A Letter a Day

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Today, I’m SO EXCITED to share a guest post from Jess Griffith, who is a fellow midwesterner and a wonderful writer. I first read her work in the memoir she co-wrote with her friend Amy Andrews, Love & Salt. Thanks to Jess for sharing this piece with us and for also including an excerpt from the book (two letters at the end) for us to enjoy. If you haven’t read Love & Salt, let me just say that it’s GREAT. 🙂 – Sarah

a letter a day

When my friend Amy and I first began writing letters, we barely knew each other. We’d me in graduate school but then moved to different states, got married, and started new careers. Our friendship might have dimmed as quickly as it had flared, if Amy hadn’t declared she was converting to Catholicism and she wanted me to be her sponsor.

Wait. Me? Her sponsor?

I was a cradle Catholic, but Amy was an intellectual six years my senior and she’d already read and thought more deeply about apologetics and theology than I had in my lifetime. I remember in one early conversation I’d even lied and said, Oh sure, I’ve read G.K. Chesterton, while making a mental note to myself to figure out who she was talking about.

Besides, we were living in different states, newly married, launching new careers. How could I possibly walk this path with her?

Amy suggested writing letters, a letter for each day of Lent that would culminate in her entering the Church at Easter. Even then it seemed charmingly old-fashioned, and that was years before I joined Facebook. Couldn’t we just email every day? No, she insisted on the hand-written note, affixed with a stamp and mailed at the old blue boxes that will soon go the way of the phone booth.

She imagined the letters as a spiritual practice: every day we’d confess the state of our souls and try to tell each other our stories so far. But what began as a Lenten discipline soon became a habit, and we are still writing our letters, nine years later. Our correspondence has sustained our friendship—and our faith—through times of grief, doubt, and heartache we never anticipated the first time we picked up our pens.

We traced our paths to the Church. We laid bare all our doubts about God and all our fears of life and death. We wrote everything we’d been afraid to say out loud about religion. We wrote to preserve and make sense of our daily lives, to confess and console, to rant and grieve.

After a while, we realized that were learning how to pray.

Could our letters really be prayers? We wondered, until we stumbled upon the classic Catholic book Spiritual Friendship, written by a twelfth century monk, Aelred of Rievaulx.

“Here we are, you and I,” he begins, “and I hope a third, Christ, is in our midst.” He saw God as the quiet and unobtrusive third partner in dialogue, dwelling at the heart of true friendships. And like others before and after him, Aelred believed that it is most especially through friendship, rather than solitude, that we abide in God and God in us. “In friendship,” he wrote, “eternity blooms.” We’d sensed that subtle, abiding presence of eternity unfolding in our letters.

When tragedy struck, and Amy’s first daughter was stillborn, letters helped me to grieve by her side, though we were miles apart. When she endured nine months of agonized waiting for the birth of her second child, it was in a letter that I kept my own bedside vigil for his healthy birth, calling on every saint I could find with an interest in her life to come to her aid. And it was my letters she stacked on her bedside table during those sleepless nights, physical reminders of the invisible bond of friendship and the very real prayers I ceaselessly offered for her even when she could not.

Our letters had begun as an attempt to discover our souls and find God—to pin him down once and for all. We’d wanted to enter the story of Christianity as one might enter a great novel, but instead, we realized we were living that story all along, and that, far from over, it was still unfolding in our midst.

Love & Salt: A Spiritual Friendship Shared in Letters

Love & Salt: A Spiritual Friendship Shared in Letters

We hope the letters we’ve published as the memoir Love and Salt: A Spiritual Friendship in Letters (Loyola Press) will offer companionship for those who might be doubting or suffering or enduring a dark night. I hope it is a testimony of how God is working in our lives, even before we’re ready, even when we’re sure we’re not worthy, and even when we’re certain we’ve been abandoned. Even today, he might be tending you through the hands of a friend.

* * *

This pairing of letters from Love & Salt shows us trying to move forward after the loss of Amy’s daughter.

June 12, 2006

Dear Jess,

Today is a good day, so I’m going to try to write the letter I’ve been meaning to write for weeks. I have been so afraid that our friendship will not survive Clare’s death. I can sense this fear in your voice, too, when we talk. I think, all the time, of how I should be the one sharing new motherhood with you, discussing all the small trials and great joys of caring for our babies. But instead there is a building full of new mothers surrounding you and taking my place.

When I talk to Mark about this he tries to console me with Aristotle. Aristotle, he tells me, describes three types of friendship: friendship based on utility, on pleasure, and on virtue (or pursuit of the good). The third type is the highest and most stable form. “You and Jess pursue the good,” Mark said. “And sharing new motherhood alone could not possibly replace that.”

Maybe right now we are confusing our friendship with a friendship of pleasure, since we have given each other so much of it (hilarity and clogs and dreams of Italy). And we are worried since these friendships fade when pleasure fades (and Clare has taken so much pleasure with her). But pleasure, Aristotle said, is also a part of the highest friendships. “Such friendships,” he wrote, “require time and familiarity; for, as the proverb says, it is impossible for men to know each other well until they have consumed together much salt, nor can they accept each other and be friends till each has shown himself dear and trustworthy to the other.”  I guess we are now in the phase of eating much salt. But, you have already shown yourself to be dear and trustworthy to me. I am reminded of this every time I take communion. Maybe you will remember this conversation we had over a year ago.

It was Holy week, and Kathy had not yet arrived. We were walking somewhere, I think, or maybe we were just sitting on the couch in my old kitchen. I asked you casually how to take communion. You looked surprised and embarrassed.

