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Small-Town Saints for Our Placeless Age

In The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Rod Dreher eulogizes his little sister with a hagiography worthy of St. Therese herself, while also evaluating his own relationships—to people and to place—according to the virtue of stability proposed by St. Benedict.

In the final line of After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre famously remarked that in our peculiar historical moment, “We are waiting not for Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.” By this, he meant to encourage the establishment of subcultural societies, set up to safeguard virtue and to protect tradition from the destructive winds of change already gathering in our post-virtuous world.

“What matters at this stage,” he wrote, “is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.”

MacIntyre’s Notre Dame colleague Patrick Deneen gestured toward a similar hope in a recent essay here on Public Discourse. Despite the peril of our current trajectory, “We can change direction and even effect a kind of ‘regime-change,’” Deneen proposed, “though not by force of arms nor dictate from Washington, DC. Rather, we can live as a kind of ‘contrast society’ to liberal America—in our homes, our neighborhoods, our communities, and among our friends—even as we seek a change in America’s fundamental worldview.”

It would be hyperbolic to declare that journalist Rod Dreher has brought MacIntyre’s wait to an end and fulfilled his decades-old Benedictine prophecy. It would be similarly overdramatic to suggest that Dreher has realized the perfected form of Deneen’s “contrast society” in his rural Louisianan hometown of St. Francisville.

Nevertheless, as regards a more humane and virtuous way forward, Rod Dreher’s new masterwork The Little Way of Ruthie Leming serves as a significant step in the right direction. Subtitled A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life, the book presents an edifying narrative of localist virtue, encouraging communal ties while avoiding the temptation to paint an overly romanticized picture of communitarian living.

In this, his most personal publication to date, Dreher grants his readers a glimpse into his own struggles as son and as citizen. In so doing, he offers important insights for all those struggling to live out the MacIntyrian-Deneenian challenge. A necessary corrective to our increasingly liberalized—and thus prideful and inhuman—modern mindset, The Little Way preaches a conservatism that celebrates the ordinary, reminding us that the good life is lived within humble human limits.

The book tells two distinct stories, beautifully interwoven: an autobiography of Rod himself, and a hagiography of his sister Ruthie. His title makes reference to St. Therese of Lisieux, whose “little way” Rod’s baby sister lovingly imitated until the day she died, all within the limits of her simple domain of St. Francisville, Louisiana. As another Teresa would have put it, while Ruthie may not have done great things by the world’s standards, nevertheless, day in and day out, she did “small things with great love.”

From her earliest childhood, Ruthie wanted nothing more than to be like her Mam and Paw, contented and connected in their tight-knit St. Francisville community. As a girl, she fished in the family pond and skinned game with her father. When she was grown, she married her high-school sweetheart, became a math teacher at the middle school she herself had attended, and brought up three beautiful daughters in the same neighborhood where her parents had long ago put down roots of their own.

Ruthie embraced her humble circumstances even and especially throughout her battle with terminal lung cancer, which tragically took her life in September of 2011. During the arduous nineteen months Ruthie suffered from the disease, still she served her community by her presence and her hope, and she allowed St. Francisville to serve her in turn.

For pages and pages, Dreher recounts the corporal works of mercy the townsfolk offered for Ruthie and the family. From cooking meals to cutting grass to taking care of the kids, the entire community stepped forward to help support the Lemings in their hour of need.

Perhaps what was most remarkable about this outpouring of generosity was that, to them, it was utterly unremarkable. Lending a hand is just what you do, nothing extraordinary or noteworthy about it. For the people of St. Francisville, beginning to end, Ruthie was one of them. That meant something there.

In many ways the archetypal brother and sister, Rod and Ruthie loved each other throughout their time together on this earth. But if Ruthie epitomized the saying that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, then Rod is the gross exception that proves the rule.

An involuntary outsider from a young age, Rod never wanted anything more than escape. Philosophical by nature and restless by temperament, he annoyed his sister and the St. Francisville community at large with his constant curiosity, asking probing questions about ultimate realities that they were happier just to take for granted. Despite knowing that they loved him, he never felt understood by his family or accepted by their small-minded local community. Without disparaging the simple lives they led, he always longed for something somehow grander for himself.

Whereas Ruthie was born into the place she knew she belonged, Rod always felt like a stranger in their hometown. So after college, he left Louisiana in search of a place where he too could fit in, pursuing a career in journalism and wandering all over the Atlantic coast. But even there, from Washington to New York to Philadelphia, Rod never found the sense of at-homeness that Ruthie had always known in St. Francisville.

Ruthie’s illness changed all of that. As he details beautifully in The Little Way, her sufferings brought about a remarkable conversion in Rod. Ruthie had been an organ donor, having agreed to give her eyes to someone who needed them far more than she did post mortem. But in leaving this world, she also gave her big brother a new way of seeing: an appreciation for the community that raised them, and a glimpse into the goodness she had seen there all along.

