Editor’s Note: Today is National Letter Writing Day, and recently, our managing editor Andre Henry asked Southeastern University  Associate Professor of English Dr. Paul T. Corrigan to write about the power of letters, the biblical legacy of letter-writing and why it’s still so important.

Dear Andre,

You asked me to write something for Letter Writing Day. I wrote you this letter and the ones below about how writing a letter can be an act of love.

__________

Andre,

You pointed me to the epistles. Twenty-one out of 27 books in the New Testament are letters. Does this suggest there’s spiritual significance to the act of writing letters? I think so. Certainly, the epistles contain many grand theological statements. But I wonder if the obviously lettery parts aren’t just as important.

In the lettery parts, the first and final chapters of most of these book, the writers greet folks by name and share bits of personal news: “Send my love to these folks and those folks.” “I miss you. Hope to see you again soon. Here are my travel plans.” “My health is alright but not great.” “I may or may not be in jail. But they let Timothy go.” “Please visit. Bring my jacket and my books!” “So and so says ‘Hi!.’” And so on.

If the theological parts say folks ought to care about one another, the letter parts say, “I care about you.”

__________

Dear Andre,

The French philosopher Simone Weil equates love with attention. She says attention is the very substance of love—whether for loving God or your neighbor. We love one another, first, by giving one another our attention. Weil elaborates, “The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him [or her]: ‘What are you going through?’ It is a recognition that the sufferer exists … as a man [or woman], exactly like us …” I mention this because writing a letter to someone who’s suffering—and we’re all suffering—is a small act of attention and, therefore, a small act of love.

So, what are you going through? My own life is full of both joy and sorrow these days, but more joy than sorrow lately.

__________

At any given time, my friend Anna Cotton writes letters to two or three elderly folks who are lonely. She has done this for decades and “with a deep intentionality” every week for the past 15 years, totaling thousands and thousands of letters.

What stands out most in her letters (she let me read a dozen) are how ordinary they are, detailing the weather, the week’s activities, poetry outings, the doings of her children and grandchildren. In one letter, she lists the breads she had baked that week with her sister: “raisin oat scones, blueberry muffins, pumpkin bread, whole wheat banana-nut bread. Yum!” In another letter, she observes how summer rains have left a “soggy ground.” But that’s no complaint: “It’s good for all our plants, especially our new azalea.” In yet another letter, she announces, “I have a new computer, and this is the first letter I have typed on it!” Simple enough. The daily stuff of living.

The folks she writes to have difficulty writing back. Indeed, she rarely receives—and does not expect—letters back. She doesn’t write to get written back to. She writes to be a blessing. And what blessing she is, as one rare response confirmed: “Anna, you have no idea what your letters mean to me. Thank you.”

“I’ve thought about what I’m doing,” she told me, “The whisper of the envelope being pulled out of the mailbox and being opened and being read. That’s enough. They were thought of. It’s got their name on. I know that happens. And that’s just enough.” She offers her letters as a proverbial “cup of cold water,” “refreshing” to the recipients.

So far, she has written weekly letters for seven people through the ends of their lives. One of them left behind a whole box of Anna’s letters.

Andre, I’m in awe of the scale of this. It’s a small thing to do, to write a letter. Week after week, page after page, life after life, this small kindness adds up.

__________

Andre,

Yesterday morning, I wrote my mayor and city commissioners. I told them our town’s Confederate monument has to go. Thousands of others also wrote. Then, in a surprise outcome, the commissioners actually voted to move the blasted thing that had been honoring a racist army in the center of the park in the center of our city. Our emails and letters were small acts of love, tangible and efficacious, making the city a more welcoming place for all.

__________

Andre,

Yesterday evening, I asked my Facebook friends, “Who wants to receive a handwritten letter?” I offered to write five, to whoever asked first. But I couldn’t turn down the additional requests (“I know I’m late, but …”). I ended up writing a dozen.

It took but a couple hours. And it was a joy to do. The letters weren’t literary in any way. But they put real ink on real paper and they represented real attention, from one person to another.

After writing the letters, flipping through the stack of envelopes before dropping them in the mail, I felt a surge of affection and caring toward each recipient. Some of these people I know well, others I barely know at all, but I gave each of them a couple minutes of my full attention.

__________

Shoot, I’ve become an epistle apostle, spreading the gospel of writing letters. Just this week I gave thank you cards to all my students and had them each write a letter to someone else.

__________

Andre,

Have you ever read Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet? The little book contains 10 letters the poet sent to a younger poet. It has some beautiful lines. “What matters is that you live everything. And you must now live the questions.” And “there is much beauty everywhere.” Reading this book, we might realize that our letters could be like poems. Or not. If we put pressure on ourselves to be poetic or profound, we’ll never write. Better just to jot down a few words to communicate with another person. If, sometimes, some poetry spills out of that, so be it.

__________

Dear Andre,

Have you read Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Gate A-4”? You must go read that poem. You can find it online easily. She says what I’m trying to say but better—just apply her story to writing a letter.

__________

Each letter you write is no big deal, really. Just a small kindness. A small act of attention. A small act of love. But it blesses both sender and receiver. We need more of that.

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