Maybe fifty years ago, two young women could meet each other at school or a party, and rest assured that they shared some commonality of belief. In today’s post-Christian American culture, those same young women would guard their belief like a neurosis, waiting for the moment when it would have to be revealed, probably in a piece of writing or a late night heart to heart, that they were one of those “God people.” Such was the case for Amy Andrews and Jessica Mesman Griffith, who met in a graduate level writing course.
During the awkward introductions at the beginning of class, both admitted that God was a major subject of their writing.
“We were both careful to conceal any current conviction, sensing we wouldn’t be taken seriously if we admitted to belief. But for a second our eyes met across the table: What, you too?”
The two became friends. Jessica, a cradle Catholic, sponsored Amy the following year when she also entered the Catholic Church. During the Lenten Season of 2005, in preparation for Amy’s Confirmation, they began the practice of writing a letter a day to one another, discussing matters of faith and doubt. The content of those letters became the basis for their book Love and Salt: A Spiritual Friendship Shared in Letters.
The first word that comes to mind in describing Jess and Amy’s letters to each other is luxurious. Being that the first forty letters were part of a daily practice corresponding with the forty days of Lent, one senses that the authors held each day up like a prism to examine for its various light and dark effects. Either of them might begin a letter with a mundane detail about their lives, and follow a flight of thought back to their childhood to some event there that sheds light on a current crisis of faith.
As Amy notes:
“I expect to get from point A to point B and not have to look back. But that is not the way of the believer. The believer goes over the same ground again and again, the same cycle of the hours, the same cycle of the liturgical year, the same doubts, the same sins, the same reminders…. In order to reach the destination the believer walks not in a line but in a circle.”
Jess reflects on the various ways that her mother’s death affected her childhood and her belief. Her father eventually joined an Evangelical Church where he met his second wife, and Jess struggles with feelings of abandonment, not only by the loss of her mother, but by the loss of her Catholicity, and also the loss of her father to a new faith and a new family. “How do you love Jesus so much and despise your own child?” she asks of her father’s newfound Evangelical fervor.
“When my homesickness became unbearable, I always went back to Our Lady of Lourdes, to lie in a lacquered pew and smell the burned wicks of the candles in the cry room. Something about those candles, each flickering light a plea to heaven, brought the surety of childhood faith back to me.”
The letters chronicle the highs of conversion, and the lows that follow once the Sacraments are consumed, and the believer has to go about the unbearable work of being alone with their faith and its concurrent doubts. They take us through the peaks and valleys of marriage, the birth of children, the death of a child, and the rights of celebration and mourning associated with the vocation of a mother.
They also chronicle the aesthetic evolution of two very gifted writers. The early letters, fresh from creative writing workshop, toy with the language and the novelty of writing about new faith. As the letters progress they are increasingly grounded in the concrete details of life and evidence a more embodied faith.
Love and Salt is a spiritual memoir times two, and a timely reminder of what treasures may come when you give yourself time to sit in silence, pen and paper in hand.
For more reviews and interviews with the authors, join the Patheos roundtable discussion of Love and Salt.