, Kurt Vonnegut thought for a moment and then told everyone to make sure they were part of a “tribe.” Get in a community, in other words. And that’s great advice. But I don’t think that means that everyone should stay put their entire lives. That’s great for some, but not for everyone, and I’m one who has enjoyed and benefited from living and working in many different places. I also happen to come from a family of wanderers from way back, so the idea of staying rooted in one place isn’t part of my gene pool. On the other hand, relationships are really important to me. Some of my best friends — my tribe — I’ve had for decades, and my wife and I just celebrated our 32nd wedding anniversary.
Best regards,
Mike



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Japhy Ryder

posted March 3, 2010 at 11:56 am


Rod, thanks for the post.
I’m reminded of an essay, since forgotten the title and author though it’s probably at my parents house with my college papers, that talked about Hero’s vs. being heroic.
The gist of the article was that living your life everyday, doing the right things, taking care of your family, participating in the community, teaching your children and raising them correctly, is the everyday, heroic actions that people (can) do – as opposed to the running in a burning house and saving a kitten.
Your sister strikes me as living this out and is who is now reaping the benefits in living a quietly heroic life, albeit in a time of great pain.
I wish her and her family the best in all this.



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