So when I heard Amy Andrews and Jessica Mesman Griffith, the authors of Love and Salt: A Spiritual Friendship Shared in Letters talking about their exchange of letters last April I added it to the top of my summer reading list.
Amy Andrews and Jessica Mesman Griffith met in a creative writing workshop while they were graduate students in Pittsburgh. On a class trip to New York City, they came across a copy of the Book of Ruth and were captured by the line
Whither thou goest, I will go
Thy God shall be my God.
A few months later Amy moved to Chicago to teach math and Jessica took a job at Notre Dame. When Amy, who had grown up with a religious bent in an agnostic household, decided to become a Roman Catholic, she asked Jess to accompany her through the process, to be her sponsor. Jess vows to write a letter (not an email!) to Amy every day during Lent, and Amy decides to write in return. They continued to write to each other intermittently over the next five years, writing they say,
"...to preserve and make sense of our daily lives; we wrote to confess and console, to rant and grieve. But more than anything else, we wrote because it was the only way we know how to pray...In our letters, we wrote ourselves back to belief." [p. xi]
I suspect many of us who blog and preach have walked this path. Writing is a way into a relationship between God and ourselves, our friends, our congregations and our readers. We write, to paraphrase CS Lewis, because we can't help ourselves; we write because we're helpless; we write because the need flows out of us all the time — waking and sleeping; we write, not to change God — but to change ourselves.
In these letters, Jess and Amy share their joys and concerns around faith and God and religious practice, the whole of it wound into the fabric of their everyday lives: birthdays, basketball games, and baptisms. Above all it recounts their journey of faith; not one that is piously placid, but one that takes them through lands that are green and through howling deserts. It is not a journey that leaves either Amy or Jess unscarred. There is love and there is salt.
Though there is a natural narrative arc to the collection of letters, loosely organized around the liturgical calendar — Lents, Easters and Ordinary Time — it is not a book to be drunk too quickly. I read it in short pieces over two months, and even then it felt like I was moving too fast. I wanted to hold this faith journey gently, to listen to Jess and Amy's story, to hear in it echoes of all our faith lives. At this point, I couldn't share my copy with anyone, I wrote so many notes to myself in the margins.
[Spoiler alert: Since this isn't a novel, I'm not sure there is anything to spoil, but just in case you want to let the journey unfold in its own way, without knowing much about the events that shape it, skip to the last paragraph.]
If you are still with me, know that the second part of this book is what makes the title so apt, and for me, so powerful. Both Jess and Amy become mothers in 2006. Jess to Charlotte, Amy to Clare. Clare dies just before she is born. Amy struggles with God, with fear, with rending grief, as she mourns Clare and then becomes pregnant with a son, John. Jess struggles with being alone with a newborn while her husband is away working in another city. Through their letters, and in person, they walk with each other, grieving, listening, a ministry of steadfast presence, whither you go:
"Again, the consolation was not of relief, but accompaniment." [p. 254]says Amy of two aunts who drove miles to be with her at Clare's burial.
The letter format means that the raw roller ride of grief is very evident, as good and bad days are swirled together. Having lived through a similar period of wrenching grief in my twenties, I can remember the odd way that joy and pain wound around each other in those days, and wish that I had known that this storm tossed pattern was normal, or as normal as anything can be in such times.
In summary, this is an exquisite book. Read it if you want to see how faith looks when it is clothed in doubt, rings with joy, is rent by grief, when it comes alive in our messy human lives. I'm hoping it inspires a host of similar exchanges, whether on paper or electronically or shared over coffee.
- What inspires you to put pen to paper and add a stamp?
- Have you ever carried on a sustained correspondence, either through email or on paper? or dreamed of doing it?
- Thomas Merton noted in a journal, "To write is to think and to live — even to pray." Do you find writing to be a way to pray?
Share your thoughts in the comments!
I bought a physical copy of this book from Amazon, and page citations refer to that version.