"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).

Friday, June 14, 2013

An Interview with Rod Dreher

Earlier I posted some thoughts on Rod Dreher's new book, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life. I've since been able to interview him by e-mail and here are his thoughts:

AD: Tell us a bit about your background as a writer and Orthodox Christian.

RD: I've been a journalist for almost 25 years, mostly writing opinion and analysis for newspapers and magazines. I've been on staff at the New York Post, National Review, and The Dallas Morning News, among others, and am at the present time a senior editor at The American Conservative. I was a film critic for a while, but mostly have written about politics, religion, and culture. I'm a cultural conservative, but am registered as an Independent. I've lost most of my interest in politics, and have become far more interested in religious and philosophical questions and concerns. 

I washed ashore in Orthodoxy out of the shipwreck of my Roman Catholic faith. I had been a serious Catholic for 13 years, having come into Catholicism in my twenties from a mainline Protestant background. I had been philosophically oriented as a teenager, but not pious. Reading Thomas Merton, visiting the Chartres cathedral, and encountering Kierkegaard in college -- all these things awakened a sense of quest within me, which culminated, after much struggle, with my becoming Catholic. I was an ardent Catholic, intellectually oriented and, I now see, a rather political one, in a way that no doubt laid the groundwork for my undoing.

In short, I began writing about the church's sex abuse scandal in 2001, and went headlong into the muck in 2002, with the Geoghan trial in Boston, which set off the national wave of scandal revelations. At the time, I did it not in spite of being Catholic, but because I was Catholic. I loved the church and wanted to help purify it of this cancer. Plus, I was a father, and it made me sick to see how bishops and others in church authority had treated children and families. What I did not realize -- though the courageous Catholic priest Tom Doyle had tried to warn me -- was that the evil of this thing was far darker, and went much deeper, than I imagined. I was not prepared for it, especially for the lies and cutthroat behavior of bishops, including cardinals. You think you've read enough church history that you can handle just about anything, but then you talk to a father whose abused son blew his own brains out, and learn that that boy's molester had been tied to four other suicides -- and that the diocese had known about this priest's problem all along, but done nothing. Do that, and think of your own child, and how the church you loved and served would have done the same thing to you and your kid, and it works on your mind. If I had spent even half the time in prayer that I spent talking about church politics, I might have withstood this test. But I didn't, and I didn't. 

The final straw came in 2006, when we learned that a Catholic priest in Dallas who was getting closer to our family was a manipulative liar who wasn't supposed to be in ministry, as he had been accused in Pennsylvania of molesting a teenager. My wife and I were mortified, not least because we thought we were the type of people who couldn't be fooled, given our level of awareness about the issue. But he manipulated our prejudices. Who knows where this would have gone if he hadn't slipped up and showed his cards? Anyway, that was it; we were done. We simply lost the will to believe in the Roman church. I had always imagined that if I had the syllogisms straight in my head, that my faith could withstand anything. But that turned out not to be true. 

There was nowhere else left for us to go but to Orthodoxy. We began attending St. Seraphim cathedral in Dallas, not intending to join, but just to be around the real presence in the Sacrament (Catholics accept the validity of Orthodox sacraments), and to be somewhere where the worship was beautiful, and we didn't carry with us the baggage of fear and loathing of the Catholic hierarchy. Eventually we knew we weren't going to be able to go back to Rome. We were received into Orthodoxy there in Dallas.

It was one of the saddest days of my life. Don't misunderstand -- I don't regret becoming Orthodox, and am, in fact, grateful that the Lord gave me a second chance in the Orthodox church. I felt so mournful over my lost Catholic faith that I couldn't experience the joy that everyone else experiences when they become Orthodox. It's hard to express how painful losing my Catholicism was. I suspect this is what happens when a marriage becomes irretrievably broken. You know that what you once had is gone, and can't come back, and you're relieved to be out of a situation that brought you torment ... but you still mourn. An Orthodox convert from Catholicism that I sort of knew came up to me around that time and started badmouthing the Roman church, and I told him I wasn't interested in that. The whole experience of losing my Catholic faith was the most painful thing I've ever lived through, even more painful than living through the death of my only sibling. It has taken me a long time to heal from it all.

But I'll tell you this: God's hand was in it all. He humbled me in a way I needed to be humbled. I had been a pretty arrogant Catholic. The scandal beat that out of me. I'm a different kind of Christian now. Plus, Orthodox spirituality is helping me get outside of my head, in part by challenging at every turn my deep-seated tendency to intellectualize things. I thought before that because my head was converted, that my heart was too. That's not true.

