I have been sorting through a lot of letters I have kept over the years. I have been reading them again and they bring back a lot of memories.
Helen was bedridden for years. I never met her. She had read something that I had written and that started a correspondence that spanned many years. She wrote long letters, sharing many details of her life.
Her immobility for her was a blessing. She moved more and more into the interior of her heart and wrote from that very active and loving place. One of the last letters she wrote before she died ended with the words “I have loved you through your words. Learn to love whatever winds come your way.”
John suffers from schizophrenia. He still writes to me. When he is doing well, he paints. His acrylic works are of brilliant colors, paintings of the Trinity, angels, saints with colorful halos. When he is going through one of his painful episodes, he puts on earphones, turns up rock music as loud as the dial will allow, and rocks back and forth in time to the music.
He sent me a poem he had written, about how God is love and how with that kind of love, nothing good will ever be lost.
I have a few letters from Jack. We were high school and then seminary classmates. He began to show signs of mental illness in the seminary and had to leave. He went for treatment and more or less groped his way through the years that followed. His letters became more and more rambling, full of wandering and disconnected phrases.
On a cold winter morning, his body was found hanging from a rafter in his attic. I was told that there was no note. I still think about him. If there is a better place beyond this one, he deserves a warm place there, a place where there is no winter, no attics, and where the words in his heart flow clear, loving and free.
The Gospel tells us of the power of Jesus to calm the winds and the surging seas. His disciples are terrified in the heaving boat. Jesus is awakened and shows his power — and all is well again.
All of us have no choice but to get through the rough seas of this life. Some of us do better than others. Helen lay still for years but lived and wrote from a very active heart. John struggles with his disease, rides the waves with his music, creates images of heavenly things with his brush and canvas. For Jack, the winds were too strong, the seas too rough, and he did not have the power to overcome them.
So I read my letters and feel good, and then sad. Perhaps the best I can do is to learn from them what was written. If the words on those letters in my room have any power, they may teach us to see the hearts of those who have gone before us and those around us.
Those who are strong may find that strength in stillness, or disease. And they will write beautiful and truthful words. Words that may give hope to those who need them to cope with the crippling despair of mental illness.
There are those who can no longer find the words to get them through life. For Jack, death came too early one winter morning. Perhaps his gift to us was and is a cry to find the words that would have helped him move into the light of a new and promising day.
Father James Stephen (Jeff) Behrens, O.C.S.O., serves at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, 2625 Highway 212 SW, Conyers. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.