Have you read Love & Salt: A Spiritual Friendship Shared in Letters yet? It’s been out for a year, and it’s a delightful read. And hey, it’s Lenten in nature!
It’s also winning some awards and getting some well-deserved hoorah. That’s all well and good, and you should buy it and read it and share it.
A year after reading and reviewing it, I’m still raving about it.
In case you haven’t heard about Love & Salt, it’s essentially three years distilled into a few hundred pages and at least a hundred letters (no, I didn’t count). It felt like glimpsing into a personal time capsule, one filled with memories and shared laughter and honest experience.
This book is sincere in the most beautiful expression of that word. You read a part of the two women’s souls, share their smiles and their tears, feel yourself wrenched along lives filled with questions.
Love & Salt reads like real life. In some ways, it’s what I love about blogs and find so rarely in books: the honesty, the bare emotion, the hilarity mixed in. It’s truly a cocktail of love and salt, roses and thorns, sugar and spice.
Imagine my delight when I recently had the chance to chat with the authors of a book that I so loved! Be sure to stick around until the end, too, because I have an excerpt to share with you.
SR: Though it’s been over a year since I read it, my love for your book is still strong. Tell us what inspired you to publish these very personal letters you sent each other over the three years.
We really didn’t write our letters with the intent to publish them as a body of work. We were often inspired to write other essays because of what we wrote to each other, but we approached this as a private correspondence and a Lenten discipline that would last 40 days. It wasn’t until we stopped writing for a while and looked back over that correspondence that we discovered the letters told a story that might help others struggling to have faith.
But it was very hard to decide to share them with anyone else. Even after we finished editing the letters into a book-length manuscript, we shelved it for two years before showing it to anyone. Even then we started with our husbands and closest friends.
One of the books that really inspired us to submit to a publisher was Looking Before and After, by Alan Jacobs, which I recommend to any spiritual writer. In it he discusses the importance of testimony and urges Christians to tell their stories so others can see the many different forms the Christian life might take. This helped us to realize that our story fleshes out a particular way to God that has been largely forgotten or treated without seriousness—the way of friendship.
SR: When I stumbled on your Lenten Challenge, I did a double-take. You guys are still writing each other? What do the letters look like now?
Challenge is the key word here. It’s much harder to carve out the time and the headspace to write letters now. We both have small children at home, and we’re both working on other projects. There are fewer moments in the day not just for writing but for any sort of real contemplation. We don’t write to each other with the same regularity that we used to. That’s why it was so important to us to preserve our Lenten discipline of writing a letter a day. Writing a letter, which we both approach as an examination of conscience, or a daily taking stock of our souls, is the best way we’ve found to prepare for Easter and to tend our faith. (Plus there’s built-in accountability.)
As we enter middle-age our questions and concerns are very different than they were nine years ago. We have more questions about the body, whereas we were totally preoccupied with our souls before. But we’re both matter and spirit, and as we struggle with aging I’m very interested in how the Church helps us to cope with the deterioration of our bodies.
My daughter Charlotte and Amy’s son John are 8 and 6.5 now. By the end the first book they are only infants and all our thoughts on parenting and raising children in a faith are abstract and theoretical. Now we are faced with actually imparting the faith and reaping the seed we’ve been sowing from birth, and wow, what a can of worms that has opened for both of us.
That said, we struggle with some of the same problems: Amy still wrestles with doubt, and I still hate contemporary worship music.
SR: Your book’s struck the heart of quite a few people (myself included). Is it the format (letters) or the story that you think struck people the deepest? What feedback have you received about that?
That means so much to us to hear. I think that the form and the content are inseparable. We’ve heard again and again that it’s the candidness, the honesty, the immediacy of the letters that make the story moving. Usually as memoirists we are looking back, shaping stories based on our current knowledge. But in Love and Salt we hope you feel you are participating in our conversation, living a story with us as it unfolds. It’s still striking to both of us how the narrative emerges through our daily conversations. Whenever we re-read it to prepare for events or interviews, we see all over again that we really are participating in a story that is much larger than our own.
People also appreciate the interplay of our two voices, which are so different, and getting to see two very different paths to belief.
SR: What are you both up to these days? Writing projects? Real life? Are you publishing another volume of letters? (I’ll admit to being a bit hopeful.)
We do hope to publish another volume of letters. We’re also working on other projects too, together and alone. We’re leading retreats/workshops on spiritual friendship and letter writing as a spiritual practice. Jessica contributes an essay a month to Good Letters (The Image blog), and I’m also finishing a book about our move Up North. Amy is working on several projects, including a children’s book.
SR: If you were each to share advice for those of us who love letters but don’t write them, what would it be? Why should we write letters?
