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My Treasured Letters and the Letters of the Saints

With the advent of the Internet and email, the art of letter writing has suffered in the 21st century.
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I Love Letters!

I have running shoe boxes and letter boxes filled with handwritten letters I have received from friends, family and students through out the years. I have beautiful love letters. My collection of cherished letters dates back to when I was in sixth grade. I have close to 200 letters. My boxes of letters also contain hundreds of birthday, anniversary, thank you, congratulatory, sympathy, Christmas, Valentine, and Mother's Day cards, and postcards from across the globe. Letters reveal the writer's personality, joy, pain, struggles, suffering, good news, bad news, hopes, humor, compassion, gratitude and spirituality. Letters reveal how the writer reaches out to the recipient and much more.

From the author's collection of letters ©Miriam Diaz-Gilbert

With the advent of the Internet and email, the art of letter writing has suffered in the 21st century. Instead of handwriting letters, I now type and email letters. I have added to my collection of letters not only the personal email letters I have received but also the email letters I have sent to a variety of recipients. Letters of any kind fascinate me, including the letters of St. Catherine of Siena, St. Ignatius of Loyola, and St. Teresa of Avila -- all prolific letter writers. We can learn so much about letter writing from these saints.

The Pedagogical Value of the Letters of the Saints in Writing Classes

During my doctoral studies in theology and Christian spirituality, I studied the letters of these saints. Catherine wrote over 382 letters, the majority written between 1374 and 1380. They were addressed to politicians, royalty, disciples, her confessor, and others. Catherine's writing style, use of metaphors, androgynous language, and attention to audience have been the focus of contemporary Catharinian scholars dedicated to the rhetoric of her letters. Some scholars believe Teresa, a Catholic of Jewish origin, wrote as many as 25, 000 letters under the scrutiny of the Spanish Inquisition. Only 468 letters written during the last fifteen years of her life, from 1557 - 1582 to a variety of recipients, survived. In some letters she used code names. For example, 'matchmaker' was used for Jesus, and 'Angela' was used to refer to herself. Ignatius wrote approximately 7, 000 letters. The letter that fascinates me the most is his 1542 letter on care in letter writing . In this letter to a fellow Jesuit, Ignatius is adamant about the importance of rewriting, rereading, revising, and proofreading in letter writing.

Before teaching theology, I taught first-year college writing and rhetoric. I have discovered that, the letters of the saints are filled not only with their Christian spirituality but also have great pedagogical value. Their letters should be taught to writing students. Their letters not only provide great historical value but they also have much to teach writing students about the use of pathos, logos, and ethos, purpose, audience, and the art of letter writing.

The Pedagogical Value of Early Letter Writing

I wrote my first letter in fourth grade. Our teacher taught us how to write a letter. We learned the parts of a letter, how to address the envelope, print our first and last name on the return address, and how to securely and properly place the licked five-cent stamp on the right hand corner of the envelope. I wrote in my best cursive writing to the tourism office in Sacramento, CA. and asked for information about Sacramento. Not long after I found a yellow manila envelope with my name on it in our mailbox at home. The envelope was filled with brochures and pictures of sunny Sacramento. I grinned from ear to ear with delight.

I have no idea how many letters I have written since fourth grade. I often wonder if my family and relatives, friends, and former students from through out the world have preserved the letters that I have sent them. I hope that today school children are taught the art of letter writing.

Unplug, Pick up a Pen, and Write a Letter

I last wrote a handwritten letter in June 2015 to a friend of my daughter. He posted on Facebook that he wanted to bring the lost art of letter writing back to our fast-paced world. He would write first to all who would write back to him. I messaged him with my home address. I received his first letter in May 2015. I reciprocated and wrote him a long letter. I mentioned the letter writing of Catherine, Ignatius, and Teresa. In his letter, he asked about my ultrarunning, so I wrote about that, too. I let him know that his letter-writing project was a great idea. I have not received another letter from him, probably because he has a stack of letters from others to read through first. I wait with great anticipation for his next letter.

In the meantime, if you do not have the time to write letters perhaps, you can make time to read the letters of the saints, or the letters of others. Look through old scrapbooks, old suitcases, drawers, and shoeboxes for bundles of letters you have saved but have forgotten about. In our world of instant gratification, the time-consuming and lost art of letter writing in messy penmanship or in beautiful cursive writing may not be appealing. Even Teresa understood how time-consuming letter writing is. In a 1572 letter to her sister Juana, she wrote, "... with so many duties and chores ... the biggest burden is letter-writing." But re-reading old letters might move you to slow down just a bit, to unplug, and to pick up a pen. Set quiet time aside to fill sheets of brand new stationery paper with handwritten words and thoughts in your best penmanship. Enclose the letter in a handwritten envelope adorned by a lick-free self-sticking stamp.

"Writing letters is the purest form of friendship humans can possibly express. We capture ourselves in a moment, and then we give that moment to someone else." ~ Anonymous.