A longtime self-proclaimed “crunchy con,” Rod had preached communitarian localism from the pulpit of his newspaper columns for years. “My friends and I talked a lot about the fragmentation of the modern family,” he said, “about the deracinating effects of late capitalism, about mass media and the erosion of localist consciousness, about the consumerization of religion and the leviathan state and every other thing under the sun that undermines our sense of home and permanence.”

Yet, he says, “The one thing none of us did was what Ruthie did: Stay.”

Finally staring that truth square in the face, Rod made the most radical decision of his life, a decision no mere philosophizing could have led him to. Perhaps it takes one saint to make another, a Therese to make a Benedict. He didn’t know, but he knew that he had to find out. So after decades of glancing down on St. Francisville from the East Coast high life, Rod took a leap of faith. He moved home.

Following Ruthie’s death, Rod and his wife returned to St. Francisville with their children, renting a house just a stone’s throw from the home where he had grown up. In large part, they justified the move by noting that the extended family—and especially the three little girls Ruthie had left behind—needed them now more than ever.

But it was not just duty that drew Rod back to Louisiana. It was desire. Watching the way the town embraced Ruthie and his parents throughout her illness, and seeing the immense support they offered her widower and children after her death, Rod found himself longing for what Ruthie had had at home, what he had never found anywhere else: a community.

Of course, Rod had friends in Philadelphia. But he did not have “a deep bench,” as he put it. He did not have a comprehensive web of relations, binding his family and their fellow Philadelphians into an integrated community of neighbors, tethered to their common place and acutely aware of their mutual dependence upon one another. Sure, his isolated nuclear family had done their best to join with other uprooted individuals to simulate the all-inclusive communities they longed for in their hearts. But as Rod learned the hard way, there are some associative realities we cannot fashion for ourselves.

In fact, when news of the Drehers’ decision to return to Louisiana became public, the most common response from their friends in the Northeast was a sort of sympathetic jealousy. Many expressed their wish that they too had a place like St. Francisville to return to. But for those of us who, unlike Rod, are not the first generations of our families to wander far from home in search of glory, it is often the case that there is no community waiting on us in any robust sense.

“We live in a time and place in which we are conditioned to leave our hometowns,” Dreher reflects. “Our schools tell our young people to follow their professional bliss, wherever it takes them. Our economy rewards companies and people who have no loyalty to place.” Probably most importantly of all, “The stories that shape the moral imagination of our young, chiefly by film and television, are told by outsiders who were dissatisfied and lit out for elsewhere to find happiness and good fortune.”

These formative stories are not lies—or at least, not all lies. They rightly remind us that our modern mobility has provided a great many material benefits, and the message of The Little Way is hardly to disparage all those who choose to move in seeking after them. Still, all too often, the costs of our increased mobility have gone unrecognized.

And there have indeed been costs. Having cut the ties that bind us geographically, we have become in many ways a placeless people. We have lost what St. Benedict called “stability,” man’s permanent attachment to a particular home in this life. “St. Benedict considered the kinds of monks who moved from place to place all the time to be the worst of all,” Dreher recounts. “They refused the discipline of place and community, and because of that, they could never know humility. Without humility, they could never be happy.”

For Rod, the realization of this Benedictine truth required him to go home: “[If] I wanted to know the inner peace and happiness in community that Ruthie had, I needed to practice a rule of stability. Accept the limitations of a place, in humility, and the joys that can also be found there may open themselves.”

The closing chapters of the book chronicle the joys that Rod has found in returning to Louisiana, and there have been many. But they also address the hardships. There is no Thai food in St. Francisville—a favorite of Rod and his wife—and no organic market. The people who had picked on Rod as a child are now his next-door neighbors. And while being close to family can be a great blessing, we all know from painful experience that relatives can also tear us down with unmatched speed and precision.

Rod’s life is less glamorous back home, and in many ways far less comfortable. But then, “we were not created for comfort, but for greatness,” as the Bishop Emeritus of Rome, who himself took St. Benedict as namesake, reminded the world in his first homily.

The import of Rod’s journey home is to remind us that human greatness is to be found not by climbing the corporate ladders to the top of the skyscrapers of our world’s most impressive metropoles. Rather, as Dorothy Gale told Glinda at the conclusion of The Wizard of Oz, the good life ought to be lived most often within the confines of one’s own backyard.

“There has to be balance,” Rod reminds us. “Not everyone is meant to stay—or to stay away—forever. There are seasons in the lives of persons and of families. Our responsibility, both to ourselves and to each other, is to seek harmony within the limits of what we are given—and to give each other grace.”

What this balance will prudentially require of each person’s life plan, Dreher does not presume to say, nor will I. Nevertheless, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming sheds light on the values to be placed on the scale in making that discernment.

Dreher may not be the Benedict whom MacIntyre has been waiting for, and St. Francisville may not be Deneen’s model “contrast society.” But Ruthie’s holy and simple life should be a model for our own. If we manage to honor her memory half as well as her older brother has, walking the “little way” and living in imitation of her humble communitarian love, then maybe we can turn this thing around yet.

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