The value of a real letter

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We have become so used to email and texts.  Do we write letters anymore?

Last year I resolved to write more by hand.  I actually thought about making a bargain with someone to exchange well-crafted, well-pondered letters which, over the years, might serve as a collection of sorts.  I discovered how hard it is, in this e-world, to write anything, much less letters.  How my handwriting has degraded!

From the prized and erudite Laudator, poster of fascinating tidbits:

St. Jerome, letter 7.2 (to Chromatius, Jovinus, and Eusebius; tr. F.A. Wright):

Now I talk to your letter, I embrace it, it carries on a conversation with me, it is the only thing here that knows Latin. In this place an old man has either to learn a barbarous jargon, or else to hold his tongue. The handwriting I know so well brings your dear faces before my eyes; and then either I am no longer here or else you are here with me. Believe love when it tells you the truth: as I write this letter I see you before me.

Nunc cum vestris litteris fabulor, illas amplexor, illae mecum loquuntur, illae hic tantum Latine sciunt. Hic enim aut barbarus seni sermo discendus est aut tacendum est. Quotiensque carissimos mihi vultus notae manus referunt inpressa vestigia, totiens aut ego hic non sum aut vos hic estis. Credite amori vera dicenti: et cum has scriberem, vos videbam.

J.N.D. Kelly, Jerome: His Life, Writings, and Controversies (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1975), p. 49, n. 15:

The older reading ‘barbarus semi-sermo’ ( = ‘the barbarous gibberish’), which has good MS support, seems preferable to ‘barbarus seni sermo’ (‘at my advanced years I must learn a barbarous speech’), which Hilberg adopted.

By the way, St. Jerome, patron of grouchy priests, detested St. Ambrose.  Saints don’t always have to get along and they aren’t always “nice”.  HERE   Jerome’s tomb is somewhere in St. Mary Major in Rome.  HERE

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. YoungLatinMassGuy says:

    In defense of my patron saint, St. Jerome: You’d be a perpetually grumpy grouch too if you were always right and everyone else around you was always wrong to one degree or another.

  2. The Masked Chicken says:

    Letters that are handwritten are so much a part of the person who writes them that they become second-class relics should the person become canonized. Not so with e-mails. Einstein refused to read anything he got in the mail that was type-written. E-mail has its place, but it’s not really the same, sigh. I used to write ten page stories to friends (my life is too boring to require more than a sentence) and I created characters for each one. The letters form a book of stories that relate to that time and place. Letters slow us down and make us think. They are keepsakes. I was not alive when my parents were courting, but they kept their letters. They are heirlooms.

    I am so glad that 1st-century Rome did not have e-mail. That would have made history interesting.

    The Chicken

  3. donadrian says:

    I trust that you will use a fountain-pen. [A nice thought, but picking up a writing instrument for a long period at all, is already something. I do have a good Waterman. Perhaps when I am in Rome (coming up) I can look around. Feel free to make a substantial earmarked donation. o{]:¬)

  4. benedetta says:

    All quite interesting Fr. Z., as usual — and to me the last about niceness. Funny how in our times when authenticity and being spiritual are prized above the virtue of religion and its personal, communal and outward expressions, the notion of superficial “nice” seems equated as the sum total of our requirements in charity with respect to our relationships with one another, a nice that could even countenance the denial of what makes us human and what binds us within God’s providence to one another, apparently. Refreshing to comprehend that sometimes holiness is does not immediately strike as “nice” but reaches past to a deepest communion, one which is the highest expression of love within the Church in which we belong and are beholden to.

  5. Charles E Flynn says:

    More opportunities to read other people’s mail centuries later:

    Roman Letters: An Anthology, by Noelle K. Zeiner-Carmichael.

  6. jameeka says:

    Fr Z: you need a little team of scribes..

  7. gramma10 says:

    Let’s ask “Hallmark” what they think? There was a movie about a letter lost in the mail for many, many years. One day it was found and finally delivered to a very aged recipient to whom it was addressed.
    It turned out to be a special letter from the person’s deceased spouse. It brought the loved one back in time to wonderful memories and with much joy.
    The paper, the ink, the smell, the smudges etc. . . .really touch ones senses. . .and especially touches ones heart!
    Can a digital email do that?
    Plus ancient manuscripts are preserved everywhere and guarded intensely. I have my deceased dad’s written papers from his days here on earth. His own handwriting is really there, a part of him.
    All of this is a little piece of a real live human being who left me something to touch of himself. An ‘eternal’ thing.
    So, yes, real letters and writing do matter. Email is a quick message sender in this era of immediate gratification. They call letters, ‘snail mail’!
    So I conclude with a thought which just came to me. . .the Real Presence of Christ in the adoration chapel I visit.
    Jesus left us something to touch and even eat! Of course it really is Him but what if it was a digital photo? (actually there is one on (!) Not the same. I think all of this is a ‘sacrament’, isn’t it? (a visible sign, giving grace?)
    Something felt by the senses is real. There is a reason to ‘sense’ things. It goes deep into the heart and soul.
    I do not sense emails as quite the same. Thank you and Amen.

