Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Column: Letters, I get letters

The back story to this column is that I was getting letters - lots of letters, while on the Long Retreat. They were all gifts to be treasured. The mail was left on a credenza that is off screen to the left in this photo.

The clue to the code that my brother used is the periodic table. D.e.18 = D.e.Ar = dear -- the element argon, symbol Ar, is element 18. Did I bring a periodic table on retreat?? Not exactly, but it turned out I had one on my laptop that I use for students on exams.

A few other wonders appeared in the mail. Several jars of pomegranate jelly - homemade by my dad; a marvelous stained glass star by Stratoz that graced my eastern facing window for the duration of the retreat; and a CD of Barnacle Boy's choral concert, complete with a short video message for his Mom.

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 29 January 2009]

Paul, by the will of God an apostle of Christ Jesus, to God’s holy people, faithful in Christ Jesus. Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Ephesians 1:1-2

For the duration of the Long Retreat, 18 Jesuit novices, five others and I have foresworn nearly all contact with the outside world. Five weeks without the sources of instant news taken for granted in the modern world: phones, radio, television, newspapers, e-mail and text messages.

It’s also five weeks without the news we get so casually we do not even realize it: in conversation with neighbors and co-workers and overheard in the streets and corridors. There is no idle chitchat to overhear; none of us are talking. I see my spiritual director once a day and hear only the news he thinks I need to know. So far, that’s been the odd weather report and not a peep about the Eagles.

What I do get are letters, written in hands familiar and not. My heart leaps with joy (and a bit of guilt — the novices are not allowed mail) when I see an envelope with my name on it.

The mail is left next to the lectionary on the credenza in the main entry. Its proximity to God’s news started me musing about how the early Christian communities might have greeted the letters they received.

“Dear Mom, It’s Mike. I know how you love hand-written letters, so I decided not to type this. It’s Monday and school wasn’t that bad (even physics).” My 14-year old has poured his day onto paper for me, his news and love moving from his hand to mine. In closing a letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul sounds just like Mike: “This greeting is in my own hand. Paul.” We get not just the words, captured by scribe or electrons, but something more — the caring touch of the writer.

One evening’s mail brought a postcard from my brother. I turned it over to read “53 90.8.92.g.1.t …” My heart sank. It was entirely written in a code I couldn’t decipher. Several days later, another coded missive appeared. I was still in the dark.

I’ve finally decoded them, receiving a gift well beyond what the scant few lines might have yielded if I’d not had to work so hard to read them. Now sitting in prayer with Paul’s letter to the Romans, I can imagine the early communities trying to decipher Paul’s’ letters, patient with what may yet unfold, what we do not yet understand.

Chris misses me. “You will take 401,771 breaths, Mom, before coming home” is tacked to the end of his latest letter. Paul may not have counted each breath until his return to Philippi, but he misses them, too. “For God will testify for me how much I long for you all,” he writes. Paul longs not just to see his friends at Philippi again, but turns it toward the deeper reality of what we should all long for: the day of Christ’s return.

Three friends who have done these same Exercises write to tell me of their ongoing prayers that this be a fruitful time not only for me but for the others here with me. Paul tells the Colossians “we have never failed to remember you in our prayers.” Fidelity in prayer is a gift that spills over.

I am intrigued to notice as I leaf through my correspondence, that just as in Paul’s letters, there is little news of the day and much news of the heart. So while Wayne did not fail to tell me the “news — Eagles are on a roll!” he closes by reflecting “God is good.”

I will treasure all the letters I have received while wrapped in the silence of these days. The scraps of news they contain will be old hat when I come home, but the warmth, love and graces they hold will not fade. I will treasure more deeply, too, these letters from Paul and his companions — for their unfading news of the faithful love of Christians for each other and of God for us all.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you. My love is with you all in Christ Jesus. Amen.— Closing of St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians


  1. And I had another letter from you today! It seems odd and perhaps put of place to post any kind of response here, but it also seems important to say in a public way how wonderful, in this electronic world, to have dropped into the mail slot a hand-written missive contain in a envelope with a stamp. I feel like Jane Austen, living in a time when more care and thought were put into human encounter and relationship.

  2. I know that because of my own experiences following the spiritual exercises in 2007, my life will never be the same. Letter from the outside had an immense effect on me, both good and bad, as to live in a bubble with no information in or out meant that every bit of information in a letter hit me like a ton of bricks! I am still dealing with my retreat almost 2 years later!

  3. Thanks for the comment on my website!

    It is interesting that you are writing about the exercises, because it was the last day, the meditation on love, that got me interested in Quantum Mechanics... Try and figure that one out! I had had no previous experience with Quantum Mechanics, with the exception of Chemistry in High School, before that experience. I have my Google alerts set to pic up Quantum Theology, and your blog often comes up... In my own blog I am about to get into the science, but I need to review what I have read in the last year so I am not in error... thank you again!

  4. what a wonderful read. By the way, the Eagle's roll ended.

  5. Stratoz - On the very last day of the retreat, I did get the report on the end of the football season from Inestimable Director!

    GG - another one my letter writers said the same thing, that there was something deeper about getting the real thing in the post. Meanwhile, I'm reading Jane Austen...