Writing Letters

writing lettersYesterday 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.

Michelle Francl-Donnay
Michelle Francl-Donnayhttp://quantumtheology.blogspot.com/
Michelle Francl-Donnay is the mother of two 20-something sons, a professor of chemistry, an adjunct scholar at the Vatican Observatory, and a regular contributor to Philadelphia Archdiocese’s CatholicPhilly.com, where she writes about the joys and struggles of trying to live a contemplative life in the midst of everyday chaos. Michelle blogs at Quantum Theology.


  1. I discovered the Ignatian Spirituality website yesterday when looking for Lenten reflections and have subscribed for the newsletter. Thank you for your beautiful touching letter. I usually don’t comment online, a stumbling block of mine is proper grammar.
    This morning during my 4AM Adoration hour I wrote a letter to Jesus, asking for the graces to help me with my Lenten offering this season. I have been doing this for the past 5 years. Making the list and praying for guidance to bring me closer to my faith journey. I am always surprised of how the words flow and thoughts rapidly appear. I reread the words, a foundation of my commitment to focus on this season of reconciliation and love. I guess, you could say it is journaling. Letters sent from the heart

  2. Thankyou for this inspiration. I actually missed those days when we used to write letters to friends and loved ones. I still treasured my dad’s letter, which he wrote to me just before he died, some thirty years age. Sometimes , I would just pull the letter out and read it again. I often feel like, my dad is having a conversation with me.God bless you all for the marvelous work you have been doing.I,am bless to have subscribed with ignatian spirituality website.

  3. Thank you for this post.
    I like a letter to hold, to re-read ! Sometimes to kiss and to hold in the absence of the writer. When my son went travelling I asked him ” to write” but that didn’t last long. Eventually emails took over or a text.
    Thank God , he is now back in this Country and I can do the kissing and hugging for real,?

  4. I have a sister who is committed not only to writing, but to crafting cards with cut-up portions of pictures she collects.
    Letters can be treasured, as living “relics” of living saints.

  5. I think the crinkle of the paper as it is folded, with one’s own unique style of forming each letter, becomes a sacred act. The envelope is filled not just with the letter but filled with the intimate sharing of moments, the moments of the writer and the moments of the receiver. Thank you for the reminder.

  6. This is a wonderful reminder of the joy in receiving a handwritten, snail mail letter or note. I hand write letters to my adopted soldiers in the hope that they might carry them an reread when bored or need encouragement. A part of us is on that piece of paper that’s being held.

  7. How blessed are your students to have concrete evidence of the care and concern of their professor for them! That is what those letters signify as it takes time and much thought to write letters. Thanks for the reminder to share our thoughts in letters. Ignatius is correct that this practice is one of prayer as well.

  8. I’ve used this quote a couple of times when writing a comment. It’s from Galatians: “Ye see how large a letter I have written unto you with mine own hand.” The apostle Paul could certainly write a Letter, at once personal and communal.

  9. Wow! I am struck at how your words moved me and confirmed the power of hand-written letters/notes. With all these social media apps tugging at our pockets for time and attention, your reminder is a breath of fresh air. Muchas gracias! AMDG.

  10. Michelle,
    Thank you for the reminder of the importance of writing letters. It has become a lost art. With the fast paced life we have, even I, a retired mother and grandmother,find hard to relax and sit down to put down my thoughts on paper. I will start by writing to my sister, whom I call on the phone instead of writing. Like you pointed out the written word is a more effective and shows we care.
    God bless you,

  11. As I read this, I am thinking of a card that I purchased one month ago, with the intent to send to a friend. With all the activity of late Advent and Christmas, it did not get done. Off to it!
    PS – expect mail! 🙂 <3

  12. I echo what Rob Johnson said in the previous comment. A priest friend who has long passed was a practitioner of the “ministry of the short note.” He sent frequent letters and notes each day to those who were busy working for the Kingdom in big and small ways. I’ve tried to follow his example, and now I am inspired by you (as well as Ignatius). Thank you!

  13. Thank you for your wonderful words on the importance of ‘hand written letters’. My sister lived many miles away from me, did not have a computer therefore no e-mail, and so each week we exchanged letters. I so looked forward to opening the mailbox and there was her letter! It was like having her there next to me and I in turn wrote to her about how much I missed her when she moved away and about everything that was going in my life. Yes, my big sister was there with me and I so miss those letters now that she is gone. Thank you again!

  14. Thank you as this is a great reminder. There is nothing like a handwritten letter that shows you care. A letter received is truly something that can be saved and treasured for years. Let’s keep the art of letter writing alive.

  15. Michelle,
    Your words are ‘grace filled’ and ‘underlined by the hand and heart of Ignatius’ – thank you for your inspiration in the New Year!


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