By Rod Dreher
Here’s a story for you. For years I devoted much of my journalism—op-eds, blogs, even a book about cultural politics—to lamenting the rootlessness of American life and prescribing solutions for it from within the conservative intellectual tradition. Yet I never quite found the wherewithal to live as I preached. It’s as if I didn’t find my own arguments convincing.
Then, from my home in faraway Philadelphia, I watched my sister Ruthie die slowly from cancer, cared for by family and community in our south Louisiana hometown. The doctrines and ideals I professed as true unexpectedly took concrete form in the heartbreaking story unfolding there.
When we arrived from Philadelphia for the funeral, my wife and I were overwhelmed by what we saw. At the little Methodist church where my family has been baptized, married, and given funeral rites for generations, over a thousand townspeople stood outside in the heat and amid mosquitoes to pass by Ruthie’s body and pay their respects. Many of them were my schoolteacher sister’s friends, colleagues, and former students. Nearly all had, in some way, helped support Ruthie and her family throughout her 19-month ordeal.
In that church, on that night, I had an epiphany. This is what community means. This is the way my sister lived: rooted in and faithful to the community that nurtured her, and that she in turn helped to nurture.
My wife and I experienced a conversion. Standing under a live oak tree in front of the church, we grasped that what the people in St. Francisville, Louisiana, had, we needed. The poetry of Ruthie’s passion and the drama of the characters that played their parts did for my wife and me what syllogisms and abstractions could not—change our hearts and, in turn, our lives. Days later, we went back to Philadelphia, told our friends goodbye, and soon thereafter moved to my Louisiana hometown.
What happened brings to mind Pope Benedict XVI’s observation that the most convincing arguments for Christianity aren’t propositional arguments at all but rather the art and the saints that the faith produces—that is, the stories Christians tell and live. Similarly, the ideals I held to be true did not speak to me with authority—at least, not authority sufficient to command me to pack up my U-Haul and drive—until I saw them lived out in my sister’s narrative.
Such is the power of story.