April 14, 2008
Godspeed, my dear. Oremus pro invicem. Let us pray for each other.
— Henry Erhart, S.J., b. 1924, American theologian
I took yesterday to clear my head with a trip to the Jesuit Spiritual Center at Wernersville. About this time last year I spent a transformative week there. I’m feeling a little ragged emotionally and spiritually (a state triggered by Lynn’s impending college graduation, another turning point, a fork stuck in the road, so to speak), and it was good to spend some time in the place that so restores my soul. I was able to have a brief visit with my friend Father Henry, who let me go with his usual blessing, quoted above. That alone was worth the trip.
The announced theme for April NaBloPoMo has been letters. I haven’t posted every day, but the pieces I have completed have had some reference to letters, if only metaphorically. No such collection of essays would be complete without an examination of love letters.
On this date in 1999 I wrote about the love letters I’ve received over the years, both the ones I’ve kept and the ones I’ve thrown away. The letters referred to were from young men who, for a time anyway, thought of me as someone on whom they wished to bestow their love and care.
Today I’m thinking about another letter I received long ago, which, in its way, was a love letter. The writer of that letter also wished me love and care, and I spurned it.
I remember the day we met. It was a quiet suburban afternoon in the summer of 1966, the summer after my first year of college. I worked the dinner shift at a hotel restaurant, went out with friends afterward, slept all morning, and spent the early afternoons reading (I think that was my Faulkner summer). That is probably what I was doing the day she came up the walk and rang the doorbell.
She was a girl my age. I can remember her form, if not her face and name. She was about the same height and build as I, with long hair caught back in barrettes. She wore no makeup, and her clothes were at once youthful and matronly — a gingham skirt, I think, and a plain white blouse, much different from the cut-off shorts and tee-shirt I was wearing. Pinned to her blouse were two badges, one a solicitor’s permit issued by the borough of Camp Hill, the other an ID issued by her college, Bob Jones University. She was an evangelist.
This was only a few weeks after the Easter I knew I had no faith. My Catholic upbringing had taught me that I had been, by the grace of God, born into the One True Faith and I had to be wary of purveyors of false faiths (Protestants) who were well-meaning but whose teachings were clouded by error. (Please understand that I was NOT taught they were evil, just in error.)
I was on the verge of rejecting all of it. Intellectually and emotionally, I had rejected Christian theology, but it would take a while longer for me to move through a series of labels from skeptic to doubter to agnostic and finally to atheist. If pressed, I would say that on that summer day in 1966, the “R.C.” in my vitae stood for “Reluctant Catholic.”
But the girl wanted to tell me the Good News that God loved me and had a wonderful plan for my life, that I was justified by faith not works, that if I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior I would be born again and be a lot happier.
Her language made me uncomfortable. In Catholicism we didn’t use words like “personal savior” and “born again” and “justified.” We just went to Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation, avoided meat on Fridays and a host of other days that we’d be reminded of at Sunday Mass, went to confession (where I invariably said I’d disobeyed three times and lied twice) and bowed our heads when we passed a (Catholic) church or had occasion, in reverent, serious conversation, to say the name of Jesus.
I told the girl that I was Catholic, thank you, but didn’t put much store in that anymore. I probably wasn’t rude to her, but I think I might have been prickly. She gave me some tracts (one of them entitled “How to Get to Heaven from Harrisburg, PA”), told me that she would pray for me, and went on her way.
A few weeks later I received a letter, postmarked Greenville, South Carolina, the site of Bob Jones U. It was addressed to “College Sophomore.” The girl told me that she believed God had laid me on her heart, that she was praying for me, and that she wished to enter into a friendship by correspondence, about life in general and not just the urgent matter of my salvation. She told me about her school, her dorm room, her new boyfriend (that God had chosen for her), her plans for the upcoming school year. She hoped to hear from me soon.
I felt uncomfortable, even threatened. If I were to accept the One True Faith of my upbringing, even having the evangelism materials might be sinful at worst, foolish at best. If I were to reject it all, say aloud “I do not believe any of this. There is no God and the man Jesus is not my savior,” I would be rowing alone in a sea of uncertainty with no mile markers and no buoys. I was not ready for that.
I kept the letter for a while, along with the tracts. I never answered it. The day I bought my books and supplies for the new semester I cleaned off my desk and threw all that stuff away. And I never heard from her again.
In the years since then I’ve come full circle. Actually, that’s not an accurate metaphor. I’m not back in the place where I was. I’ve gone from traditional Catholic to doubter to atheist. I’ve had a conversion experience, found and fed a deep hunger for spiritual connection, sought guidance and developed a practice of prayer, and now call myself a Christian, loosely Lutheran. In the words of “Simple Gifts,” to bow and to bend I am not ashamed, and by turning and turning I’ve come round right.
I think often of that girl from Bob Jones University. How long did she pray for me? Has her faith sustained her all these years? Is it the same now as it was then?
I would like to tell her that her prayers for me were not in vain. Maybe they didn’t have the outcome she expected — the spiritual stance I have now would still have some difficulty fitting in with that taught at Bob Jones — but I do now have a personal relationship with God and I am happy. We can never know how much or in what way her love of God and her love and care of me, however brief and anonymous, contributed to my current state. But there is not a doubt in my mind that it did.
Oremus pro invicem, Father Henry always says. Last year he wrote my name on a card and said he was adding it to the list of people he prays for by name every day. This year he didn’t quite remember me, and I certainly can understand that. But somewhere in his room, I’m sure, is that card. I keep similar lists in my notebooks. Today I’m adding a new one. The Jones Girl, I’ll call her. May all be well with her.
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