The way we communicate has changed so much, and along with it, what we communicate. The tone and content of text and emails is very different from anything we would write if we put pen to paper in a quiet room. We do text and email each other like everyone else, but our letters inspire us to a totally different way of thinking.
Amy wonders, would St. Augustine’s words have had the same effect had they popped up in Proba’s inbox? Or would we still be reading O’Connor’s grim words of hope if Louise Abbott’s iPhone had announced their arrival with an 1980s-synth-song ringtone? No, because those lines probably wouldn’t have been written at all.
When you write a letter, you are yearning for a response. It’s the same with any writing really, or even prayer. It’s a religious longing. When you embark on a correspondence with a friend you will actually receive that response we all crave—and it will be tangible, it will come in an envelope in the handwriting of a friend. You will have an artifact of an unseen bond, the invisible will be made visible. This is why we like to think of letter writing as sacramental.
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Now, for a taste of the book…
This excerpt is used with permission of the publisher.
When we got off the phone last night, I felt terrible. I wish I had been able to think of something helpful to say. It’s actually hard for me to understand how you could think you are a poor sponsor, but I guess you have been worrying about that and telling me as much ever since we met. Do you remember the trip to see the relics last summer, soon after we met? That day reminds me of how you are feeling now—your fears of turning me away from God, our different orientations (you the mystic, me the rationalist).
It’s funny, but I vainly remember what I wore on that pilgrimage to St. Anthony’s, but not what you wore. Yet I don’t think this is just a sign of my vanity. I put on my prettiest sundress hoping, as on a first date, to impress you. I can still feel the thrill of walking up that hill toward the doors of the church, full of anticipation.
And we were definitely in the throes of some kind of love as we walked toward the doors, our bare arms brushing now and then. Were we both dizzy? It seems so looking back. And there was some- thing forbidden about that trip, even if it wasn’t our friendship. We were there not as tourists but as pilgrims. We wanted to walk through those doors and be part of what we saw. We wanted not to pass it off as a curiosity or some bizarre sight, a tidbit of quirky reli- gion to drop into a poem or conversation; we wanted to believe in it. I think we went together because we knew that either of us alone would never be up to the task. We opened the doors to that cav- ern of bones and blood and enshrined bits of withered skin, and we entered.
From a distance, it looked like thousands of tiny picture frames hung in vast galleries on the walls, but up close the horrors, as you called them, took shape. The crossed femurs, the skulls barely visible through their veils of lace, the chips of bone, the molars, incisors, and shards of nail. I think it made it worse that these bits of bodies were pinned against velvet in gold casings, sealed in wax. It seemed decadent, depraved almost, as if we were there for a peep show. I stood back in the pews and watched you circle the front. You told me you thought you might throw up.
Watching you reel in front of those bones gave me the feeling of vicarious vertigo, of watching someone else stand on the edge of a cliff. You might have felt the question looming of whether or not you should stay in the church, but I was wondering if I should even enter. The bones and vials of blood were the riddle at the bridge. Would we solve the riddle differently and find ourselves crossing paths or running in opposite directions?
But I think we both sensed that what the other did, we ourselves would do. Whither thou goest. Some things seem to come to life only when shared. It makes me think of the line “wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” The gathering is what reveals the presence of Christ. The gathering is not optional.
So did we walk up the path to St. Anthony’s in the name of Christ? At the time, I doubt either one of us would have admitted that as our motive. But then why did we choose St. Anthony’s as our destiny? In truth, I think we went to St. Anthony’s because we both hoped to find holiness there.
I think it was the very strangeness of that place that appealed to me. It was so far outside any image of holiness that I could have dreamed up. It was gory and dark, and yet those bones and skulls were there because of the great saints who had carried them within their living flesh. These were the scattered, carved-up remains of holiness, and now it was upon us to see past the horror to God. And it wasn’t just the horror that presented the challenge but also the superstition and potential hoax of it all. Were they really the bones of saints, or just the bones of a gravedigger’s cat? And even if they were the bones of saints, isn’t it idolatry, or just plain foolishness, to treat them with such reverence?
But doesn’t the cross (and all of our lives for that matter) present the same challenge—to see through the apparent absurdity, to see past the carnage to Julian Norwich’s “all shall be well, and all shall be well, all manner of thing shall be well”?
And what showed it to me, that glimmer of holiness beyond the bones, was your presence there. At the time it took the form of a dare: I’ll stay if you stay. If you can believe despite all this, then so can I. We stood there, amid the skulls, in awe of our shared desire to still believe, the desire our unspoken dare seemed to reveal. It was the thrill I imagine extreme skiers might feel, to witness themselves alive despite every indication that they should die. Life is strong enough to withstand this, they must think, and they push it farther. How about this? It is the desire for the eternal, something unbreakable and fixed. We wanted to look on tempests (or gaudy bones) and not be shaken.
