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xSTHERESELETTER

Scrambling for words? Put it in a letter

How we communicate, or more particularly, the care and attention we give it, can help change lives, Fr Jamie McMorrin writes.

There are many things that I love about being a priest. Answering emails, I’m afraid, is not one of them. I remember a very holy priest once telling us as seminarians that when the doorbell goes or the phone rings, we should imagine that it is Christ himself coming to ask us for some service. All well and good, but it’s a bit more difficult to maintain the same supernatural vision when Jesus—or, at least, his Body here on earth—gets in touch electronically.

I much prefer to communicate with people face-to-face, or at least voice-to-voice. As quick and easy as email can be, there’s something that is lost in pastoral relationships conducted electronically. The constant ‘ping’ of emails arriving can also be a bit overwhelming for many of us: it sometimes seems that in the time it takes to compose a carefully-worded reply to one, another three have arrived to replace them.

Letters, on the other hand, are always welcome. I’m not talking about the circulars from the bank, or menus for the local takeaway: I mean real, hand-written, personal letters and cards. On my mantelpiece, I have a collection of thank you notes, postcards and, most treasured of all, a drawer for longer letters awaiting a reply.

Replies

I’m afraid I’m not much better at responding to these than I am at clearing my electronic inbox. There’s one in particular that’s currently waiting for a response, which I received a few days ago, from an old university friend, now a Benedictine nun on the Isle of Wight. Unlike the sisters in our parish, about whom I wrote a few weeks back, these nuns live a monastic life dedicated to liturgy and contemplation, and they only very rarely leave their cloisters.

Although they have an excellent website, the nuns don’t seem to do much emailing and they certainly don’t use social media. But they do write letters, and I’m always delighted to hear from them, if not always terribly good at writing back. My correspondent is an avid SCO reader, though, so she keeps tabs on my movements via the back pages!

If you’re reading this column and wishing that a nun would write to you, then you’re in luck. The Sisters have published a wonderful book containing the letters, notes and talks written by a remarkable member of their community, Sister Mary David Totah, who died a few years ago. The book’s called The Joy of God and, if you’re looking for some Lenten spiritual reading, I would recommend it wholeheartedly. I read it last year and the effect was like a daily letter from the monastery dropping onto my desk every single day, packed full of sound spiritual teaching, practical tips and sparkling wit.

St Newman

Many of the letters were originally written to her fellow nuns, but on so many of the pages I found something that might have been addressed directly to me personally and I felt, by the end, somewhat bereaved, having got to know her a bit better.   I’ve had a similar experience with St John Henry Newman. His letter-writing output over his almost 90-year life was prodigious, and his collected correspondence runs to 32 volumes. I’d read some of his theological writings, and collected sermons, but it was in his letters that I felt that I got to know the man.

Perhaps the most famous letter-writer in Church history was, of course, none other than St Paul, the Apostle to the Nations. We’re still reading the letters he wrote to the churches of the first century at almost every Mass, and they now make up part of the best-selling book in human history.

Like the letters of Sr Mary David and Cardinal Newman, Paul’s character shines through all the time: his quick temper, his humble self-knowledge and his passionate love for Christ and His Church. I like to imagine him writing them. We reflect on his words in an atmosphere of reflective calm, but something tells me they weren’t written that way. He was a pastor, responding to the real needs of the congregations who relied on him for guidance, and he surely had to fit in his letter-writing in amidst all the other daily comings and goings.

Daily burden

He lists among his sufferings his “daily burden of his concern for the churches” (2 Cor 11: 27): I wonder if he ever woke in a cold sweat thinking, “I still haven’t got around to replying to that letter from the Thessalonians.”

Perhaps not. It will be a rather desperate day if my ‘Collected Emails’ are ever published, although if I ever make it to 90, I might give Newman a run for his money in quantity, if not in quality. But we can do a deal of good in the way we communicate with one another, however we go about it, and our words—written or spoken—might end up having a greater impact than we realise. Anyway, I’d better draw this to a close, because the editor is waiting for me to email him this column, and a nun on an island hundreds of miles away, is waiting patiently for a reply to her letter.

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