In his series “Considering Consecrated Life” Father Patrick Griffin reflects letter writing in the Vincentian and biblical tradition.
“Write to me”
“Letters mingle souls” (John Donne)
I have a friend who would insist that to write a significant personal letter, it has to be done by hand. When this friend writes to me, the letter arrives in a careful cursive from the address to the signature. How can I act other than by sitting down, taking up pen and pad, and responding in like manner? I must admit that there is something special about writing or reading a hand-written letter. It adds a dimension to the communication.
Are you amazed at the number of letters which both Vincent and Louise wrote in their lifetimes? Louise writes to Vincent concerning her gratitude for his correspondence:
“I thank you most humbly for the trouble you have taken to write to me and for the honor you have shown me by thinking of me. I do not deserve this, and God is indeed good to put up with me.” (LdM, SW, L.2, Jan 13, 1628, p. 7)
And she writes to her sisters both encouraging them to put pen to paper and chiding them for their lack:
“I beg you to write, Sister. Do not wait for an answer. Three or four lines at least once a month would suffice.” (LdM, SW, L.113b, January 1645, p. 123)
It would also be easy to identify the value which Vincent placed on letters as he writes to a priest of the mission:
“Since your soul is precious to me, everything that comes to me from you consoles me. That is how your letter affected me . . .” (VdP, CCD 5, L.1897. 1 August 1655, p. 410
One could insist that the message forms the essential part of the communication and not the ink, but the two become linked. The personal flourish arrives on the page at the hand of the author.
Another remarkable letter-writer emerges from the New Testament: St. Paul. Most of what we know of him unfurls on the pages of the letters which he wrote to the early Christian Communities. He intended these missives for the family of believers which he held dear. The message contained therein was particular to the given assembly and intended for their ears as well as their eyes. We have all seen that technique in movies and theaters in which someone begins to read a cherished letter and soon the voice of the beloved takes over the narration. The intimate and personal character of the communication shines through.
Letters have borne the essence of some significant works of literature. Among many practitioners of this art, we can point to Cicero, Abelard, John and Abigail Adams, Frédéric and Amélie Ozanam, and Maloney.
Each time that I write a letter by hand, I review the same lesson. The e-mail which I draft so readily and easily serves a different master! In order to make my script readable, I need to slow down and consciously form the letters more carefully. I need to think ahead about what I want to say and how I want to say it because crossing out and erasing are serious faux pas. I have to be sure that I want to start to tell a story because writing the whole thing out is a genuine labor (for me). Yes, writing a letter offers an education in communication. On the other hand, it also indicates that the other person is worth my time and effort. The experiences about which I write emerge in my own voice and it is for that other alone—there is no “cut and paste.” One can appreciate why documents—like the Declaration of Independence or the Magna Carta or the Gettysburg address—are more than statements, they are works of art and redolent with craftsmanship.
And so, what is my point? In this year of consecrated life I am not making a plea for more handwritten communication. I am inviting a reflection on the attitude which gives beauty and intimacy to our words and especially to our prayer.
One of the things which I have learned from reading and praying the psalms connects with this musing. For myself and for my students, I have characterized these prayers of Israel in various ways. Sometimes one of those ways is as a personal letter to God. The psalmist wants to pour out him/herself before the Almighty and he/she lets the feelings and emotions flow without barrier. Actually, when I truly enter into a psalm, I sense the opposite of the theater technique. The prayer begins with the voice and words of the psalmist, but it can develop into my own voice and my own words. This does not happen readily. It depends somewhat on my four “p”s: presence, pace, participation and pauses.
In my poetic soul, I imagine the Lord God holding out an invitation: Write to me. Pen and paper are not the absolute needs, but the desire to speak fluently and to allow my heart to be revealed.