I can never see the Orthodox church institution with the same naive fideism that I held towards the Roman Catholic institutional church. I came into Orthodoxy chastened and wary -- and, as we've seen in the past few years, the Catholics do not have a monopoly on bad bishops and corrupt priests. I'm grateful to be Orthodox, but deeply wary of the kind of piety I had before, as a Catholic. I see some Orthodox with it, and I go the other way. It's not for me. I can never say often enough, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." 

AD: Tell us a bit about the genesis of this book. At what point did you realize that your sister's illness and death contained a wider, deeper story that needed telling? 

I've written a blog since 2006, and have built up a pretty good-sized following. The blog is my notebook, my diary, a place in which I write straight-up opinion journalism, but also personal reflections. When my sister was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer in 2010, I flew from Philadelphia to Baton Rouge to be with her, and wrote about what I saw. It was a harrowing week, but also a time of extraordinary grace -- all of it pouring through my sister Ruthie, who responded to this catastrophic news with a degree of courage and fortitude that I found to be holy. I simply wrote about what I was seeing there, with my sister, and with the community of friends and family taking care of her. And I wrote about how watching all this was changing my own heart. My readers responded strongly to it, so I kept them updated on all the incredible things happening in Ruthie's life as she fought cancer.

When she died, I wrote about her wake, her funeral, and the incredible things that were happening around her death -- and how it all transfigured this little country town I had left so long ago, such that I wanted to return. Again, readers responded powerfully to these stories. But it wasn't until I told on the blog a story about candles in the cemetery on Christmas Eve, and how a loving neighbor carried on a tradition that my mother was too grief-stricken to celebrate that year, that things really changed. The New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote about that Christmas gift. His column set off a bidding war among New York publishers for the story. A week later, I had a book deal, and The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming was underway. What Brooks saw in this story, and what the publishers saw, was a tale of reverse migration: of someone who rejected an ordinary life in a small town, with all its limits, coming to see in the life and tragic death of his sister a hidden greatness within the ordinary, and a reclamation of the sense of community and rootedness that's missing from so many contemporary American lives.

AD: My friend the Orthodox priest and theologian Michael Plekon has written extensively about what he calls "hidden holiness" in the lives of people not often thought of as saints, but who are nonetheless living holy lives not by being thrown to the lions or saving scores from the gutters of Calcutta, but by staying where they are and loving the people around them. That would seem very much to describe Ruthie, yes? 

Yes, absolutely. Ruthie taught middle-school math in a rural parish in south Louisiana. I was the worldly sibling; she was the one who wanted nothing more than to stay here at home. When we were at college together, we rarely spent time with each other, because we were so different. In Little Way, I tell the story of the time she sat with my best friend and me at dinner in the cafeteria, listening to us talk about Nietzsche, the death of God, and philosophical topics. She stood up and told us we were full of crap (though I think the word was a little more colorful), and that all our philosophical speculation was vanity. What counted was what we did, not what we thought, or so Ruthie thought. She was intensely practical, and very much anti-intellectual (this, even though she made better grades than I did). 

Ruthie led a quiet life. She never much talked about God, just remained faithful to the Methodist church in which we were raised, and in which she and her husband Mike raised their daughters. You might have thought Ruthie was a friendly person, a morally serious person, and even a wise person. But what you didn't know about Ruthie -- well, what I, her brother, didn't know about Ruthie -- was the love and devotion she poured out on her students, many of whom came from poor and broken families. At the visitation, I met so many people who told me some variation of, "You don't know me, sir, but your sister was my teacher, and this is how she changed my life." It was incredible. I saw that Ruthie, a country Methodist, had a lot in common with St. Therese of Lisieux, who described her own path to God as the "little way," in that they both believed that it was not given to everyone to live a dramatic life of grand gestures. They would be satisfied with what God gave them, including where he placed them (a convent, a middle school) and do their best to live and to act in pure love. This was Therese's little way, and it also describes Ruthie's. 

AD: Plekon (among others) has resisted the tendency of older forms of hagiography to turn people into "plaster saints" or what Cardinal Newman called "clothes-racks for virtues." Your book very commendably manages to achieve a balance between recognizing the goodness, sanctity even, in your sister, but also not hiding her conflict with you. Was that a hard balance to maintain? 

