I have found myself, this week, lamenting the demise of letter writing. It was sparked off by my relief that, for the daily Masses, the first readings have moved away from a period of long extracts, taken from the earlier books of the Old Testament, from Genesis through to Judges, and have now returned to the Letters of St. Paul. Wonderful though these Old Testament readings are, at 10 o’clock in the morning, with a relatively sparse group of people in the church, and with lots of unpronounceable names in the text, they can be a bit exhausting. St Paul’s letters are much more palatable. Apart from St. Paul, many of the saints were prolific letter writers, e.g., Catherine of Siena, Ignatius of Loyola, and Teresa of Avila. So too was St Paul of the Cross, the founder of the Passionists. There are about 3,000 of his letters that have survived, and a collection of these, from 1720-1775, the year of his death, have been collected into a 3-volume work, imaginatively entitled “The Letters of St Paul of the Cross”.
In 1992, when I was transferring to Minsteracres in County Durham, I realised that the monastery was only 10 miles from Consett. In the mid to late 1950’s, when my father was made redundant from the Anchor Line shipyard on the Clyde, and after a short spell working on the Clyde Tunnel, which has just celebrated the 60th anniversary of its opening, my father took a job in the steelworks in Consett, which I think at that time was called the Consett Iron Company. It meant that he was away from a Sunday night to a Friday night, living in digs, and we only saw him at weekends. That only lasted about a year, however, as he sadly suffered a heart attack cycling to work one morning, 8th April, 1960, and died almost instantly. It transpired that he had written many letters to my mother during that time, and she still had them all wrapped up in a bundle in a tin box. I didn’t ask if I could read them, they would have been too personal, but, from these letters, I was able to discover the address of his digs and so, shortly after I moved to Minsteracres, and got settled into my work with the North European Passionist Novices, I made my way to Consett, for the very first time, to see where my father had lived, worked and died, during that short period from 1959-1960. The steelworks of course had shut down for good in 1980, by Margaret Thatcher, ironically known as the Iron Lady, and there was precious little for me to see of what they once were. I did, however, find the place where his digs had been, and, close by, there was still the remnant of a working men’s club that he may have frequented, but that was about it.
When my mother died in 2001, and I was doing a bit of a clear out of stuff, I discovered that she had also kept the letters that I had written to her after I joined the Passionists in 1975, and had moved to Enniskillen. We had no access to phones at that time, even though on occasion, during our half-day off on a Saturday, I would surreptitiously find a phone box and call home, having to reverse the charges, because we had precious little money either. So, mostly, I wrote letters. There would be later letters from Dublin, Crossgar and Rome, as I pursued my studies towards priesthood. After ordination, with more opportunity to make phone calls, my letter writing eased off, and only resumed again when I spent a year in South Africa and Botswana in the mid-1990’s. All my letters were there, in her tin box. I had been quite a good letter writer to friends as well in those earlier years, and really looked forward to getting a reply. When I look back on it, my writing then was quite neat and legible. Now, with the proliferation of the internet, email and texting, not to mention all the other social media stuff I don’t use or understand, personal letter writing has become a thing of the past and, if ever I do have to write anything longhand, as, for example, in greetings cards, it’s so scrawly I can’t even read it myself, never mind anyone else. So, as I mentioned at the beginning, I am lamenting the demise of this beautiful art form of letter writing, which I think is a great loss.
As ever, protect yourself, your loved ones and others, and protect Christ in your lives.