A Kingdom of Letters

Personal Correspondence in Christianity

Christians have always read each other’s mail. Many have written profound letters with every intention of a broader audience reading them. Now that tradition may be at risk, although a few simple steps provide plausible solutions.


The Tradition

At the risk of stating the obvious: the New Testament is mostly letters. So is much of what remains from the writing of the Church Fathers. In the theological-philosophical synthesis that defined much of the medieval era, letter writing became as much an art as a science. The Protestant Reformation spread with the help of letters. In French Catholicism, substantial correspondence remains from a baffling number of luminaries: Francis de Sales, Jeanne de Chantal, Vincent de Paul, Louise de Marillac, Marie de l’Incarnation, Thérèse de Lisieux, Jacques and Raïssa Maritain, and Simone Weil, among others. These few examples offer a hint of the riches left behind. Many believers have established their legacies through letters, especially letters to friends.


The Modern Dilemma

In many ways, it has never been easier to communicate. There are ample tools available. And the problem is not that we do not write enough; quite the opposite. Words come and go easily, contributing to the noisiness of modern life. “Too much information” often yields too little wisdom, for few of us choose our words wisely. All too often we utter careless nothings into the void.

Many of us post on our facebook walls. Some of us blog or tweet. By such means, we speak into the cloud, perhaps to our friends in general, but less frequently to anyone in particular. For all of our technology, many of us struggle to hone the patient and difficult skills of listening and discussing face-to-face, or at least person-to-person from afar.

Genuine friendship and community are possible online, but for a great many of us this is elusive. Even for those with the gift, of those who send heartfelt online messages, few of them have made arrangements for these letters to be retrieved or shared to a broader audience once they have departed. Previously, much of our knowledge of past people of faith stemmed from such once-personal documents; but now we are in danger of creating a present that has little future as a documented past.


Possible Solutions

Let us keep blogging, tweeting, facebooking, and pursuing whatever is next. Let us rejoice at the opportunities now afforded to us to speak truth to power, to the people, and to each other. But let us not neglect the discipline of writing thoughtful paragraphs several at a time, rather than in mere 140 character blurbs. A tweet can hint at but cannot truly reveal much of substance, for tweets, by definition, deprive text of significant context.

When we write to each other, let us do so in ways that are retrievable. Dear writers, you know who you are. Keep a file folder on your computer that your spiritual/literary executor can find and access. Maybe you have written some things that a broader audience can benefit from. Maybe not. Let future generations decide, but give them options.

Make your online correspondence findable. Keep copies of meaningful messages as .doc files or some equivalent. Facebook messages are barely searchable and retrievable by their own authors, so this may be one of the worse options. Some email providers, such as Gmail, make it easy to tag one’s own messages, marking the emails into which you have invested much time and thought. Then when your flesh goes the way of all flesh (as it shall, should the Lord tarry), if there is any email left to be emailed (should civilization cohere), those who love you can decide what to do with what you have left—if there is anything of value for others. The tools are many. Let us use them wisely.

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