Yes, it very much was. The truth is, Ruthie was a saint, or at least I think she was. But she was a human being too, and in my case, it meant she was at times bitter and spiteful toward her brother. Ruthie was a lot like our father, in that she didn't understand why anybody would want to leave what we had here in Louisiana. I've called them Bayou Confucians, because they believe life has a hierarchy, and one's duty if to find one's place within that hierarchy, and live it out. For Ruthie and my dad, my leaving was a sign of betrayal -- and nothing more than that. To be fair, after my first, failed attempt to return, in the mid-1990s, my father had a moment of grace in which he saw -- or said he saw -- that my vocation required me to live away from here. The thing is, we forget such moments of clarity. My father and my sister had a very strong "poetic memory" (I think the phrase is Kundera's), in which they selectively remembered details that caused a narrative to make emotional sense to them. It made emotional sense for Rod to be here with the family -- and ultimately, they wouldn't allow any facts to counter that narrative within their hearts.

This caused me a lot of pain, and truth to tell, it still does. Once Ruthie decided on a story, she hung onto it with the tenacity of a snapping turtle. This served her well facing cancer; the story she hung on to was that God loved her and would be with her no matter what. Don't get me wrong, I believe that's a true story. The point here is the strength with which she clung to that narrative. Unfortunately that trait was destructive of her relationship with me. For a reason I don't fully understand, she would not admit any facts that contradicted what she wanted to believe about me and the things I loved. For Ruthie, to have chosen a way of life other than the one we were prescribed by our father was, it seems, an unforgivable sin. The thing is, there was only one person in the world she judged so uncompromisingly: me.

I don't say all this to invite the reader's pity, but rather to explore the mystery of my sister's character, and of human character. One friend of mine told me the other day that reading my book, he has a tough time accepting my judgment that Ruthie was probably a saint. Like most people who have expressed this to me, he's thinking about the bouillabaisse story, but also about my niece Hannah's revelation in Paris, toward the end of the book. I appreciate his sympathy, but I think in our time, we confuse sanctity with niceness. I can't deny Ruthie's ugliness towards me, but I certainly cannot deny that that's pretty much the only blemish on a lifetime of extraordinary goodness. One does not obviate the other. St. Paul struggled with a thorn in his flesh; Ruthie and I were the thorns in each other's flesh. The difference is that Ruthie had a greater capacity than I to endure emotional pain for the sake of sticking by her principles. My dad is the same way. In most cases, this presents itself as evidence of a principled character, which is what Ruthie was and my dad is. But at times this refusal to examine critically one's own conclusions can manifest as sheer obstreperousness. It's sometimes hard to know where to draw the line.

Anyway, my goal in telling this story was to make the case for why I consider my sister to be a saint, or in any case to have led a life of sanctification, despite her all-too-human flaws. And I wanted to indicate that I too likely played a role in turning my little sister against me when we were young. The bouillabaisse story is, for me, the key myth about my family's attitude to me in adulthood. But the early childhood story with which I begin the book -- the story about Ruthie I told in her eulogy -- is the key myth, in my mind, about the kind of Christ-like character my sister had innately. 

AD: Your title refers to St. Therese of Lisieux. Did your sister ever read her autobiography or hear about her from you? What do you think she would have thought of the comparison?

No, not to my knowledge, unless she saw the comparison on one of my early blogs about her cancer. Ruthie was not well read, and certainly not in the Catholic tradition. She was a conventional churchgoing Methodist, but even her best friend Abby couldn't figure out why Ruthie was so prayerful and spiritually minded, but never came to Bible study or did anything more formal with the church. Ruthie would have reacted against the comparison, not because of anything particular to Therese, but because Ruthie would have considered it ridiculous and embarrassing to compare her to a saint.

Had she read Therese, though, I think she would have felt a deep kinship with the saint, who believed that the ordinary could be sanctified through love. That's how Ruthie lived. One interesting thing I've observed since moving back is how people around town will casually mention to me that they talk to Ruthie, or will pray, asking Ruthie to help them with some challenge. These are Protestants, mind you, but they believe that Ruthie, their friend, lives with Christ now, and can still hear them, and pray for them. Many times I've heard someone talk this way about Ruthie, and thought, This is how we get saints -- in a sociological sense, I mean. There was a holy person who lived in a certain community, and her memory is revered over time, and she is believed to be capable of hearing prayers and helping people after her death. We think, maybe, that we're beyond that today, that saints belonged to ages past. But I'm watching the process happen here. Mind you, a Methodist will never be canonized, but then, most saints who ever lived were never raised to the altar.

