Friday, September 30, 2016

by post

When was the last time that you went to the mailbox and found, slipped in between the bills, the circulars and catalogs, a personal letter… addressed to you… from an old friend, family member or classmate?  It is becoming, more and more, a rare occurrence.

The art of letter writing has been eclipsed by more immediate methods of communication; emailing, texting and the use of social media are the more common methods of making contact, today.

And still, who doesn’t love to sit down on the front step, tug at the corner of that hand-addressed envelope, unfold a sheet of paper and read, with warm curiosity, the message inside, written just for you?

This fall, a niece and a nephew of mine have started college.  One is at school in North Carolina, 979 miles away from her home in Maine, and the other is in the wilds of New York State, 5 1/2 hours from his home in Connecticut.  My niece and nephew are smart, hard-working, lovely kids.  I remember my own early days at college, feeling a little untethered and longing for the familiar.   My college days took place long before email (I took a manual typewriter to college with me in the pre-PC days) and in order to be in touch with my family I had to wait in line on Sunday nights to use the pay phone in the closet on the third floor of my dorm.  I saved up quarters all week to feed into the telephone so that I could talk, briefly, with my mom, brothers and sister.   My mother wrote to me every day.  Every day.  I would make my way across the quad, cut between a few faculty houses on a well-worn shortcut and arrive at the Post Office, hoping to see that shadow of an envelope leaning, diagonally, in P.O. Box 747.  I was rarely disappointed.  My mom wrote about the daily goings-on at home, her committee meetings at church, the gardening that my father was up to in the back yard, my brothers’ and sister’s adventures and… everything… and nothing, in general.   I have decided to write to my niece and nephew every Monday this year, as a spiritual practice and discipline.  While they are enjoying school and seem to be doing just fine, I want them to know that they are connected, solidly and deeply, to their big family.  And I have it in my head that a slim envelope containing a few words about my travels around Central PA every week and silly things like what I’ve been cooking in my kitchen or where Glenn and I have been hiking, might serve as an icon of our love and support for them.

In the Episcopal tradition, we have a custom of writing Ember Day letters. Those who are postulants and candidates in the ordination process are required to write to their bishop on a quarterly basis reflecting on their academic, spiritual and personal growth and, generally, to just check in.  I love to receive these letters.  I receive about six of them each quarter and work to respond to each one with the same faithfulness and care that the seminarian has given to the process of this correspondence.

I remember when I was first in the ordination process as a postulant and was instructed to write Ember Day letters.  I couldn’t wait.  I had a romantic image of sitting down at my desk in a softly lit room with a sheet of ivory colored stationery and a smooth gliding fountain pen, ready to wax on, eloquently, to my bishop about the joys of formation and the wonders of seminary.  It wasn’t long before I realized that it was more likely that I would be struggling to find time to write a missive that would do justice to the intellectual, spiritual and social upheaval in my life.  I tried putting into words about what it was like to have started seminary at age 42,  and finding myself enrolled in a school more than an hour away to which I drove in my mommy-van every morning after dropping my children off at their own schools.  I don’t know what my bishop made of my ember day letters that were usually late and generally sported a few coffee stains and that sat, sometimes, for days in the bottom of my backpack before I could locate a stamp to affix to the envelope-  but he was kind.

For those uninitiated about the idea of Ember Days, here’s some information from that great internet source of some-times credible information, Wickipedia.  This info actually looks pretty credible, so I include it here:

The term Ember days refers to three days set apart for fasting, abstinence, and prayer during each of the four seasons of the year. The purpose of their introduction was to thank God for the gifts of nature, to teach men to make use of them in moderation, and to assist the needy.
Possibly occasioned by the agricultural feasts of ancient Rome, they came to be observed by Christians for the sanctification of the different seasons of the year. James G. Sabak argues that the Embertide vigils were "...not based on imitating agrarian models of pre-Christian Roman practices, but rather on an eschatological rendering of the year punctuated by the solstices and equinoxes, and thus underscores the eschatological significance of all liturgical vigils in the city of Rome."

As the Ember Days came to be associated with great feast days, they later lost their connection to agriculture and came to be regarded solely as days of penitence and prayer.  It is only the Michaelmas Embertide, which falls around the autumn harvest, that retains any connection to the original purpose.

The Ember Weeks, the weeks in which the Ember Days occur, are these weeks:
                between the third and fourth Sundays of Advent (although the Common Worship lectionary of the Church of England places them in the week following the second Sunday in Advent);
                between the first and second Sundays of Lent;
                between Pentecost and Trinity Sunday; and the liturgical Third Week of September. According to an old way of counting, as first Sunday of a month (an information important to determine the appropriate Matins readings) was considered the Sunday proximate to, not on or after, the first of the month, so this yielded as Ember Week precisely the week containing the Wednesday after Holy Cross Day (September 14), and as Ember Days said Wednesday and the following Friday and Saturday.

The English name for these days, "Ember", derives from the Anglo-Saxon ymbren, a circuit or revolution (from ymb, around, and ryne, a course, running), clearly relating to the annual cycle of the year. The word occurs in such Anglo-Saxon compounds as ymbren-tid ("Embertide"), ymbren-wucan ("Ember weeks"), ymbren-fisstan ("Ember fasts"), ymbren-dagas ("Ember days").

And so, on this rainy Friday morning, in which I intend on answering the six Ember Day letters that I have received, I would invite you all to a bit of reflection on how it is with your soul.  Were you to pen a letter to a spiritual mentor or, as the Celts says,  to an “anam cara” or “soul friend,” what might you include?  How is it with your soul?

And maybe this blog entry will encourage you to take up pen and paper and craft a letter to an old friend, family member or someone whose heart would leap to see a hand addressed envelope leaning sideways in their mailbox.  What do you think?


  1. I, too, like receiving hand-written letters. And, by the way, still write the occasional one by hand - even though, after years of scribbling comments on students' papers and hurriedly writing hall passes, my writing has devolved into illegibility! Coincidentally, I recently found, among Daddy's papers (he passed away in June), two packets of letters/postcards I'd written to him and Mother the summer I studied in Yorkshire and the summer I lived in Edinburgh and traveled in Europe. He had carefully written #1, #2, #3, etc. on each one, in the order they were received. A former mailman, he was very attentive to details like that. I'm very grateful for his careful collation of my writings - which I now intend to TYPE (!) into memory booklets. I save almost all letters I get. Now, thanks to him, I've received the gift of those I've sent.

  2. amen. My mother’s letters, some of which I still have, are treasures, even moreso now that she is gone. And to re-read your own letters? What a gift that must be!