Yesterday I sent off 15 letters, one to each of the students in my just-completed course on contemplative traditions in the West. I wrote to give them comments on their final projects and on their overall academic performance, but I closed each note with a few lines appreciating the particular gifts the student had shared with the class. I thanked the student who could be relied on to have brought a map when we were threading our way through the temple complex in Kyoto as well as the one whose response papers could be relied on to kick off rich and spirited discussions. I congratulated the student whose ideas at last shone beautifully through her lively writing.
I suppose I could have scrawled comments in the margins or let the grades I assigned speak for themselves. Perhaps those appreciative words could have been said when I saw the students in the hallway come the spring term, but like St. Ignatius, I’m a hard-core letter writer. St. Ignatius wrote nearly 7000 letters over his career and asked his companions in the Society of Jesus to write regularly in return. Ignatius wrote letters about letters, and even in these days of e-mails, Facebook updates, and tweets, I’ve been grateful for his sharp advice on more than one occasion.
Why letters? Ignatius thought that, “…whatever appears in writing needs closer scrutiny than what is merely spoken; the written word remains as a perpetual witness…” Words in the hallway vanish in a puff of air, but what I’ve committed to paper continually proclaims my delight in a student’s work. A bit of me clings to the paper as well, as I scrawl my initials at the bottom.
Ignatius urged his Jesuit companions to write each letter twice, editing for clarity and organization—arguably an onerous task in the days of quill pens and ink wells. Taking a few moments to do a quick rewrite of my letters offered me a chance to dig more deeply into what I was saying, in a moment of Ignatian repetition, and to let gratitude wash once more over the words and over me.
Ignatius consoled the busy Jesuits that writing their letters to Rome was not just administrative work: “Be assured that the time you spend at it…will be spent in our Lord.” Writing these end-of-term letters takes time, writing them twice, a bit more, but Ignatius reminds me that this is time with God.
So I write letters, not just to my students, but to friends and family, and I treasure the ones that I get. I write to see God at work more clearly in my life and the lives of those I love. I write so that both sender and recipient can experience and re-experience the deepening of God within with each exchange, each re-reading.
There is great delight in finding a note from a friend in the avalanche that is my e-mail inbox, but wild joy in opening the postbox to discover a postcard from a dear friend or a handwritten envelope containing a note from my oldest son. It’s like finding God in the mail. AMDG.