AD: What connections do you see between this book and your earlier book, Crunchy Cons: The New Conservative Counterculture and Its Return to Roots? Do you think if you hadn't written the earlier book you might not have been as open to seeing the virtues of life in a small town in southern Louisiana?  

I'm glad you asked that, because the progression from Crunchy Cons to Little Way tracks a theme within the latter. I began to think more deeply about my own conservatism, and to move in a more traditionalist direction, when I grew deeper into my own Catholic faith after marriage, and when my wife and I had our first child. As I point out in Little Way, my strong tendency is toward contemplation, while Ruthie's was toward action. I was satisfied to theorize about localism and traditionalism, and make a few moves toward living a life more coherent with my beliefs, but I remained a dilettante. Still, I had the theory in my mind, and that was important.

The moment of conversion was standing outside the Methodist Church at my sister's wake, seeing all those people there, and thinking about the 19 months preceding that night -- from Ruthie's diagnosis until that moment -- and grasping in both my mind and my heart that I was witnessing the theories incarnate in the love and community of these people. That night, for the first time, the things I professed as a matter of theoretical ideals entered into my moral imagination in a galvanizing way. If it hadn't been for 10 years of reading Wendell Berry, Crunchy Cons, Front Porch Republic and all that, I might not have been able to recognize the revelation on the church's lawn -- which is to say, I might not have been able to hear God's calling me home.

AD: When Pope Benedict came to the US in 2008, he lamented at one point the loss of Catholic "ghettos" especially among early immigrants and recognized the need deracinated Catholics had today for new and deeper forms of community. What role, if any, do you see churches playing today in helping people find the kind of community your family has been a part of in Starhill for generations?  

I'm not sure, because I'm not sure what "church" means in America today. We have become so individualistic in our approach to religious faith that I don't have a clear model for what stable church community looks like. When I returned to my hometown, I didn't return to the church in which I was raised, the Methodist church, because I am now an Orthodox Christian. Rather, I joined with some fellow Orthodox converts in town, and we opened a mission. I find as a general matter people in town these days are unaware of the theological differences between the churches, or why they are important. That makes it easier to work across denominational lines, but it also means that the loss of particularity, and of social unity around a shared story, makes the kind of deep community the Catholic ghettos experienced highly problematic. 

At the same time, with reference to the churches, as Walker Percy would say, what else is there? St. Francisville is a Christian town. Not everybody goes to church, but the churches not everybody goes to are Christian ones. The town is full of sinners, but there is enough residual Christianity here that the faith is still felt as a force in people's lives, in a way that it is not in most places I've lived (Dallas being the great exception). 

My sense, though, is that the Church -- by which I mean all Christian churches -- has to become far more radical and conscious of itself as a countercultural force, and as a countercultural community, or Christianity will not endure. I'm not talking about adopting a fortress mentality, but rather teaching ourselves and our children what makes us different from others, why we believe the things that we do -- and why that matters. What's more, as my pastor says, Orthodoxy is not an add-on to life; it is a way of life. All churches should regard what they preach in that way. Church must not be merely the middle class at prayer. 

When I say "countercultural force," I'm not talking about being culture warriors per se, but rather living as people who profess and (more importantly) embody a way of life and a vision that serves as a sign of contradiction to the modern world. Ruthie may not have been theologically educated, or even much interested in theology, and she was a flawed vessel, but the life she lived by staying in place and submitting to the limits of place was, to me, a sign of contradiction, and, I think, a call to conversion. It's not that we all must commit to staying in one place, forever and ever, amen -- where would any of us be if not for missionaries, not least among them St. Paul? -- but rather Ruthie's story shows us how much a life lived in faithful service to and friendship with a community can matter. 

Still, I am aware that any words about the value of stability from a man who has a track record of restlessness are bound to be taken with a fistful of salt.

AD: Towards the end of the book, especially during the painful conversation with your niece on the last night in Paris, a comparison came to my mind in reading your struggle to reconcile the holiness and love you saw in your sister with the unresolved conflict between the two of you and her attitude towards you. The comparison was that of Lady Marchmain (Ruthie) and Charles Ryder (you) in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. Lady Marchmain was often thought of by others as being a saint, though her simple, unquestioning piety (and adamantine summary judgments of others) could be off-putting to some, including Ryder, who, early in the book, is very much the questioning skeptic. Later he becomes a believer. Do you think your sister's simple, unquestioning faith and refusal to be mad at God has deepened your own faith and trust? Are the questions for you greater or fewer since her death?

