It seems that every year, the Post Office releases yet another dismal study reporting the accelerating decline in the number of letters requiring an envelope and a stamp. As more and more people turn to email and Facebook to communicate with each other (and the number of us who put pen to paper decline as well!)
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that members of a group called Pen Pal World, 2.3 million members and growing, have been writing and sending each other letters since 1998. In comparison to the 7.7 billion people on earth, that’s a very small number of people engaged in what might seem a hopelessly archaic and out-of-date activity.
But I wonder if the process of handwriting a letter, addressing and mailing it, and awaiting a reply, repeatedly, has something important to teach us in the spiritual life. (In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve been corresponding with a fellow iconographer since 1985.)
A long-term correspondence with a friend is a slow and patient dialogue between two people that occurs over time and space. Each letter sent and received is an opportunity for friends to hear each other’s voices in the words they have written. It unites them in heart and mind, bridging the distance that separates them.
The arrival of a letter from a friend, however long or short, is a personal communication intended for the recipient. It might bear good news or sad tidings, words of joy and happiness, consolation and hope or discouragement and disappointment. Each letter is an occasion of communion between friends.
This form of communication, I think, is the essence of what we are doing (or rather, what God is doing with us) in the practice of contemplative prayer. In the seemingly infinite distance between the unseen and invisible God and us, it might appear that each time we pray, it is like we are putting our hopes and fears, joys and sorrows in a bottle and setting them adrift in the ocean. Instead, I think that what we do when we pray contemplatively, is like letter writing. We are confident that our distant divine correspondent will receive it, cherish it, and answer it.
But even better than that, we already have a lengthy correspondence from our beloved friend, stretching back eons, to the very beginning of time itself. It is available to us to read and ponder as we wait on the arrival of the particular words meant for us, in this time in our life together.
The creation itself, from the tiniest particles to the outermost edge of the universe, is the voluminous correspondence testifying to the creative self-communication of the Logos, the Word of God through whom everything that is, came into being. When we contemplate and ponder with gratitude how creation was brought into being as an act of love, we are drawn deeper into the mystery of God, who desires to include us in the communion of His love.
In addition to this primordial self-revelation of God, in His love for us in the sacred scriptures; He has written us words addressed directly to each of us. In the Law of Moses, the Prophets, the Wisdom books and above all, in the Gospels, we are invited to hear the voice of Jesus, and in the words of Pope Francis’ recent Apostolic Letter instituting the Sunday of the Word of God, “open the doors of our minds and hearts [so] he will enter our lives and remain ever with us.”
When we take the time necessary to contemplate God’s word, we can rely on the Holy Spirit to open up the meaning of the scriptures and the truth of our own lives. By listening to and pondering the words of our friend and brother, Jesus, we invite the Spirit to probe and illuminate not only our outward actions but our inner thoughts, attitudes, and desires, and to reveal to us his gifts working within us as well as our vices and sins.
Just as we can trust a friend, who loves us, to tell us the truth when we have lost our way and (or threaten to become) the worst version of ourselves, it is precisely because of our confidence in the inexhaustible love and mercy of God, that we can embrace even his chastisement as a lifegiving word meant for our growth and healing.
Just like the joyous surprise of opening the mailbox and finding a long-awaited letter from a dear friend. At the most unexpected times, there will be a transforming word or phrase or image from the sacred scriptures that will speak, “cor ad cor loquitor.” From the heart of our friend Jesus to our own hearts. It is in those graced moments that we experience the sweetness of God’s lifegiving word.
In the Apostolic Letter mentioned above, I love the passage the Holy Father quotes by Saint Ephrem the Syrian. He writes:
“Who is able to understand, Lord, all the richness of even one of your words? There is more that eludes us than what we can understand. We are like the thirsty drinking from a fountain. Your word has as many aspects as the perspectives of those who study it. The Lord has colored his word with diverse beauties, so that those who study it can contemplate what stirs them. He has hidden in his word all treasures, so that each of us may find a richness in what he or she contemplates.”