Does ‘How Dante’ Repudiate ‘Little Way’?
A reader said that some in her circle don’t want to read How Dante Can Save Your Lifebecause they perceive it as a repudiation of The Little Way of Ruthie Leming. It’s not true, or at least I don’t think it’s true. Let me clarify.
In Little Way, I presented a portrait of my late sister, my family, and their community that was deeply attractive. And it was true! It changed my heart, and caused me to move back home. But I also wrote about the less attractive parts of my family’s life, including my sister’s resentment of me for leaving home and, in her view, getting above myself. I ended the book with the dramatic revelation by her daughter Hannah, my niece, that my dream of family harmony was not likely to come true because their mother, supported vocally by their grandfather (that is, Ruthie’s and my dad), raised her and her sisters to think badly of me.
Hannah told me, I wrote in Little Way, that she learned later, when she started coming to visit Julie and me, that her mother and grandfather had misjudged us, but her younger sisters don’t know this, and they are going to keep us at bay. This was a total shock to me, as I indicated in the book, and I concluded it by focusing on signs of hope that we might be able to transcend these divisions.
As I wrote in the book, my sister was, I think, a saint, but that did not make her perfect. That she was so good, but still only human, made, I think, for a more compelling portrait. It was who she was. My dad’s verdict on Little Way was simple and direct: “You told it like it was.”
How Dante is pretty much a follow-up to Little Way. It turned out that Hannah was prophetic. I was not received back, and nothing I did — not returning, and nothing I tried after coming back — made any difference. I realized, at last, that the rejection had nothing to do with what I did or did not do; it was about who I was — or rather, who I was not. This sent me into depression and deep into an anxiety-related physical illness. I was rescued out of this by God, who helped me through prayer, therapy, and most of all, reading Dante’s Divine Comedy, a poem about how to live as a Christian in exile. There is no exile quite like living on the threshold of your family home, but not being allowed to enter into it.
How Dante is how I discovered the roots of my own despair, tied intimately to the very good things — and very good people — of my place and family. How is it that people who loved each other — I really did love them, and my sister and dad really did (do; my dad is still alive) love me — could be so at odds? How could people who intended so much good — that is, my dad, my sister, and me — miss the mark so massively?
A key thing I discovered is that the confidence and unswerving devotion my dad and my sister had to family and place — something I admired and desired — drew so much of its potency by negating the possibility of anything else. To put it into more direct terms, their love of family and place, as they conceived it, commanded them to stigmatize me because I chose a different path. It’s not that they thought about it; it’s what came natural to them. Will Wilkinson nailed the psychology of this phenomenon here. What I did not understand until I came back was how profoundly they had rejected me, and always had. It had been kept hidden for all these years behind a façade of friendliness, and none of us had to face it because I lived so far away.
I didn’t see this when Ruthie was alive, didn’t anticipate it in the wake of her death, and could not have imagined that her death would change nothing. Nor could I have foreseen that writing a book testifying to the virtues of Ruthie and the family’s traditional way of life, and giving testimony as well by changing my own life to live more like them, would make no difference. But it didn’t.
Had I known this was the true nature of things, I would not have moved back to Louisiana. But if I had not moved back, I would have lived the rest of my life under a number of illusions, and would have continued to avoid facing some core questions about myself and my family — questions that had to do with the deepest facts of life: with God, with family, with our place in the world, and our selves.
The frustrating paradox in all this is that everybody involved in this tragedy is (or in Ruthie’s case, was) a good person who intends good. But our particular virtues — and in How Dante, I don’t exclude myself from this judgment — also occasioned our particular vices. To say that How Dante is a “repudiation” of Little Way is in no way true. It is a deepening of the mystery of her life, of our life together, and, well, of life.
You might say that Little Way is a book about what to do when bad things happen to good people. How Dante is a book about what to do when good people unintentionally cause bad things to happen. Taken together, both books are about harmony, love, faith, and family. You can’t fully understand Little Way without reading How Dante — and vice versa. This is not because I held anything back in Little Way; it was because I was still learning. There is nothing about my sainted sister in How Dante that wasn’t in Little Way, and nothing in How Dante obviates the very real goodness to which I bore witness in Little Way. The only difference is that the promise of Little Way came to nothing — and a key lesson from this is that this tragedy was not fated, but was the effect of human choice. Another key lesson is how we can shipwreck ourselves upon our own idealism, not because our ideals are bad, but because we held them too dear.
Here is an excerpt from near the end of How Dante, which might shed light for some readers:
One sunny Saturday afternoon in late November, my son Lucas and I gathered and stacked firewood for my folks. We sat and talked with them on their front porch for a bit. They thanked us warmly, with gratitude and affection that were strong, clear, and genuine.
That night at vespers, I prayed for Mama and Daddy, and thought of how beautiful their faces had looked in the golden autumn sun, and how tender their voices sounded thanking us again as we kissed them goodbye. These are such good, kind-hearted people, I thought.
And then, in my mind’s eye, I had a vision. I stood next to Mama and Daddy and Ruthie, and we stared into a white sun, so close we could almost reach out and touch it. Our eyes were wide open, we were looking upward, and all of us were grinning in wonder and delight. Ruthie and I were children again, and our parents were young, and we were all happy, so happy, staring at the sun together.
This, I knew, was paradise, and this was Paradiso: the world to come, the world where there are no more tears, and when all that separates us from God and each other has ceased to exist. This is the vision Dante gives us in the last and greatest of his three canticles. It is the home toward which we are all going, though some of us will not make it; the choice is ours.
I pulled my glasses off and wiped my tears away. After evening prayer ended, I was the first in line for confession. In the empty church, I stood with Father Matthew.
“During vespers, I was praying for my folks, and I had a kind of vision,” I told Father Matthew. After telling him what I had seen in my mind’s eye, I said, “I realized that I am so sick and tired of seeing my mom and dad and feeling disappointed over what might have been. I just want to enjoy them for who they are. They have given me so, so much.
“I accepted a long time ago that they aren’t going to change,” I told him. “But they have free will, and that means nothing is decided in advance. In Paradiso, St. Thomas Aquinas cautions the pilgrim not to think he has the future figured out. Only God knows. Because of that hope, however, I feared falling back into the snare of believing that if only I give them this thing or do that thing, then they really will change.
“But I have to tell you that I don’t want my heart to be an obstacle to the vision I saw coming true,” I continued. “I know what we all want can only be fulfilled in God’s presence, but if God wants to start it in this life, I don’t want to stand in his way.”