Faith Works 4-13-13
Bonds or shackles, and how to tell them apart
In Rod Dreher's new book "The Little Way of Ruthie Leming," a small town boy grows up, leaves home, goes to the big city, then does something very strange and wonderful. He goes back.
In fact, he states "What I once saw through the melodramatic eyes of a teenager as prison bars were in fact the pillars that held my family up when it had no strength left to stand."
Dreher's family needed support because his sister, who never left rural Louisiana and never wanted to, and never understood anyone who did, was about to leave this old weary world, carried off by a sudden vicious form of cancer. It is not a spoiler to tell you that she does in fact die, and it is not the author's intention to highlight that there is no grand reconciling between brother and sister, except for a mysterious sort of communion which results in the prodigal brother and his family returning home for good after her death.
"The Little Way" of the title, talking about a Louisiana Methodist gal in a book by her Eastern Orthodox by way of Roman Catholic brother, evokes the name of "The Little Flower," St. Thérèse of Lisieux. A Carmelite saint of the 19th century, she wrote from her convent of a simple life of prayer, obedience, and faithfulness. Rod comes to see in his sister Ruthie's life a modern echo of this same chosen path, a "little way" that does not presume greatness as a spiritual necessity, and all the more significant in its unforced humility.
Ruthie's "little way" is small town in nature, but it's small town in a way that is widely transferrable. It's the decision to accept a path and a field of service which puts personal relationships and face-to-face commitments first. You could live out, and be sustained by this humbler journey whether in a Utica or a Toboso, or on Hudson Avenue or Partridge Court. It only asks that you look at those around you and see Christ in them, Christ loving you, and Christ Jesus' own smile delighting in your offer of service.
It's a road which also allows for the fact that all of us sometimes end up in the ditch, and when we try to hard to get ourselves out on our own, sees us slamming up and out and over into the ditch on the other side, too.
Starhill, Louisiana has ditches and stuck folks and few plaster saints of any sort, even if the actual name is ridiculously perfect for a book like this one. It made me think often of my own hometown, whose name means "vale of paradise," although our administrative manager at the church recently called "Valla-walla-something." (It's Valparaiso, Indiana.)
Today, all four of us kids live in different places across the Midwest, and even my parents are much of the year down where snow shoveling is not on the menu. But I think of that town often, and the life it gave me. Then I recall my parents' hometowns, both under a thousand, both surrounded by fields and far from big box stores even today.
Those locations, and the sense of community they once held, are still part of who I am. Reading "The Little Way of Ruthie Leming" didn't make me think about moving "back" to Kansas, Illinois or Anita, Iowa (or even Thirsk, North Yorkshire), but all those communities make me look more closely at the neighborhood where I live, the village we reside in, and the unique nature of this marvelous county where my wife and I both work. How are bonds of mutual obligation and cycles of tradition a life-giving framework for our family, and for the work we believe our family is meant to be doing – not just anywhere, but right here?
So many stories of adulthood and escape end with a sort of wistful looking back, and mainly a sense of loss, of rueful unredeemable regret. This book shows another way, that you can go home again; not that it's easy, or necessary for everyone, but it is in truth possible. Maybe even more possible in the internet age, ironically, than it was not long ago for a wired-up person to live and work somewhere far away from the usual plugs and outlets.
Reading this book didn't make me think that Rod Dreher believes I should move back to MY hometown, but is a friendly guidebook to reading the signs for finding the hometown paths and connections right where you are.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's at home here. Tell him where you feel at home at email@example.com or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.