Letters

Parish Diary

Fr. Peter J. Daly

June 29, 2005

 

            One day, about 35 years ago, I was reading a letter while sitting on my bed in my college dorm room. When I finished, I crumpled it up and made a “free throw” shot toward the waste basket. My roommate, Gary Greene, was shocked. “No sentimentality with you,” he said. “Don’t you save your letters?”

            I was stung by his criticism.

            From that day forward, I have saved every personal letter or note that I have received. More than 35 years worth of correspondence.

            I’m not nuts about it. I don’t save birthday or Christmas cards. Nor do I save most “thank you” notes or those mass produced “bragging letters” people send out at Christmas (unless they are exceptionally well written).   

            But I save personal correspondence. I figure that if somebody has taken the time and trouble to sit down and actually write me a letter, that is worth keeping.

            A letter is a kind “spiritual” gift. It carries something of the writer. It keeps alive their time and their thoughts.

            The other day I was looking for something in my filing cabinet. I got distracted by my old letters. Once I got started down memory lane, it was hard to come back to the present.

            There were all my friends and family, some dead now, but alive again on paper.

            I heard the voice of my father, encouraging me in my struggles and concerned about my siblings and my mother.

            I heard my college friends filled with angst about graduation and new careers. I shared again their joy at new loves, babies, jobs, and homes.

            I hashed over our old debates about religion and politics. In their letters Watergate, Vietnam, civil rights, “women’s lib” (as we called feminism then) and all manner discussions were still lively.

            I also relived our disappointments. We lost at love. We misunderstood each other. Our anger still hurts. Our kindness still soothes.

            I regretted that I had not patched things up. I could see missed opportunities. I could hear the ardor and anger of youth. Today we would say it differently.

            I file the letters by year. Throughout the 1970s my letter files are fat. But sometime in the 1980s they get thinner. That was the era when we started to “reach out and touch someone” with long distance.

            Then in 1990s came the internet. By 1995 I was wired. E-mail replaced the pen and the typewriter and durable paper.

            E-mails are like writing in water. They evaporate. Eventually we push the “delete” button and they are gone.

            I regret this change in our lives. There is something durable and “living” about a paper letter.

            How will future generations of historians make a show’s like Ken Burns “Civil War” without piles of literate letters from the front? Where will we find future Abigail Adams’ writing to John Adams on the issues of the day?

            For Christians the letter has a spiritual significance. Letters are a big part of our scripture. Twenty-one of the 27 “books” of the New Testament are letters.

            In those epistles we can still hear Paul’s passion and eloquence. We can feel his anger at the Galatians, his love for Timothy, and his gratitude to the church in Macedonia. The disputes of the early church over liturgy, morality, and even etiquette still speak to us. We hear James’ concern that faith without works is dead. We hear Peter’s love for his flock.

            Those letters are spiritual gifts to us. They make the early church real.

            This text messaging, cell-phone, e-mail generation has lost something. We have lost the communication of our spirits. What Cardinal Newman defined as “prayer” is also definition of good correspondence, “heart speaking to heart.”