Throughout our visit I wasn’t sure if we were amid holiness or horror. But isn’t that how people feel in the presence of angels—in love, in horror, in awe? Your presence—the presence of us together at St. Anthony’s—was the first sign to me that I could enter the church. If you could stand there, swaying before the bones but still standing, then so could I, or at least I could stand there with you.
So there. You are my sponsor, like it or not.
In your last letter you were convinced that God would not save John, that he was not coming to your rescue. This fear plagues me, too, that we can’t dare hope for happiness in this life, only the next. Worse, it blinds me to happiness when it does arrive. Even when needs are met and prayers answered, that fear hovers and drives away peace.
I don’t know if I told you about this, but I want to tell it again now anyway. The last time I went to church with you at St. Gregory’s, we were feeling lost and pathetic. I remember sitting next to you in the pew, helpless. The hymn was one of those I usually can’t stand, but the words were St. Paul’s: “Eye has not seen nor ear heard what God has ready for those who love Him.” I clung to it as thought it were a raft in the ocean. Then I remembered that Mr. Sam whispered those same words into my mother’s ear as she lay dying. He said she thanked him, but I wonder if his words were any comfort to her at all. Anyway, St. Paul wasn’t making any promises about this life, only the next. Or was he?
We’ve settled that it will never do to wait on an incomprehensible heaven. How can we desire something we can’t imagine?
With this in mind, I’ve been reading the pope’s Eschatology (figured I might as well go right to the top). But instead of offering a clear vision of heaven, he chips at the barrier between our present and future. He emphasizes the blurred edges between the kingdom of God that has come, is now, and is still to come, and of God’s promises in this life and the next. It seems that we really are supposed to see life after death as a continuation—not a resurrection of a totally new self but a seamlessness. God’s promises do matter here, Benedict says, in this mortal life, precisely because of God’s timelessness. God is not blocked by the same barrier we face between here and heaven. God, instead, regards us in our totality, even as we are being perfected. In fact, we’re not blocked by the barrier either—is that what we mean when we talk of Christ’s victory over death?
When I think of it this way, there’s no reason we can’t believe in happiness in this life. In fact, there’s every reason to claim it. I once told a friend, a Methodist minister, that I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to convert to Christianity because it’s such a terrifying religion. He looked at me, full of genuine concern. “No,” he said emphatically. “As Christians we should be full of joy, because death has no power over us.”
So fine, death has no sting. Suffering still hurts. Even if I can imagine a desirable eternity, there is no cure for the human fear and avoidance of pain. In your quest to understand providence, it seems to me like you want to stare down the darkness and come away with some understanding that will help you to believe. But what you’re finding, while it might satisfy your intellect, doesn’t give you strength. No matter what we believe is waiting for us at the end, we still need courage to go on.
Maybe that is why we desperately need stories—other stories, not just the Scriptures. Which brings me back, finally, to Tolkien.
There is an entire section in “On Fairy Stories” titled “Recovery, Escape, and Consolation.” More than anything, I feel that this is what you need now—not philosophy, or Simone Weil or even the grim humor of O’Connor, but consolation. Maybe there is a kinder road, the road that brought you to the church in the first place.
Tolkien talks of recovery as the “regaining of a clear view . . . I do not say ‘seeing things as they are’ and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might say ‘seeing things as we are (and were) meant to see them.’” Escape here is “the Great Escape: the Escape from Death,” which we desire now more than ever. And then there is the consolation, “the Consolation of the Happy Ending,” the “sud- denly joyous turn (for there is no true end to any fairy tale).” And here I want to quote at length:
This joy, which is one of the things which fairy stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy tale—otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence . . . of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) the final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of joy, joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief . . . joy . . . for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through.
At the end of the Lord of the Rings, Gandalf leads the men into a bat- tle that they know they will lose. Only after they have charged, and because they have charged—for their charge draws the dark forces away from Frodo and Sam—does the miracle happen and the turn come. But how did they summon the courage to rush toward their doom? There was faith—that all hope was not lost, even if they could not imagine how help would come—and there was love, love for Frodo, love of goodness. They raised their banners and charged.
Does it help at all to remember your love of that story, of the nobility of those men and the unexpected courage of the Hobbits? Somehow I think it might. You are there, facing the darkness. And you will need the courage it takes to fight against death for the sake of goodness—John—no matter what waits on the other side. Maybe it is sorrow. But there may yet be hope.