Christopher Orlet, reviewing The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming in The American Spectator:

But THE LITTLE WAY is much more than a coming home story. It is a profound meditation on the perils of ambition, of the Faustian bargain we sometimes make for riches, fame, or power, and the importance of putting limits on one’s ambition. It asks why some of us feel compelled to achieve great deeds, to strive for fame and fortune, while others are able to find happiness and meaning in a small life. Was Rod’s life worth more than Ruthie’s because he had achieved a level of notoriety, while Ruthie remained anonymous? As the lives of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (who first embodied the little way), and Ruthie Leming confirmed, there are many paths to greatness, and one can still achieve great things by living a simple, holy life.

Embracing Ruthie’s example, Rod learns that it is wrong to put the pursuit of career and achievement over family and relationships and place. But it is also wrong to make a cult of family and place. That is the lesson Ruthie, the sixth grade teacher, taught her older brother: the secret to a good life. That is what she can teach us all.

I thank Christopher Orlet for his lovely review, and reader R.J. Stove for pointing it out to me. This distinction Orlet makes above calls for a little elaboration from me.

I hope no one reads Little Way hoping to be told what to do, and looking for easy answers. There are no easy answers in the book, because there are no easy answers in life. Little Way poses some hard but necessary questions, though. Yesterday I was on NPR’s Talk Of The Nation, on a segment talking about the rural brain drain, and heard a professor who has studied this say that small towns educate and acculturate their brightest kids to move away, which is a kind of suicide for those towns. Little Way is, I think, an antidote to that way of thinking. The message in my book is not “nobody ever leave” or “everybody go home”; as should be clear in the book, I needed to leave as a young man, just as I needed to come home as a middle-aged man. The message is, Don’t be captive to an American idol. That is, don’t enslave yourself to a false idea of success, such that you feel you must leave everybody behind, or stay in permanent exile, for the sake of money, career, and worldly accomplishment.

But — and this is where it gets complicated — it is possible to enslave yourself to another American idol, which is the cult of family and place. Admittedly this is very much a minority religion in the contemporary American world, but it’s one that my dad served, and, as you read in Little Way, he has some deep regrets — this, even though it’s the religion he tried to press on me for most of my life.

The lesson here is difficult, and impossible to sum up in a maxim, but I think it’s this.

As Dylan said, you gotta serve somebody. That is, you have to make a choice. Your life will be lived in service to something or someone, whether you realize it or not. Every choice you make implies closing the door to other choices, and that means making trade-offs. We can never know the value of the choices we make until long after they’re made, if at all (Kierkegaard: “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards”). We choose with imperfect knowledge, struggling to midwife ourselves amid the contending forces of individual and community, of past and future. How should we choose?

I found freedom in trusting God and God alone — not an idol, but the living God — to help me make the choices. If I sacrificed my own dreams and nature to what my father and sister expected of me, I would have failed to become the man God intended me to be — failed to carry out His will for my life. Realizing at age 25, after a failed attempt to return to St. Francisville, that God was the master of my fate, not my father, was liberating. But I also discerned through prayer and openness to the Holy Spirit midway through my life that if I declined the opportunity to return home, I would fail to become the man God intended me to be. The common thread is placing Him and His calling on my life first.

Of course this does not clearly solve the problem, because God typically does not send an angel with printed instructions telling you what to do with your life. The usual thing is to discern His will through much prayer, and with the help of your church community. When Julie and I were discerning whether or not to leave Dallas for Philadelphia, we shared with our intimate church friends what we thought God was saying to us over the weeks of prayer, and even though they didn’t want us to go, some of them, at least, said that it seemed pretty clear that God was calling us away. Things did not go well in Philly with my job, but in truth, given the things that came out of that period of discernment, I think we would have done the same thing all over again.

I don’t know what lessons people who do not believe in God should take from my experience, and even for believers, my book does not explicitly say, “Trust God to be your life coach,” and if it did, that wouldn’t be all that helpful. Me, I hesitate to believe that myself, because I so fear attributing to the will of God what I really want to be true. Nevertheless, that’s the only way forward through the fog. It has been my experience that if you seek His will with an open heart, and you are genuinely open to following it, and work to be sensitive to the promptings of grace, He will help you decide. Maybe, though, you don’t believe in Him, or for whatever reason struggle to hear His voice. In that case, my book should, I think, serve as a powerful corrective to the idea that you should always put yourself and your own desires and career goals first. But the story of my at times difficult relationship with my family, and my dad’s extraordinary confession at the end of the book, should also serve as a warning about the trap that romanticizing family and place can become.

In the end, the deepest question that we must ask ourselves about the choices in front of us is: Does this give life? That is not an easy question to answer, because the answer is not often obvious. But it is a necessary question to ask.