From the first day of her diagnosis until the morning she died at home in her husband Mike’s arms, Ruthie showed extraordinary faith, hope, and courage in the face of death. Everybody could see the greatness in that. What was harder to discern was the greatness with which she had lived every ordinary day of her very ordinary life.
Ruthie was a small-town schoolteacher who lived and worked in a poor state in the Deep South. She was modest and frugal, and hated calling attention to herself. All Ruthie wanted out of life was to be with her family, teach her students (she called them “sweet babies”), and have fun with her friends. That, and to fish on our father’s pond.
She never became rich or famous, and never wanted to. Reading 17-year-old Ruthie’s letters to Mike at military boot camp, the impressive thing is how satisfied she was with the simple things in life. This is how Ruthie Leming lived. This is who she was.
Two months after her cancer diagnosis, some friends hosted a fundraising concert they called Leming-Aid. Ruthie thought she didn’t deserve it, but the community wouldn’t be stopped. They wanted to show Ruthie how much they loved her, and how much she meant to them. Over 1,000 people – more than half the town – came out for Ruthie that night.
“We love her so much. She has given so much to our family,” said one woman. Ruthie had taught the woman’s children. That woman had driven six hours, from Houston, to be there for Ruthie on her big night.
After Ruthie died, the line outside the Methodist church at her wake was hours long. Over and over, I heard the same story from mourners, especially former students: Let me tell you what a difference Ruthie made in our lives.
In thinking about the spiritual grandeur hidden within Ruthie’s ordinary life, I thought of another young Christian woman who lived plainly and died early: St. Therese of Lisieux.
Therese was a French nun who lived a quiet convent life. Like Ruthie, she loved simplicity. She knew that she was not made to do glorious things in life, but believed she could make God happy if she did small things with a big heart. “What matters in life,” wrote Therese, “are not great deeds, but great love.”
Catholics love St. Therese because of her everydayness. She shows us the possibility to achieve spiritual greatness – that is, holiness – no matter what our station in life. Therese saw her humble circumstances not as a limitation, but as the ground of her spirituality and journey to God. Ruthie Leming, a Methodist who lived and died not in 19th century France, but in 21st century America, never heard of Therese of Lisieux. But she knew the little way, because she walked it herself all her life.
Yes, we need examples of Christians who distinguished themselves as preachers, martyrs, defenders of the weak and servants of the poor. But we also need the examples of Christians like Therese and Ruthie, believers who show us how to accept the calling of everyday life, and to embrace the blessedness of ordinary things.
When we get discouraged, we tell ourselves that our lives are small and boring. But that is an illusion. I know this because I stood at the front of that church, next to the cancer-ravaged body of my sister, who lived and died in a tiny place in the middle of nowhere, and heard strangers tell me how she had changed their lives by her love.
One of her former students, Shannon Nixon, a child from an extremely poor, badly broken family, told me that Ruthie was the first adult who ever showed her love, and taught her to believe in herself. With Ruthie’s inspiration and support, that woman became now a wife, mother, and has found great professional success. “Ruthie was my angel,” she said.
Ruthie changed my life, too: after her funeral, my wife and I decided to move to my hometown, and to do our best to walk the little way of Ruthie Leming.
Whether God asks you to walk the halls of a convent and a chapel like Therese, or the halls of a middle school and the aisles of Wal-Mart, as Ruthie did, the chance to be a saint is always before us. It is a tragedy not to take it. The little way is long, but it is not hard, not if you take it one small step at a time.
Rod Dreher is a Beliefnet columnist and the author of The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming, which has just been published by Grand Central. Follow him on Twitter @roddreher, or connect with him at the Rod Dreher fan page on Facebook.