Saturday, January 19, 2019

Letters to and from the past

A section of Isaiah from the Dead Sea Scrolls. Wikimedia.
I taught a Balch seminar (a required first year course for all Bryn Mawr students) last fall. Emily Balch was a Bryn Mawr alumna, a graduate of the college's first class in 1889, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1946 for her work at The Hague on forging peace in the wake of WWI and through the first half of the 20th century.  She was a founder of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and contributed to the development of international disarmament policy. She had been a faculty member at Wellesley for more than 20 years, but when she asked for an extension of a leave of absence from Wellesley to continue the work she was doing, the board fired her.

We began each class with a short writing prompt, one of the last ones was "Write a letter to one of your great-great grandmothers."  I knew one of my great-grandmothers, Mary Bach Chapp, but not any of my great-great grandmothers.  And I know only one story about any of them, one from my mother who heard it from her grandmother. It's the story of a woman living in 19th century Wales who each night traced a blessing over the banked embers of the fireplace, to be sure a fire could be roused in the morning. Her life and mine, separated by a century, what would I tell her? What would she want to know? What would I want to know about her and her life? What if we could write to each other?

I've been writing about Isaiah, who had things to say to the Israelites in that present moment, but who also has something to say to the far distant future. For what is Scripture, but letters to the future from people who cherished God so much they could not help but let themselves be opened to the Eternal and write and sing of such love for generations living in a future they could not imagine.


  1. This is interesting to me right now, because my wife has a treasure trove of several hundred letters written by a great-great uncle to his wife while he was in the Union Army during the Civil War. She is currently transcribing them into a digital format because they will end up in some historical archive, but not before she has a chance to go through them. She has thought several times about what she would tell him if she could write to him, but also feels like she 'knows' him from these letters. She knows that he has a sense of humor in the middle of the war. She knows that even thought he is a Quaker and could be a conscientious objector, he also opposes slavery and made a choice. So many things are different from today, and yet we have no trouble relating to him through these letters. Every college should have a Batch seminar just for learning in practice what perspective is.

  2. That sounds like an amazing gift from the past to the future!