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Isn’t mail a marvel? That someone is tasked with the solemn duty of conveying your thoughts to me! That for pennies my missive flies to you through an unseen network of hands, scales, sorting machines, rolling bins, airplanes and trucks! And against what odds!?! Mail arrives despite thick, thin, rain, wind, hail, gnashing teeth, pilfering paws, gas prices and competition from private enterprise.
I so envy Jane Austen’s ladies their Morning and Evening Posts. What a delicious wait it can be (pace Marianne) for the favor of a reply. Ah, response! Beyond the wonders of its physical delivery lies the profound mystery at the core of mail: correspondence. I utter, you respond; you invite, I respond. We act and a person amplifies the freedom of that act by the exercise of freedom in reciprocity. This is glorious stuff! The stuff, in fact, that freedom is made of.
Letter-writing is a dance that accommodates two paces that may be quite different, yet generates a rhythm of its own. Correspondence, if you can bear it, is a delightful and demanding game, played over time and space between persons who recognize that they cohere somewhere beyond time and space – a game for supernatural giants, in a way. Letters drop into chronos from another moment as much as they drop into a mailbox from another place.
Fr. Schall enjoys the surprise of letters. In The Unseriousness of Human Affairs he writes, “The letter comes unexpectedly some morning or afternoon in the post. It bears that element of surprise, which is almost the deepest of our spiritual concepts.” It is noteworthy that Nietzsche despised letters: “A letter is an unannounced visit, the postman the agent of rude surprises,” said he. This explains a lot about his refusal of God’s ongoing surprise.
C.S. Lewis, in the essay On Stories, speaks of the surprise made possible by re-readings:
It is the quality of unexpectedness, not the fact that delights us….Knowing that the ‘surprise’ is coming we can now fully relish the fact…. …We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties….The children understand this well when they ask for the same story over and over again, and in the same words. They want to have again the ‘surprise’…. …It is better when you know it is coming: free from the shock of actual surprise you can attend better to the intrinsic surprisingness of the peripeteiea.
G.K. Chesterton was known for his childlike delight in that ‘sudden reversal of fortune,’ whether it came in the form of the sun’s rising (again!), of the Incarnation, or of a letter from a beloved friend. His and Lewis’s correspondence was voluminous and decidedly burdensome, but there was something about the men that continued to respond to the call of duty inherent even in the most unpromising letters. For Lewis, the biggest surprise may have been meeting his future wife through this faithfulness. For Chesterton, it may have meant writing fewer books, but choosing the better part over and over again – to multiply the freedom of others by this exercise of his own.
Sadly, the expected surprise, though it always delights us children, is out of favor with publishers of ‘children’s books’ these days – linked, no doubt, to the death-by-‘freedom’ of the practice of reciprocity. We may still experience it at the mailbox, waiting for the response of a friend, or by re-reading saved letters on rainy days. Speaking of literature, correspondence has gifted us with an entire genre. Is there anything quite like epistolary style for granting access to the inner world of the writers through the breezy intimacy of their letters? It may be unfair to peek, but they did create such windows to lure us!
The details of their particular moment and surroundings welcome us to kairos as we – later, elsewhere – enter in. The intrusion of little quotidian realities, and allusions to background material taken for granted as known, weaves a fabric that wraps readers into their world. The hint that much more could be said is provocative. There may be much more said between the lines than in them. The free use of the ellipsis makes me feel I’m in a real conversation…one that may actually be possible in eternity.
Fr. Hardon particularly emphasized the importance of writing letters for the development of writers. “The writing apostolate…must include the writing of letters, not only to those who have written to us, but especially to those from who we have never received a letter, and who may never correspond with us in return.” Surely writing letters without the hope of the consolation of response is a high and magnanimous gesture of freedom. I recommend it to Advanced Practitioners. First, practice writing letters at all, to people who will play with you as you develop your facility and voice.
But – letters as literature, or ministry aside – it is the wonder of mail, of Real Letters, of co-respond-ing itself that thrills me. Email cannot compare, though it may aspire (and, at its best, may accomplish a great deal). It lacks the human touch, the beat of the heart, the stain of tea and tears. The email is naked! Gone the envelope with its doodles, last-minute P.P.P.P.S., the message “God Bless Our Postal Workers!”, the lipstick kiss, the enclosures of tea bags, confetti, pressed flowers and such, and the stamp which, chosen well, may be one last message in itself.
Real Letters are not likely to catch on again in a big way with people who feel burdened by duty, uncomfortable with complete sentences, impressed by speed and efficiency, impatient for results; who read a message or book only once, and who just don’t get the point because letters, like persons, do not have a point. With people ‘of the Word,’ however, there is hope of rekindling regard for the lowly Letter and its implications. Literally, much is folded in to a letter that cannot as easily be placed elsewhere.
This essay first appeared in Gilbert magazine.