Just this evening one of my readers PM’d me over Facebook and asked me to write a palanca for her husband, also a reader, who will be spending this weekend on a Cursillo retreat. She explained that a palanca is an encouraging letter written to someone who’s trying to deepen his relationship with God. Palanca means “lever” in Spanish, so letters by that name are meant to lift the recipients’ spirits.
This palanca flowed more smoothly than I dared hoped:
Dear Deacon ____:
As I warned your thoughtful wife, ____, when she invited me to write you, I wouldn’t know a palanca if one came served over crushed ice with a dainty plastic umbrella. The sample in the PDF I found online ended “Love, Dad.” Therefore, I am left with no choice but to wing this.
God is mysterious, demanding, and often downright scary. Answering his call with a full heart demands a deep well of trust. Even apostles and prophets had their reservations. Moses protested his slow tongue, Peter his sinfulness. Yet here you are, bearing up under the weight of the dalmatic and still seeking out ways to decrease, so that he might increase, just a little bit more. As dumb blog commenters like to say: Wow.
These times can be discouraging for Catholics. All we hear about lately is how the Church is bleeding young people and what a pack of scoundrels our bishops are. The World offers us a deaf ear while speaking a language ever harder for us to understand. As for the pope… well, let’s just say he’s raised the price of dull moments above rubies, bless his heart.
Seeing you forge ahead so resolutely, past the distractions of the age, around the snares of the devil, toward the eternal God, reminds me what’s essential. As I learned online, the word “palanca” means “lever”; I’m writing this in the hope of raising your spirits. But in fact it’s the least I can do, given that your example has already raised mine.
As I’ve written in my blog, the rosary has always left me cold. It’s always impressed me as one of those devotions best suited to places where men fight with stilettos over women with mustaches. My own deepest inclination is to reduce religion to ethics, e.g. be nice, don’t masturbate. This weekend, however, to pay you back and hustle you along your way, I shall go agere contra and take up the beads for your benefit, not once, not twice, but three whole times.
It would be nice if you were to receive some sign assuring you that I’m making good on my pledge – say, if a car were to backfire every time I finished a decade. But as men of faith, we both know that these things are out of our hands.
Yours in Christ,
It struck me what a wonderful custom palanca-writing is. No matter who you are, the life of faith is a grind – we can shake the desolations out of the trees. That we should help one another goes without saying, but it seems to me that the gift of writing is an underrated means of doing so.With words, we give away pieces of ourselves. Once committed to paper – or, failing that, inscribed digitally – they become imperishable. Nice as it can be to receive a hug, a chocolate cake, or a jump for our car, none of these gifts can be retrieved from storage and re-experienced when the need strikes us, as a letter can.
We should know this by now. Are we not people of the Book?
Along with the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and first Holy Communion, given to me bang-bang-bang, one after the other, during Easter Vigil Mass, I received a good-sized stack of palancas, although I didn’t yet know to call them that. Some of my palancas were handed to me by people in my parish. Others, which arrived in a bulging envelope, came from a group of Catholics who’d been catechizing me for years online, and who knew me, in many ways, even better than my pew-mates.
My favorite palanca by far came from my Great-Aunt Betty, who signed off by crowing, “I love you, and I love my Church!!!!” (Exclamation marks hers.) Knowing that Great-Aunt Betty had spent more than a decade out of Communion as she waited for the diocese to annul her first marriage and solemnize her second, I paused and tried, with all my imagination, to take the measure of that love. I am just now starting to get a sense of it.
Five years ago, an old girlfriend gave me a letter in which she’d filled up four sheets of stationary – both sides – describing her own private war against despair. That she’d ever had to make such a stand came as news to me. She’d told me about it in bits and pieces, but seeing it there in black (actually, blue) and white lent those events a new coherence and sense of reality. She offered the letter as proof she could relate to a personal crisis I was going through, so I now recognize it as a palanca. I’ve carried it with me to four foreign countries on two continents. Even if I felt free to quote from it, I probably couldn’t, since its peregrinations have left it bashed up as an old teddy bear. Fortunately, it’s gained the same totemic value as an old teddy bear.
George Orwell once listed five reasons to write: sheer egotism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. He never admits listing them in reverse order of worthiness, but that’s how it’s always looked to me, and I’ve sweated off a few pounds hoping my own reasons fell closer to the end of the list than the beginning.
Now a fifth reason occurs to me, one that may particularly move people who write about their own faith, and who have Facebook: By writing, an author can guarantee himself a steady stream of palancas in return.