  8. Fr. Z:

    Would you consider a letter exchange program with children? My 4 year old isn’t quite at the writing age yet, but he certainly enjoys receiving letters in the mail. I can only imagine how exciting it would be for a 7-10 year old to write to a priest and receive a letter back from him. Seems like it would be a wonderful idea for helping boys aspire to the priesthood and planting the first seeds of a priestly vocation in their young minds. Maybe you could even get a group of priests (and nuns?) together to help participate in such a writing endeavor!

  9. Andrew says:

    Fr. Z:

    How my handwriting has degraded!

    My first advice to anyone wanting to improve his handwriting would be:

    Slow it down! A lot! Take at least two seconds to form each letter.

    Don’t use a ball point pen. Get some nibs (Speedball B5 and B6 will cost less than $2.00 and invest in a wooden holder at another $2.00)

    You will need a bottle of ink: ( I use Noodlers brand made in the US )

    The most expensive investment will be the paper: (Rhodia or Clairfontaine will do the trick).

    If you wish to use a fountain pen, there is no need to spend hundreds of dollars. A ‘Lamy Safari’ sells for $28.00 and it works better than many ‘collector’ brands selling for much more.

    For those who don’t mind to invest a little more a Pelikan M200 with an Italic nib is a small masterpiece at approx. $ 160.00 (still much less then most electronic gadgets).

  10. george says:

    I like my Lamy pens. I have a Al-Star (aluminum body) and two Safaris which I use all the time. I like the XF nib for work things when I’m writing small fine things, and I have a 1.1 italic that I use for general writing and writing checks and stuff. I also use Noodler’s Ink because I love how dark the black is and I like that it’s bulletproof. For my Italic pen I use Lexington Grey.

    I found that my handwriting improved with the use of the fountain pen because I could use less pressure when writing. It didn’t take very long to get used to the FP, though the italic nib takes a bit more practice. Being left-handed I find them especially helpful.

  11. RAve says:

    We can all write to the 20 new cardinals (names at the link in Englush). 15 new cardinals – here are the names.

  12. de_cupertino says:

    Being under thirty, I grew up with email, and I never sent thank-you notes (!). Recently, however, I decided to start writing letters. My problem is nobody writes back (except a few priests who replied at the email address I scrawled under my signature.)

    I’ll second what Andrew says about Rhodia and Clairefontaine paper. It’s actually not expensive if you compare to the cost of the stamp! I’ll also second the Lamy Safari suggestion, or if you’d prefer a round grip to the triangular grip of the Safari, try the similarly great Pilot Metropolitan (~$15).

    I fixed my handwriting by working through a workbook “Write Now: The Complete Program For Better Handwriting, by Barbara Getty and Inga Dubay (who learned calligraphy from the same professor at Reed College whom Steve Jobs often talked about.)

  13. Mac_in_Alberta says:

    Leave the heresy of ballpointism and the rollerballist schism. Come home to the true faith of fountainpenism.
    Seriously, a fountain pen glides over the paper and leaves its traces in ink. It is physically easier to write with than a ballpoint and produces a more expressive line. It makes your hand more individual, which does NOT mean messy and illegible.
    For excellent information on pens, see the Pentrace and Fountain Pen Network websites. For inexpensive pens, there are many sales sites online.

  14. Mac_in_Alberta says:

    I am going to add an endorsement of both the Lamy Safari design, including its Al-Star metal-bodied stablemate, and the Pilot Metropolitan. Pilot is a Japanese brand, so the nib widths run about half a size narrower than North American or European nibs.
    My absolute favourite right now is a Pelikan M-200, but that cost a bit more. It nonetheless goes to work with me a lot.

  15. AdTrinitatemPerMariam says:

    I’ve always enjoyed reading and writing real, handwritten letters. My family jokes that I’m the one who keeps USPS in business! ;)
    The past couple months I’ve been corresponding with an elderly nun who is a dear friend of mine, and she said it well, “Handwriting is personal. It brings us close to one another and pays so much more. The advanced age we live in robs us of precious intimacies. Thank you for writing.”

  16. Suburbanbanshee says:

    If you’re not using a quill pen, reed pen, stylus and wax tablet, or brush, you’re all super-wimpy. Do fountain pens require use of a pen-knife? No!

    Ballpoint pens are one of the world’s greatest inventions.

  17. MouseTemplar says:

    Those of us who correspond in (fountain) pen and ink are out here, busily evangelizing where we can in our letters! I’ve logged over 400 letters in 2014.

    Please do consider a fountain pen, the Lamy Safaris are excellent and writing with a fountain pen is much easier on the hand. I’d recommend Tomoe River paper for fountain pen friendly paper (paper matters). Ink choices are endless and Goulet Pen Company a good place to start.

    If you’re going to take the time, do it with elegant, quality equipment.

  18. MouseTemplar says:

    That said, I’be happy to send you a Safari, medium nib, and ink if you’re game!

Comments are closed.