A recent Saturday found me sorting through project memos and notes from meetings. Amid the embarrassing array of unfinished business, I found a packet of meditations written by one of our now deceased sisters. It had been given to me by a friend of hers who thought that her reflections on God’s presence in the natural world would be of special interest to me. I had left them unread.
As I leafed through, I realized that there was a stack of letters there, too — not written by her but written to her by someone who left them unsigned. Curious enough, I started reading. The first thing that startled me was the realization that I knew the writer. He had to be Bob, a man I taught in a lay ecclesial ministry program nearly 30 years ago. The references to his wife, his town, the work with the gas company from which he was now retired, his little league coaching, and the band in which he played were giveaways.
The second thing that startled me was the fact that he had sent the sister a chatty monthly missive for more than four years — years, for her, of chemo, remission, and cancer that returned with a vengeance.
Bob had long had a weekly appointment with the Lord at the adoration chapel in our religious community’s motherhouse and drove 15 miles one way to keep that appointment. During his work years, he referred to the cab of his truck as his sanctuary. There he could contemplate. The prayer life he developed through his devotions came through in every painstakingly typed letter.
Bob shared the mundane moments of his life with his one-way pen pal. He noted changes of seasons, the antics of grandchildren and pets, garden growth, and occasions when he was called out of retirement for an emergency furnace repair. He remarked on liturgical seasons and feast days.
In several of his letters Bob talked about household adventures like replacing a bathtub or building a deck, things for which he had no prior experience. He always managed to spiritualize these events. I quote one example: “All this construction this month reminds me of my faith, always planning, being tested, some success, many changes, always praying for God’s intervention. It’s just like God not to allow one day to go by without offering us a chance to work on our relationship.”
Bob, it seems, was always at work on relationships with family, home, town, parish, the natural world, the whole Trinity — and a nun with cancer.
As we proceed through November, which always confronts us with the four last things — death, judgment, heaven, hell — I realize that Bob has offered a great lesson on how to do at least one of the Lord’s corporal works of mercy, which will be a matter of judgment. (See the end of Matthew 25.) He showed that visiting the sick can sometimes be done through a faithful, down-to-earth piece of mail.
Sister Pamela Smith, SSCM, is the Secretary for Education and Faith Formation at the Diocese of Charleston. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.