No Forwarding Address by George Merrill

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In my last column I mentioned having grown interested in writing letters, real letters not email. In part, the idea was born by a book I read about one woman’s discovery in writing letters to people who’ve influenced her life. What she wrote impressed me.

One of the advantages of being an octogenarian is the long view of life that the years provide. I have both the time and the perspective to recall a rich repository of people who have been significant to me. To intentionally think about those people and what they meant to me is not, as you might expect, just going over the same old turf again. There are new discoveries. The recollections reveal new and startling aspects of how I have been influenced by others. Intentionally pondering the meaning of old relationships is filled with meaning and at oftentimes, surprises.

I’m thinking particularly about a recent letter I wrote – the second one I wrote with an intention to communicate gratitude for what she meant for me. I sent the letter to Maureen.

She was a colleague of whom I was always fond, but at the time I hadn’t realized just what it was about Maureen that drew me to her. We worked together thirty-five years ago. She had that ineffable characteristic gentle people possess: an unassuming presence that brings grace to whatever they’re about. In some ways she seemed to be able impute life even to things as inanimate as a small pile of stones.

Maureen had been a nun in a cloistered community. After years of discernment, she discovered she was being called to a new ministry. She received training and served both as a hospital chaplain and a pastoral counselor.

Occasionally she would lead small groups in meditations. She’d craft small objects as aids to the meditations she’d lead. There was one I remember. From one point of view it was wholly unremarkable. My memory of it – were talking some twenty to twenty-five years ago– is admittedly sketchy. My mind’s eye recollects a pile of small stones, placed on a dish. A candle was placed on the mound.  It seemed to me at that moment that the stones became like some ancient monument to a holy site. Some spiritual awakening had occurred and a small mound of stones had been erected to memorialize it. There is no material monument left by Maureen’s meditation except the picture in my mind and while the details are hazy, the feeling of awe, a sense of the holy is not.

As fuzzy as the image remains in my mind, and that I don’t even recall the particular subject of the meditation, the impression remains and the feeling I have about it is undeniable. She had the gift to bring a spiritual awareness to the things to which she gave her attention, significance that, of themselves, they didn’t possess. She didn’t teach the stones to talk. She invited them to communicate a mystical presence by the intentions she invested in them as she assembled them for the meditation rite.

I’ve sometimes thought of specific places like Lourdes or the Mount of Olives as holy places. I’m beginning to believe that by itself a place is not holy – what makes it holy is the time, the place and the people converging on it at a particular instant. All the circumstances at a particular moment conspire to create an experience that transcends time and place to reveal a new reality, as if by being present with open hearts a small window in the firmament of heaven is thrown open, revealing something of the eternity beyond it.

I will not know what Maureen may think of the letter or even if she will see her graces the way I describe them. I’m not sure she will recollect our common history in the same way as I have. I have seen that happen in families eager to share reminiscences only to discover that one may see particular moments very differently from others. Is it then possible that our experiences with each other may not be as significant when we all see the moment in the same way? We all have our town take. Our shared history with each other is indeed mixed. Few of us will ever know the full impact we have had on another. It may remain hidden for years as if under a small mound of stones.

Sending the letter became my way of reconnecting and celebrating what others have meant to me. Beginning to write the letters I find the hardest part. At first I have only a person’s image in my mind’s eye or some associated objects. Soon a feeling follows. It’s hard to put into words. For a while I’ll draw a blank, but soon recollections begin to take shape and the words come to express my gratitude.

There’s a Christian teaching called the ‘communion of saints.’ It’s stated this way: “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight . . .” When I was a boy, I imagined that I was surrounded by all my relatives who’d died, gone to heaven and they hovered around me, invisible, rooting for me like Casper the friendly ghost. They were my celestial guardians. My youthful understanding of the communion of saints did not survive my seminary education, intact. One thing changed: I believe that those witnesses compassing about me now include many of the living. And I can send them letters, unlike friendly ghosts or even saints that we assume reside in heaven but never leave forwarding addresses.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

Letters to Editor

  1. Sally Woodall says:

    George, Scribbling Glue is a blog that promotes hand-written communication of all sorts: https://scribblingglue.wordpress.com/about/
    And this post will make you smile: https://scribblingglue.wordpress.com/2016/08/28/banana-love-notes/
    I’ve always saved letters. After many years have passed, I sometimes bundle up a batch and mail them back to the sender. Always received with delight.

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