By Kurt Strom
We’ve come a long way.
There was a time when the only way people could communicate was face to face or via letters. More often than not, our forebears used the medium of the pen to convey their deepest emotions, beliefs, hopes, and fears.
My internship this summer, generously funded by the Hodson Trust, is with the Holden Historical Society; I will be transcribing nearly two hundred letters written from 1829-1930. I have spent the past week and a half reading letters that were written in the mid-19th century.
The stories conveyed by these letters open a world to us; they open a window to history, a window to lives previously unseen. These people are not politicians, poets, or philosophers by trade. Nevertheless, what they say, as well as how they say it, is characteristic of φιλοσοφία (philosophia or “love of wisdom”). The letters range from the mundane to the sacred; discussions of daily activities are intermixed with calls to salvation, pleas to accept Christ and “reject the world.” We see the trials and tribulations of small town families. We can witness romance, sadness, and honest reflection. There is humor in these letters, but there is also a deep respect and reverence, not simply for God, but for each other. These letter writers, no matter who they are writing to, are formal, respectful, and, in some cases, flowery. If a letter is a day late, there is a paragraph of apology, a page of mea culpa. Everyone is “dear friend” and “affectionate cousin.” This respect is the result of an intimacy between writer and reader, an unwritten, unspoken understanding that what is said is meant, and that there is nothing to be hidden between friends. Does this intimacy still exist today? I think it does, and I know where it can be found.
Reading the letters of these “common” people allows me to be transported to their day. But it is not simply the fact that they are “common” that allows me to put myself in their shoes. The books we read on the Program, the authors with whom we attempt to understand and empathize, can sometimes seem distant, as if they reside in an Ivory Tower, but when we see them as people, we can then see ourselves as their equals, as created equal to them. I do not think that it is an accident or coincidence that some of the greatest works we read on the program, such as Plato’s Republic, the Book of Psalms, and the Divine Comedy, are in the first person. We almost become the narrators (Socrates, David, and Dante, respectively). At the very least, we are able to better understand their points and their feelings, the triumphs, the grief, the wit, the wisdom. We do not need to read Program books to experience these feelings. We can experience them by partaking in any kind of dialogue, even that secret dialogue we all have with ourselves, that dialogue of self-examination which brings us closer to knowing ourselves. In these dialogues lies the intimacy of which I spoke, and from it: the respect, the reverence, an understanding of trust, and, indeed, love (philia).
We may have come a long way in terms of how we communicate, but we are certainly where we were in 1839, or even 439 B.C.E., when it comes to how we live and what we say. Language evolves, communication is forever changing, but ideas are immortal. The letter writers, the tragedians, the poets, and the philosophers of old, all these great men and women, shall die but their ideas live forever. These ideas are the waters of life perpetually running through a great Fountain of Immortality that shall continue run as long as there are people willing to have a dialogue, and able to create with their minds, hearts, and souls.
May St. John’s continue to be a Fountain of Immortality for years to come.