Recovering the power of the word (and the Word) this Lent
“You’ve got mail!”
There was a time when those words were associated with an electronic voice on one’s computer, announcing the arrival of e-mail. Do you recall when getting an e-mail was a novelty? Nowadays, my students think of e-mail as quaint, something that only “older” people (such as professors) use for business purposes. If undergraduates (and those younger) want to communicate, they send text messages via their phones or Facebook. This topic is on my mind because one of my resolutions for 2016 has been to take up my old practice of writing letters by hand.
Do you remember when the words, “You’ve got mail!” referred to physical pieces of mail? Oh, not the advertisements and bills that afflicted our mailboxes (as a result of original sin, I’ve long maintained), but the kind of mail that mattered. A real letter, written by a loved one, written by hand. Do you remember the consolation that the arrival of such a treasure could bring? Sadly, very many young people have no such experience, and worse still, that lack is a form of spiritual impoverishment they are often unaware of. Here’s what I mean.
Not long ago I told a university student that when two close friends parted company and a reunion was uncertain (perhaps because one was moving across country, for example) there was a significant gesture you could make to show that you wanted the friendship to endure. Before taking leave of your dear friend, you would give him a nice box of stationery, a good pen and a book of stamps. The student I was talking with burst into tears. She explained: “That’s never happened to me. I can’t think of anyone I know who would give me such a gift. I can’t imagine someone loving me that much.”
That statement got me to thinking. I recalled spending countless hours writing letters to friends, and that was a labor of love because my handwriting was (and still is!) terrible; I would painstakingly write out my personal correspondence to a legible standard. The joy of receiving a letter from a friend could sustain me for days or weeks. Can it really be true that the young lady I spoke with has had no such corresponding experience, one that people had practiced for centuries? Those questions raise the issue of how she and her contemporaries may read and pray Sacred Scripture.
I mention this with some caution, because I recall now the high school retreats I attended in the 1970s, when we were told, “The Bible is God’s love letter to you!” (Even at age 15 I would think, Really? Have you read the book of Leviticus?) I am not advocating such an overly sentimental approach to Scripture. Nonetheless, it is true that the Bible that we take for granted (assuming we regard it at all), has come to us as a great labor of love, even at the human level. If you can hold a Bible in your hands, please take a moment and say a prayer for those who toiled and sacrificed across the centuries to bring that book to you. At a deeper level, the Bible is the work of God, who is its true author. It is a revelation of himself, and it is a disclosure of who we are and what we may hope for, precisely because we are his. If we bear in mind and take to heart those marvelous truths, I believe that our attitude toward Scripture will change for the better. And we may then turn to letter writing as a treasured spiritual discipline.
Recently, a friend told me that he writes letters to his very young grandchildren. The kids are delighted to receive the letters, and enjoy responding with great envelopes stuffed with their own letters and hand-drawn pictures. My friend has found a new twist to exchanging letters. “My grandkids call me on the phone and read to me my letters to them. I love it! I get to hear their delight at my words. I hear my love for them echo in their hearts through their voices.”
What if we read Scripture that way? What if we prayed the Liturgy of the Hours that way? Think of it! What a gift we could give to God! Only you, with your voice and your heart, can offer to God that echo of his love in your soul by reading aloud and with gratitude his words to us in Scripture. Imagine the bonding of hearts that would follow from such a faithful and loving “correspondence” between your soul and the divine love as you savored the words of God as you are present to him in prayer. Just as those little grandchildren reciprocated their grandfather’s gift of letters by speaking his words from their hearts, so too we can make a glad return to the Lord for the gift of his Word by lovingly speaking his gift back to him.
Lent is right around the corner. Let’s prepare for the spiritual discipline of correspondence so that we can exercise that gift during Lent. First, pick up an anthology of great letters and marvel at those noble souls who mastered the craft of letter writing. (I commend to you three anthologies I have especially enjoyed, one the collected letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, another those of C. S. Lewis and most recently, the letters of Flannery O’Connor.) Second, resolve to write at least one letter per week — by hand — to a dear friend, at least for the duration of Lent. Third, resolve to take up daily the practice of heart-to-heart “correspondence” by prayerfully reading aloud passages from Sacred Scripture. If you do that faithfully, I predict that you will find new and renewed loves — love for letters, love for friends, and love for God.
When I write next, I will address the question, “Do we really need another Lent?” Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.
Father Robert McTeigue, SJ, is a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus. A professor of philosophy and theology, he has long experience in spiritual direction, retreat ministry and religious formation. He teaches philosophy at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, FL, and is known for his classes in both rhetoric and medical ethics.