“Do you really want to know?” you said, as if I had asked you to reveal a deep secret. I remember wondering why you seemed suddenly shy but said that I did really want to know.

You became serious and quiet as you explained how to cup your left hand in your right, how to take the host with your right hand and, careful not to drop it, raise it to your mouth. But then you stopped and asked again, “Do you really want to know?” You looked at me intently, as if only a great need on my part would bring you to say the rest out loud.

I nodded.

“Well,” you said, your voice straight and soft, “I place the host on my tongue. Then, using my tongue, I crack it against the roof of my mouth, gently. I don’t chew it; I let it dissolve there.” Each word seemed to convey some sort of great intimacy.

“I don’t want to hurt it,” you finished.

This last admission you said with a partial smile. It was almost funny; it almost could have made us laugh, your shy description of how to eat the body of Christ. And I knew sitting there that we both understood the absurdity of this act, treating a cracker with such extreme tenderness. Yet, I also knew, from the strange seriousness with which you described the act, that beneath any doubt or felt foolishness, you had earnest belief. And your belief helps me believe. For now, when the apparent absurdity of taking communion crosses my mind, when my faith balks, I remember your huge, serious eyes that afternoon, and your shy voice, the only time, I think, I have ever seen you so timid, and I know that communion is not a mere symbol. I take the bread into my mouth, and always crack it gently, as you taught me, against the roof of my mouth, and wait for it to dissolve. Sometimes I do feel like laughing, but that laughter has much more love in it than doubt.

This memory contains all types of friendship. I can imagine someone telling me what I needed to know, or speaking in way I enjoyed, or inspiring me to do the right thing, but you combined all three simply and naturally. There you were detailing a practical how-to but at the same time leading me to God; and the way you spoke gave me so much pleasure that each time I remember it, it returns me to communion. Just think: isn’t the liturgy of the Eucharist, all at once, useful, pleasurable, and intended for the good? And doesn’t the fact that we both think this make us either raving lunatics or ideally suited friends? And how could a friendship such as this ever fade?

I am not sure what it means to eat much salt, but it doesn’t sound pleasant. It makes me think of tears rolling down our faces into our mouths. And Lord knows that lately there have been many tears. The loss of Clare is our salt. I taste her loss every minute – in my mouth, in my arms, in my belly. I know that you, too, have cried long and hard for her, and for me, and for us. I know this, and I know that you have kindly hidden your tears from me. It makes me cry right now to think of you weeping in secret. So, let it be as it is – a time of eating much salt, alone and together.

Yet this time is not merely that. When I see you or read your letters I am suddenly made happy. I see that I still love you, take pleasure in your ways, and yearn for your good and for mine. If this load of salt can’t kill our pleasure or desire for the good then I doubt anything can. And maybe this very salt will make us all the more dear and trustworthy to one another.

With much love and salt,

Amy

~ ~ ~

June 14, 2006

Dear Amy,

Yesterday was your anniversary. When I called you sounded like you’d been kicked in the stomach, but when we hung up you were laughing and sounded brighter. Sometimes this is the only thing that lifts my own spirits, making you laugh.

But I wasn’t trying to be funny when I said I’ve been praying for God to turn the world around. When I write it that way, it makes me think of what my Dad and Mr. Sam used to do on Christmas mornings in the front yard of our house. They’d emerge into the morning light in their bathrobes, meet silently in the grass, turn toward the sun, extend their arms, and chant. My sister and I would watch from our doorway, enchanted, while they attempted to turn the world around so we could have Christmas again. I’ve always thought of Mr. Sam as having some special power, which is ridiculous. They were just two crazy old guys standing in their front yards in their bathrobes. But I wish, wish, wish it was true. I want to turn back the clock. I guess that puts me firmly in the denial phase of grief. I’m still having dreams that everything is the way it should be, that you are still pregnant, and we are anticipating June 25 with excitement, not dread.

It really wasn’t until my wedding that I finally saw Mr. Sam as others might see him—I had fixed him in my imagination as a saint, or at least as a bishop (on special occasions, he used to wear a homemade miter decorated with a crawfish instead of a cross). But as he hobbled up to the altar with his large-print St. Joseph’s Bible, I felt like I was seeing him for the first time. He seemed so fragile.

The only other thing I remember clearly is when Fr. Leyland blessed me and fixed me in a tradition with Sarah and Rebekah and Ruth and Naomi and Martha and Mary. I remember feeling exhilarated and horrified by this blessing, terrified by what it could mean. I anticipated then the suffering that was to come. I just didn’t think it would come so quickly. Or even that it could hurt so much. I only anticipated some abstract suffering. The “in good times and bad” kind. Like when Dave didn’t get the job at X University. That kind of bad. Not this, rip your eyes out of your skull bad.

But then, there’s the other side, the blessing part. God’s love for us is as great as his love for those women. It’s possible for a human being to have that kind of strength and faith. I don’t know that this thought makes me happy, but it does make me proud. It makes me want to be strong for you, to deserve their company. I guess that’s a start.

I’m counting the days til Dave has to go to Erie for the rest of the summer. I filled my prescription for Zoloft today and am sitting here, staring at the bottle on the dining room table, considering taking one. It’s hard to think of yourself as an Old Testament woman when you’re holding a bottle of Zoloft.

It’s not that I want things to be just as they were. I recognize the impossibility of that, and anyway, it would be horrible to think the world hadn’t changed, or that we hadn’t, after Clare’s death. But I hope that we can carry her with us and still be us, not shadows. That’s what I am looking forward to, working towards, hoping for.

Love,

Jess

* * *

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Copyright 2014, Jessica Griffith

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