It has, but only indirectly -- and it has reinforced the lessons I've been learning through the practice of Orthodox Christianity. As I detail in the book, I've always been a Seeker; Ruthie was always an Abider. I've been through a number of churches; Ruthie stayed in the church in which we were raised. I don't say this to praise her, necessarily; Ruthie had a considerable mind, but no curiosity about the world of ideas. She was a mathematics teacher, and had a deep and growing interest in science (she told me once that if she beat cancer, she would like to go back to college and study forensic pathology.) What I've learned through Ruthie is to put more value on what we come to know through relationship, and less value on what we come to know through reading or intellection. Ruthie was not balanced; neither am I. But I need more of what she had. 

Similarly, through Orthodoxy, I've learned to focus far more on the conversion of the heart. As a Catholic, I was stuck in my head. Orthodox polemicists tend to blame this kind of thing on the nature of Western Christianity. They may be onto something, but I choose not to think about that. I choose to blame myself. If I had not been a Catholic, I still would have been this kind of Christian. Ruthie excelled in being present in the moment -- even before she was diagnosed. I am bad at that. I am always analyzing the present moment, standing at some remove from it. I have always been mystically inclined, but tripped up by my seeming inability to be still and to be open. I've always faulted Ruthie to some degree for her lack of curiosity, and her instinct to pass negative judgment on anything she didn't understand. But what a source of strength her unquestioning trust in God was as she fought for her life. I realized, as I say in the book, that if I had awakened one day to find that I had Stage Four cancer, I would read every book on my shelves, consult with monks, priests, and sages, agonize over it publicly and privately, and if I were lucky, I would end up exactly where Ruthie started: serene, trusting in God's love, and learning how to cherish every moment of life. 

She could do that because that's how she lived. Hers was a very simple faith, but felt in her marrow. That made all the difference. 

AD: Sum up for us what you hope to have accomplished with the book and what you hope people will take away from it.

First and foremost, I hope people will reflect on the extraordinary life of this ordinary person, my sister Ruthie, and grasp how both goodness and greatness is possible for all of us. As Leon Bloy said, the only tragedy in life is not to have been a saint. I look at Ruthie's life and understand what he means. There was nothing unusual in her life. She was born in an obscure town in the Deep South, married her high school sweetheart, built a house on the land where she was raised, had children, taught school, went fishing, got cancer, and died. Yet within that narrative, she found and lived out such spiritual grandeur, concealed by the very ordinariness of her life. It's there for all of us, I hope to show.

Second, this is a book about home. I hope to speak to restless Americans everywhere -- people like me -- and provoke serious thought and discussion about the meaning of home, and how to achieve the kind of stability we want and need to flourish, but that seems so far away. Ruthie had limitations, but she knew something that so very many of us do not. It's also true, though, as my father's startling confession at the end of the book reveals, that we can never fully know whether we've chosen wisely. 

Third, this is a book about family -- the love we share, and the wounds we inflict on each other. My father and my sister wanted me to come home because they loved me. Yet the way they loved me -- the demanding, intolerant way -- made that impossible, and has set up obstacles even today that I doubt will ever be overcome. These stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and our families, they matter. They really do. A tragedy of my sister and my dad, who were and are exceptionally good and loving people, is that the thing they wanted more than they wanted most things -- a united family, sharing the same place -- they made unattainable. I think we can all learn from that. 

AD: What other writing projects are coming up next? Are you at work on another book at the moment? 

I'm not, but I hope to be soon. I'm looking for another project. This book has, I think, profoundly changed the way I see my vocation. I've been drifting pretty steadily away from political writing since the end of the Bush years, but the overwhelming reaction to Little Way has made me rethink the power of narrative journalism, of storytelling. Ruthie's story made me see the world in a different way, and caused me to change my life -- I think for the better, though this new path has brought with it other challenges. I'm on the lookout for this kind of story now -- stories that tell the truth about the way we live, and the ways we might live, and give people hope. Anyway, the language we use to talk politics has been completely blasted and evacuated of meaning. We need fewer op-ed writers, pundits, and purveyors of argument, and more storytellers. 

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