Yesterday I began my next doctoral essay. Here’s a sneak peek at the introduction -JB.
“If you had sent a letter…there would have been nothing to prevent my seeming to be actually in your company, and enjoying it as though we had been together… But why do you not write?” –St. Basil to Leontis, 364 AD
Pastors know all too well the unbearable silence of Monday that can precipitate a sudden torrent of internal voices—some accusing, some doubting, others second-guessing but ultimately wondering, “Did it make any difference?” Another sermon tossed like divine seed across a field of varying soils. Will it take root? Was it the right word at the right moment for the right person?
There’s the ever present challenge of relevance: How did my sermon on “forgiveness” even begin to speak to Tom’s grief over his wife’s untimely death? What good comes of waxing eloquent on the perichoretic nature of the Trinity when Kate is on the verge of relapsing in her recovery? And why labor all week long in the study over a sermon when the folks who need to hear it most will be absent in the pew on Sunday anyway? (Another hockey tournament takes precedence over a spiritually disintegrating soul.)
The unbearable silence of Monday is a weekly reminder to pastors that our task of forming souls requires something more relational and intimate than just the weekly sermon. Eugene Peterson’s question was not “What should I preach on this Sunday?” but rather, “Who are these particular people, and how can I be with them in such a way that they can become what God is making them?”
In earlier essays, I made a case for the need for an embodied pedagogy, that is, more incarnational approaches to pastoral care. That is, we are seeking pastoral methods that help us—in Peterson’s words—“be with” the people under our spiritual care. This essay will suggest that recovering the art of ancient letter writing between spiritual guides and their pupils is one potentially fruitful way for pastors to “be with” their people between Sundays.
Letter correspondence was the best (and only) way to nurture long-distance relationships in a day when people were separated geographically and didn’t have the modern transportation and technology to stay connected. Ironically, despite all our technological advances and additional ways of “being with” others today—automobiles, airplanes, phones, Facebook, video chat, email—we seem to be more relationally detached and isolated than our ancient letter-writing ancestors who lacked all these ways to connect. We will explore this irony later on, especially as it relates to the growing distance between pastors and their congregations, caused in part by our increased use of modern technology. But first we must explore the rich and enduring role of letter writing moral formation in the ancient world.
To be continued …
“For I wrote you out of great distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to grieve you but to let you know the depth of my love for you.” -Apostle Paul to the Corinthians