Letter-writing might sound old-fashioned, but it’s an indispensible skill necessary to cultivate friendships with those you may not often see in person. I’m talking here about the production of handwritten letters that are signed, sealed, and sent through snail mail postal service, and arrive in the good old mailbox.
Sure, email is fast and efficient. It has plenty of useful purposes when one wants to get to know someone better – and quickly; but at times it’s nice to give a little more of yourself, to sit down with pencil (I recommend pencil) and paper and scratch, scratch away. You may find this a little difficult to believe if you haven’t tried it, but when writing by hand, your words will often seem more connected to your heart, as if there’s an invisible string that connects the two. I call this cor-a-manus, the heart-to-hand connection. It is a known fact that when you sit down to write a letter, a shift occurs in the brain. Yes, once you put pencil to paper, you are using a different part of your mind, experiencing a different way of thinking. You might consider letter-writing akin to praying, or even as a type of prayer itself: Both generally require solitude, both are intimate and deeply personal pursuits, and both require you to constantly acknowledge your audience – whether it is God, the saints, or a friend.
When you write from the heart, you’re entering into another’s intimate personal space, bearing the gift of yourself – at least figuratively speaking. In prayer you’re unloading the burdens, petitions, and offerings of your heart. In letter-writing, it can be much the same, as long as you move beyond writing basic laundry list accounts of your daily life. Rather, ask yourself what is important, what you really want or need to share, what has happened to you recently that has affected you, what are your hopes, dreams, prayers. The answers to these questions will likely produce a prayerful letter that shows your friend how God has been active in your life, how God is working through you. It is a truly profound way of sharing yourself and a way of giving a lasting wholesome pleasure. Your friend will also learn something of you – your stories, your tastes, your priorities, your fears, dreams, dislikes, pleasures, opinions, worries, battles, and formative experiences — and you may even learn something about yourself. Affections often have a way of bubbling to the surface.
One great and obvious effect of letter writing is receiving a response – which will, ideally, lead to developing an emotionally and spiritually fruitful correspondence. The time delay between mailed letters allows us to think more clearly, to consider more carefully, and to compose our words more thoughtfully than we otherwise might. The immediacy of email, skype chatting, and text-messaging rarely allows for the kind of solitude and consideration that the effect of letter-writing produces.
Much historical evidence tells us that, throughout the ages, relationships have developed and deepened through letter-writing correspondence, even among those who have never met. Ideally, a mutuality will develop – a reciprocal openness to communication of the same type: mutual respect, reverence, support, encouragement, and inspiration. Mutuality is a gift; it requires the presence of God’s grace. Fortunately, it is also something that can be developed through charity, prayer, and a willingness to communicate. It is the foundation of strong, lasting relationships that are pleasing to God. Mutuality takes an ordinary relationship and makes it extraordinary. It perhaps goes without saying, but mutuality is also the path to a healthy Christian marriage.
Some of our greatest saints were avid letter-writers and cultivated deep, meaningful friendships throughout their lives, often almost exclusively through letters. St. Francis de Sales, for example, wrote some 450 reciprocated letters to the widowed St. Jane de Chantal. St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross carried out years of handwritten correspondence. Records exist of some of this saintly correspondence, and these letters are instructive to us even in the 21st century – especially in the 21st century — in tone and content, and in illustrating mutuality and the central role that God plays in their relationships. Consider these words from Francis to Jane, written in 1604:
"God gave me a tremendous love for your soul. As you became more and more open with me, a marvelous obligation arose for my soul to love yours more and more; that is why I was prompted to write you that God had given me to you. I didn’t believe that anything could be added to the affection I felt for you, especially when I was praying for you. But now, my dear daughter, a new quality has been added – I don’t know what to call it. All I can say is that its effect is a great inner delight which I feel. I wish you the perfect love of God and other spiritual blessings. I never pray without including you in my petitions; I never greet my own angels without greeting yours. Do the same for me."
Who among you can imagine these words being written in an email? Sure, it’s possible – but not so likely. Notice that St. Francis not only communicates something he believes to be of importance to share, but his tone reveals the depth of the relationship he has cultivated. God is everywhere in the equation. Mutuality is understood. We can see from this short excerpt that the letter is much like a prayer – a mutually shared prayer.
No, our initial letters even to trusted friends will not sound like these words from St. Francis. But they are something to aspire to nonetheless. They are reflective of a deep, meaningful relationship, cultivated under the eyes of God for many years. No, their relationship did not lead to marriage. Francis was an archbishop; Jane was a widow and later a nun. Yet through their mutual encouragement and inspiration, they helped one another bear tremendous fruit for God and the Church – tremendous! Had their vocations been in the lay state and their letters leading them to marriage, imagine what great things they would have accomplished in their married life, working always alongside one another, assisting one another to do God’s will – something to aspire to, for sure.