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A Letter From The Past

November 10, 2017 Featured Today No Comments


The expression “May you live in interesting times” is purported to be a traditional Chinese curse. The word “interesting” is a euphemism for disorder and conflict. Well, we do live in “interesting” times, but as Christians, we live in hope. No matter how “interesting” things may be at the moment, they should not crush our spirit.
And, indeed, we now live in “interesting” times. The secular world seems to be having its way. We are now witnessing homosexual marriages, an increasing divorce rate, rampant abortion, widespread pornography, the zealous promotion of euthanasia, terrorism, racism, and a significant decline in religious practices.
What is even more disconcerting to many is a lack of leadership from the top, not only in the sphere of politics but also in the world of religion. Where does one find hope in such “interesting” times? Confusion, division, and discouragement seem to be the order of the day.
John M. Szostak was an American journalist who operated out of the White House in the 1960s, writing speeches and taking care of ethnic problems for President Kennedy. His career, like that of most people, had its inevitable hills and valleys. In 1975 he was at a low ebb. His father had died and his career was going nowhere. As he would later reveal to the world, “Life seemed in a shambles.”
A letter arrived that came “as almost a lifesaver.” It was from his good friend, Karol Cardinal Wojtyla, who, just three years later would be known to the world as Pope John Paul II. The letter read: “God will never let you down even through times in which for some unknown reason things may be dark. He sees fit to try his faithful servant. But trust him all the more. Don’t give up praying.”
The letter, with its comforting and assuring words, exemplified Szostak’s friendship with the Pope. It was a friendship that needed to be told to people who were also living in “interesting” times.
And so, John Szostak wrote In the Footsteps of Pope John Paul II and dedicated his work to his mother and his two sons: “This book is dedicated to my mother, Jennie Szostak, and to my two sons, Eric, nine, and Thomas, seven, to whom I will leave my most precious possessions — the gifts and personal letters to me of Pope John Paul II, both before and after his elevation to the pontificate. I could not give my sons a more inspiring start in life.”
Szostak’s book is indirectly dedicated to anyone who is discouraged by what is going on not only in the world but in his own personal life. Karol Wojtyla, as many know, had to deal with the early deaths of his parents and his only brother, Edward (a sister, Olga, died before Karol was born). He also had to deal with Nazism and Communism that invaded his beloved Poland. His letters, indeed, belong to posterity. And so does his personal example.
Szostak once brought the then Cardinal Wojtyla to his apartment complex on Valley Drive in Alexandria, Va. Szostak apologized for the condition of the apartment and reminded his friend that he had two children ages four and six. Disaster almost struck when the cardinal nearly fell over a Batman car that was left in the middle of the floor. Szostak caught him just in time to avert a clerical catastrophe. The next morning’s headlines flashed before his eyes: “Cardinal Breaks Ankle in American Newsman’s Home.” But it was a headline that was not to be.
Cardinal Wojtyla laughed it off, saying that he was accustomed to the playful style of children. “This disarray,” he added, “is the sign of a happy home.” It was a positive spin on a near calamity that came from a warm and understanding heart. It was characteristic of the future Pope.
Two years before Szostak met Cardinal Wojtyla, he received a letter from him offering the following advice: “Always remember, being a person with a good heart and character are the most important virtues in an individual. These qualities will open doors for you and make life less complicated.” There was no gap between what the cardinal preached and the way he lived. He gave added luster to the word “integrity.”
Most of our communications in the modern world are transitory. Emails are electronically dispatched to “trash,” “junk,” or oblivion. The spoken word evaporates in the air. Newspapers carry news that the next day’s newspaper makes old and no longer news.
But the letter can outlive our routine forms of communication. It can be personal, honest, and of vital significance. Writing a letter takes place in an atmosphere of freedom. There is no editor to amend it or to conform it to an ideology. It is an act that springs solely from the writer and is far easier to read than a treatise.
St. Paul’s letters have unparalleled importance. The letters that Abelard and Heloise exchanged are both a personal and philosophical treasure. John Adams and his wife Abigail exchanged 1,160 letters over the course of 54 years. Their correspondence, often heartfelt and moving, documents an important period in America’s pre- and post-revolutionary history. Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy is really a series of letters he wrote to posterity from prison.
Martin Luther King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail was written in the margins of a newspaper. His letter is lasting; what the newspaper on which he inscribed his message conveyed was fleeting.
Flannery O’Connor’s numerous communications with people she did not know were organized by Sally Fitzgerald and published as The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor and won The National Book Critics Circle Special Award. More recently, George Weigel penned Letters to a Young Catholic (2004) in which he made what he called “an epistolary tour of the modern Catholic world.”
For Lewis Carroll, “The proper definition of a man is an animal that writes letters.” A simple letter can be an excellent conveyer of a person’s soul.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe has remarked that “letters are among the most significant memorial a person can leave behind.”
Szostak’s enthusiasm for passing on the letters of his dear friend is well founded. Indeed, they are a memorial, lasting examples of cor ad cor (heart to heart) communication.

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