"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Little Way of Ruthie Leming

As an editor for more than a decade now, I have gone through a lot of texts, and it is exceedingly rare--in fact, so rare I cannot recall a recent example--that, having finished a manuscript, I think "I wouldn't change a word." But I thought that after finishing Rod Dreher's new book The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life (Grand Central, 2013), 288pp. 

Dreher is an Orthodox blogger whom I've read for years now. In fact, given the high level of nonsense on the Web, and the very few hours in the day at my disposal, I restrict my blog-reading to a tiny handful, and Dreher is one of only two blogs I permit myself to check each day. Unlike too many other Orthodox bloggers, he does not bore one into a condition of coma by sanctimoniously conjuring up proofs of the superiority of Orthodoxy or railing against the "pan-heresy of ecumenism" or other such nonsense. Rather, he writes about an interesting mix of topics in our culture today--from the politics of food and cooking to travel, community life, the challenges of raising children, and much else besides--in sum, what makes for a good life not understood individualistically but communally. I do not always agree with him, but he has the singular merit of raising interesting and important questions.

I read his 2006 book Crunchy Cons: The New Conservative Counterculture and Its Return to Roots. There is much in there to agree with, but much to disagree with also. His tone did not, I thought, endear him to those who would otherwise agree with him. But I've been accused of the same thing. As someone who worked for Greenpeace for a time, who sought single-handedly to convince his Anglican parish in southwestern Ontario to become "green" in the 1980s before it was trendy, and who retains, to some, a puzzling mix of revanchist theological views and "leftist" ideas on food, agriculture, community, and economics, I relate very strongly to Dreher's defying of conventional political categories.

In his latest book, I relate to him even more strongly. In fact, it is uncanny how much his recent life has been similar to mine:
  • his younger sister died unexpectedly of advanced cancer in 2011 as did mine, leaving three children (as did my sister);
  • her small town rallied around her, as did my sister Becky's community, albeit on a smaller scale;
  • his parents were married in 1964 as were mine, and his mother is named Dorothy as is mine;
  • her relationship to him was complicated as mine was to my sister, in part because of our very different backgrounds and preoccupations.
That is all by way of preface to say that I read this book with more than usual scholarly dispassion. It is, in fact, a deeply moving and very poignant book looking at what happened to his sister Ruthie upon her diagnosis with aggressive and highly advanced lung cancer--this in a non-smoker who had done all the "right" things in life (as my own sister had done)--never smoking, eating healthily, etc. Cancer is never pleasant but it seems especially cruel in a young mother with young children. But Ruthie never raged against the Fates, never dared go beyond Job to insolently demand answers of God. Again and again she encouraged others simply to accept what had happened, and to commit to not getting angry with God over this. She put her trust in God and the doctors, and never demanded to know more than was required. Her brother found this a staggering approach, as I would too.

When Becky was diagnosed in 2008, she called me up and asked me "What am I supposed to learn from this?" Being a boring and unimaginative academic, I turned the question back to her (because I sure as hell didn't have any good answers) and said "Well, what do you think you are to learn?" She had no good answers then, and I don't know if  she acquired any in the next three years. At one point I wrote her a letter when snatches of something I had read in my adolescence came back to me: parts of the letters of Rainer Maria Rilke, including the fourth letter where Rilke says:

to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

My sending her that may have been a dodge for my own lack of answers, though in my defense I did think of something Alasdair MacIntyre said of Edith Stein in his important prosopographical study, Edith Stein: A Philosophical Prologue, 1913-1922:  that Stein, her life also cut short by the Nazis in Auschwitz, deserved to be remembered not so much for her answers to philosophical problems (she studied under Husserl) as for the very questions she posed, questions MacIntyre said were of perduring relevance and importance. (I've discussed Stein and MacIntyre elsewhere.) Becky's question could, I discovered sadly, only be answered, however haltingly, after her death nearly two years ago: she was to learn--as were we all--what an amazing group of friends she had, who rallied around her, held parties for her (including a hilarious wig party in which all came becostumed to celebrate her loss of hair), drove her to appointments, made food for her family, took her kids on especially tiresome days, and, perhaps most extraordinarily, raised funds to send her on a trip to Ireland--a life-long dream of Becky's she could not realize, cancelling the trip in late May 2011 when the cancer was found to have moved from her breast not merely to her lungs but then to her brain. The answer to her question, in fact, was captured by the Irish poet W.B Yeats: "Think where man's glory most begins and ends/And say my glory was I had such friends."

The raising of questions, as MacIntyre has said elsewhere, can result in an "epistemological crisis" in which the foundations of what you thought you knew crumble as a result of new insights or challenges. In such a crisis, MacIntyre says most people do one of three things: collapse and admit defeat; retrench and refuse engagement (and thus likely sink into justified obscurity); or engage, change, and survive, albeit in different form. The remarkable thing about Ruthie Leming is that she underwent no such crisis, but continued to have a simple and unswerving faith in God. This was a revelation to Dreher, whose life as a journalist and writer has consisted precisely in raising of difficult questions, probing the dark areas of human life (e.g., priestly sexual abuse) and the role of evil in the world. But--in what I found to be one of the most searing insights in the book--he realizes that whether Ruthie kept up with her trust, or gave into a consuming and tireless quest for answers, would make virtually no difference to the outcome of her life, and might, in fact, have shortened it with worry.

In her trust, combined with much else, Dreher sees the makings of a saint, but not in that ghastly treacly way too much hagiography would have us believe (the Orthodox priest and theologian, and my friend, Michael Plekon, being the happy exception). Dreher does not sing her praises unreservedly. Rather, it was her submitting to the "little way," the way of being a school teacher in a little town, doing little things but with great love, that Dreher finds examples of his sister's holiness. This is magnified, of course, in her submitting to the journey with cancer that took her to her grave, but that journey was of a piece with her whole life. Dreher, like Plekon's portrayals of holy figures in our time, has not edited out the "warts" in his sister's life. There are in fact moments in which she acts towards her brother with a stunning lack of grace--e.g., turning down a lovely dinner Dreher and his wife had labored all day to prepare because it was too posh. But as anyone who understands sanctity knows, it has little if anything to do with being "nice" or conforming to tidy bourgeois notions of what constitutes "good" behavior. There are plenty of saints who could be perfect asses at certain moments.

In this regard I think often of what the great Evelyn Waugh said of Helena, the central character in his splendid historical novel--a book he regarded as his magnum opus even if most readers and critics did not. (It's full of hilarious anachronisms, buried puns, and other wonderful jokes.) Writing to John Betjeman in November 1950, Waugh said:
I liked Helena's sanctity because it is in contrast to all that moderns think of as sanctity. She wasn't thrown to the lions, she wasn't a contemplative, she wasn't poor and hungry, she didn't look like an El Greco. She just discovered what it was God had chosen for her to do and did it.  And she snubbed Aldous Huxley with his perennial fog by going straight to the essential physical historical fact of the redemption.

I could go on and on, and already have. In the coming weeks I hope to interview Dreher. But for now, I very warmly commend to you a book that avoids treacly hagiography while nonetheless telling a poignant story. It avoids simplistic answers while nonetheless raising some acutely important questions about the nature of community in our time. And it does so in a cogent, elegant manner--a splendid achievement. 

1 comment:

  1. Why don't you write like this more often? I've never been too fond of you till today, and today I realized that I've never really seen you at all till now, so what was it that I did not like? Whatever it was I hope this man-Adam stays with us.




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