The Way of Beauty Letter Writing

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The electronic age may have displaced cursive writing, but love letters, thank-you notes, and letters to Santa, for example, are typically handwritten. It's the personal touch that counts.  Certain letters have become fixed and valued historical documents.  In fact, St. Paul's letters were the first New Testament writings to be recorded, even before the gospel writers.  As such, they belong to the canonical texts. 

Letter Writing among the Ancients

Letter writing dates from about 3300 BCE.  People wrote letters because they had an idea they wished to communicate to a wider audience, except for love letters which were meant for only one-the beloved. Most letters were powerful forms of expression because of their compact organization, except for love letters which were scattered and loosely-structured.  As one example of the latter, while still married to Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII wrote seventeen love letters to his mistress, Anne Boleyn.  While plotting his request for an annulment from Clement VII, the King supersaturated his letters with effusive nosegays; they read like gushing sentiments of a smitten, love-sick adolescent.

Emperors had a trusted courier, a slave, or secretary who notated their words and delivered their letters.  A poor man took his letter to a favorite tavern; a relative or trusted friend collected and delivered it as a circular letter to a group. A love letter, especially if it involved an illicit liaison, had to be sent through a discreet and trusted carrier.

Materials for Letter Writing

Letter writing was a tedious and expensive activity. First, papyrus, the soft inner part of the bark of a tree, was used as a writing pad.  This material-the pith-resembled the white, inside part of an orange or lemon skin. Then, the papyrus had to be dried and smoothed out with pieces placed side by side.  The stylus or pen was made from wood, metal or bone shaped to a point.  Later, quills were used on vellum or parchment, produced from animal skins.

Actual Writing and Length of Letters

Letters were created in three ways: they were dictated to a scribe at a slow laborious  or, the author spoke at a fast clip, and the servant took down the contents in short hand; finally, the author told the scribe the general idea or main points.  Then the scribe would write it out in full.  The author would sign it and send it off with his own name affixed at the end with a personal seal.  Henry wrote to Anne Boleyn in his own script, and he assures her that it is so. Paul used all three formats in his letters.

Paul: the Man of Great Letters

On almost every Sunday of the Church Year, parts of St. Paul's letters are read during the Liturgy of the Word. The Apostle to the Gentiles was a master of letter writing in the way Leonardo DaVinci wielded a paint brush, in the way Shakespeare composed his masterpieces.

Paul's intense personality could be seen in his single-minded purpose-to preach Christ crucified, to preach Christ risen from the dead.  Paul's dynamic imagery is unrivaled, his metaphors, vivid and memorable. As a teacher and spiritual father, Paul conveyed urgency: 'this is my vocation-to be with you and teach you,' 'I need you,' 'you must do this for the Lord,' 'I hold you dear to my heart, and I thank my God for you.'  'I expect you to do this,' 'Are you mad?' 'Don't you know that you are temples of God, and that God dwells in you?' 'You are that temple.' Though he rebuked the community when necessary, he also allowed them to love him.

For pastoral reasons, Paul adapted and adjusted his style to every community he visited, speaking in koine Greek, the "coined" language of the people; his letters were intended to be read aloud to the faith-community. For all his rigorous thinking, this urbane Jew, Pharisee, and Roman citizen steeped in Greek culture and philosophy was a sickly man.  He dragged himself from place to place insisting, "I am still running, trying to capture the prize, and I strain ahead for what is still to come. ... I am racing to the finish, for the prize" (3:12, 14).

Indefatigable, irrepressible, and unflinching, Paul was convinced that he could do all things in him who strengthened him. 

The Ode to Love

The First Letter to the Corinthians may be summarized in the word:  body. The epistle concerns the health of the body-body and soul. Their unity is profound.   

Paul's sublime praise of love in Chapter 13 is a masterpiece of the human condition. In basic and plain colloquial lyrics, the Beatles did get it right:  "Love is all you need; all you need is love; love is all you need."   

Here is Paul in an ecstasy about love; here is Paul at the pinnacle of love:

More in The Way of Beauty

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love,

I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge,

and if I have all faith so as to move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,

but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.

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It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;

It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.

It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends.

But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease;

as for knowledge, it will come to an end.

For we know only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end;

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child;

when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face.

Now I know only in part; then I will know fully,

And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Paul's 'Letter of Joy' to the Church at Philippi

Paul wrote to his beloved Philippians in 56-57 while under house arrest at Ephesus.  He loved them not just because of their financial support, but also for their receptivity to his teaching.  They brought him great joy, a word he used sixteen times throughout the letter. He held them close to his heart and could say unequivocally:  "I thank my God whenever I think of you; every time I pray for you, I pray with joy" (1:3). And, "my prayer for you is that your love for each other may increase more and more and never stop improving your knowledge and deepening you perception so that you can always recognize what is best" (1:8).  "Do all things without murmuring or arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation in which you shine like the stars" (2:14-15).  

As the Church shortly turns toward the Lenten-Easter cycle, St. Paul's letters will play a central role in the Paschal Mystery.  His Hymn to Christ as the God-Man reaches its peak in the Christological hymn:

"In your minds, you must be the same as Christ Jesus:

He state was divine

yet he did not cling to his equality with God

but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave

and became as men are,

he was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross.

But God raised him high

and gave him a name

which is above all other names

so that all beings

in the heavens, on earth, and in the underworld,

should bend the knee at the name of Jesus

and that every tongue should acclaim

Jesus Christ as Lord,

to the glory of God the Father" (2:5-11).

Who of us would not want to receive a letter from the greatest letter writer of them all?

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