“The Seeker.” By Joshua Rothman. The New Yorker, 5/1/2017. (Biography of Rod Dreher.)
It all started with my sister, three years older and editor of our high school newspaper, The Garnet & Gray. I got in the habit of reading her New Yorker subscription, and probably started my own sometime after I graduated from Penn State and was married. In those days, The New Yorker was all fiction with one article of non-fiction. Today, it is reversed: all non-fiction with one fiction article. I don’t remember the change, whether it was sudden or gradual, but I have always kept up my subscription all these years since. The magazine was always known for its inscrutable cartoons, a characteristic even featured in a Seinfeld episode.
This article, “The Seeker,” is typical of the articles that introduce me to new ideas. It is a biography of Rod Dreher, a Catholic conservative who has written the well-known (but not to me) book, The Benedict Option, and also writes a popular, conservative blog.
The premise of The Benedict Option is that people with specific views should not try to convert the entire population but withdraw into a supportive community of like-minded individuals. Apparently, St. Benedict did this himself by setting up a community within the Roman Empire rather than attempting to convert the entire Roman Empire to his way of thinking.
Dreher’s family had been in Louisiana for generations, but he was the black sheep. They were content in the small town of St. Francisville (pop. 1,712), but he left for the big cities as soon as he could. He became a TV critic, a film critic, and wrote a book about his conservatism. He enjoyed his city life. When he returned for visits, they found his urbanity condescending. Like so many who return, he found he no longer quite fit.
His sister, Ruthie, stuck with her small-town life in St. Francisville, married a firefighter and became a middle-school teacher. Her family resented that her brother lived in Philadelphia. They resented that he made twice their combined salaries just writing about films and TV shows.
But then, in 2010, Ruthie was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. She was only 40 years old and had three daughters.
Dreher visited her frequently during her illness and discovered she had become a giving pillar of a tightly-knit community that he had never known. He was a devout Christian, and she seemed beatific in her suffering. All through her illness, he wrote about her on his conservative blog.
When she died a year later, half the town stood in the rain for her funeral. She often went barefoot, and in sympathy, her daughters stood barefoot in their pew. The pallbearers also took off their shoes and carried the coffin in their bare feet. Her friends pulled up beach chairs and sang to her body.
The love he had seen was “of such intense beauty that it was hard to look upon it and hold yourself together.” Dreher had seen nothing like it in Philadelphia, although he and his wife had friends and a rich cultural life there. But they could not hope to replicate the deep roots his family had in St. Francisville, and he realized their expansive, natural love and relationship with God was a function of how they lived. To really feel love, one had to live among the loved ones.
Today, “change is so rapid that no social institutions have time to solidify. The most successful people nowadays are flexible and rootless; they can live anywhere and believe anything.”
The theme of the Benedict Option is that “Christians should remove themselves from the currents of modernity. They should turn inward, toward a kind of modern monasticism,” toward what Dreher lost in leaving St. Francisville.
(In case you missed the connection, The New Yorker is my St. Francisville, a place of retreat, of growth and of rejuvenation.)