Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
Letters from the past
by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register
(From the Feb. 5, 2009 edition of the Inland Register)
Have the traditional disciplines continued in the contemporary home? In the good old days parents or older siblings seemed to offer a guiding hand to children at every turn. How many times were we told to “Do this!” – or especially, “Don’t do that!”? Don’t stare! Don’t pick your nose! Don’t scratch! Don’t fight! Don’t turn around in church! Don’t run! Don’t touch! Don’t stick out your tongue. Don’t chew with your mouth open!
At the time it was impossible to distinguish between which of these commands fostered blind (paddle-inspired) obedience and those which promoted proper manners or even good moral order.
One such command which sticks in my mind perhaps was unique to me. “Don’t read others people’s mail!” was a firm charge I often heard from my mother. It was accompanied by a quick snatching from my hand of the forbidden piece – the aromatic letters addressed to my brothers. The directive had little to do with the federal law which makes such acts illegal. Mom’s concern was indeed for good moral order, but I realize now that it was more for keeping peace in the household – and keeping me out of harm’s way. Since my older brothers usually were still engaged in some sports activity when I got home from school, I used to sneak a peak at the occasional love letter which came in the mail from some heart-throb. Knowledge about such things gave me a certain, shall we say, “leverage,” when it came to favor-begging or buying my silence from one of my older brothers. Whoever coined the phrase “Knowledge is power” was absolutely right!
It didn’t take long for my Mom to figure that the steam kettle on the stove wasn’t for making tea!
Mom’s emotion-laden command came to mind out of a blue sky recently when I was preparing a talk on the Conversion of St. Paul (Jan. 25). This is Paul’s big year – The Year of Paul – as the universal Church responds to Pope Benedict XVI’s request to honor this early apostle whose preaching and writing have been so immensely influential in the on-going formation of the community of Christ.
Paul’s several letters which now are preserved in the New Testament were not written to me (or us). What are we doing reading someone else’s mail?! The argument that the envelope already had been opened and the fact that millions of others already had read or have had this letter read to them somehow does not make the case.
Often when we hear a reading from St. Paul or open up the Scriptures ourselves, we rarely give a passing thought that we are reading other people’s mail from a rather privileged position. In fact, we are recipients of comments and insights written to others in their unique historical settings – but nowadays without the moral culpability of childhood pranks. St. Paul’s writings are letters – some in the literal sense, and others in a broader sense of communal instruction.
Since the beginning of our Christian Tradition, these letters have been a part of our prayer and reflection. Originally, they were written to specific individuals or communities. With only a few exceptions are they abstract treatises. Given the difficult task of writing in those ancient days, the sacrifice of time and parchment was for a purpose. More often than not, St. Paul’s letters focused on specific problems or pastoral difficulties. Interestingly, their pastoral (parental?) tone is often what not to do!
Paul, a man with burning pastoral zeal, was deeply concerned that the followers of Jesus recognize the difference between living in their darkened culture with the true freedom of the sons and daughters of God and not following the ways of the world and the flesh. He was no moral prude who commanded blind obedience to his opinion. Nor did he seek to form a peculiar people who marched to a drummer not of this world’s understanding. Rather, Paul’s own blinding experience of the Risen Christ made him realize that the Way of Jesus was one that fought off slavery to law (especially the kind that defined genuine faith or devotion as adherence to religious ritual or mere catechetical orthodoxy) and the deceptive darkness of worldly living. His was a clarion call to personal responsibility in the Spirit for living in union with Jesus Christ himself. What great love letters he wrote!
St. Paul’s letters have been preserved and read – and reread … and reread … and reread. Christians of every era struggle with the same basic challenges to our lives of faith – the same subtle and not-so-subtle degradations of our Christian and human dignity. Perhaps that is why, when reading or listening to St. Paul, we don’t have the embarrassing feeling of snooping in someone else’s mail. What Paul wrote to the Galatians, Ephesians, Corinthians, Romans and others, in a true sense he has written to us in our own time and place. Certainly that was not his intention for putting quill to parchment at the time; he wrote to specific individuals or groups. But we have kept their mail and reread it often – not to be one-up on everyone else, but because we need the same pastoral counsel to point us in the direction of Jesus as Savior and Lord. All of us can benefit from the to-do’s and not-to-do’s he has to offer. Who would object to us reading his mail?
(Father Savelesky is the diocese's Director of Deacon Formation and pastor of Assumption Parish in Spokane.)
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