Friends share spiritual journey through letters

A new book details the pilgrimage for God two very different women shared

By Maryann Gogniat Eidemmiler - OSV Newsweekly, 3/10/2013

Jessica Mesman Griffith grew up in a very Catholic environment in New Orleans and Amy Andrews, who lived in Pennsylvania, came from a non-religious background.  

Andrews
Andrews
Griffith
Griffith

They met in graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh, in a creative writing workshop with an atmosphere so hostile to religion that Griffith felt “thoroughly scorned.” 

She was writing memoirs about her Catholic upbringing, and Andrews, although not from a faith background, was writing a piece about Passionist nuns. 

“We found each other across the seminar table, and it was quite a relief, and also intriguing, to find someone else that feels the way you do,” Griffith said. 

They joined a class trip to New York City where they walked into a bookstore and, for a reason they can’t remember, bought a pocket edition of the Old Testament Book of Ruth.  

They read it together on a rooftop and were electrified by the friendship and loyalty between Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi. 

Andrews told OSV years later, “It really did feel miraculous to find that book. At the time, we thought that reading it was a beautiful, spiritual thing to do, but we really didn’t understand why.” 

They gained a deeper understanding of Ruth’s promise as their own lives unfolded: “Whither thou goest, I will go. Thy God shall be my God.”

A lasting friendship

After graduation, Griffith moved to South Bend, Ind., to work at the University of Notre Dame, and Amy left to teach math at DePaul University in Chicago. Both soon married and expected to lose contact until Andrews announced that she was converting to Catholicism and asked Griffith to be her sponsor. 

Quotes
“I yearn to yearn for God … Only by entering a story can one really see it for what it is. This is another way to explain why I’m converting: I want to enter the story.”  
 
— Amy Andrews
 
— Jessica Griffith

To cement their spiritual journey together, they agreed to write daily letters during Lent 2005, a connection that continued, though less often, for years after Griffith entered the Church. They wrote mostly by hand, sometimes typed, and always sent the letters through the mail so that they could unfold and hold each other’s hopes, fears, support and triumphs. They reflected on their faith and sometimes their lack of faith, and sought answers to shared questions about life and death. When Andrews’ daughter Clare was stillborn, Griffith felt the pain in her loss, and later suffered a miscarriage herself. 

They became like Naomi and Ruth, blurring the roles as they alternately guided each other. 

They eventually compiled, copied and bound their letters. Then as they reread them, they realized the treasure they had of two young women writing from their hearts as they experienced life unfolding. 

Love & Salt: A Spiritual Friendship Shared in Letters was published in February by Loyola Press. Although it is a decidedly Catholic book, it has received positive response from not only Catholics, but also Protestant, Jewish and atheist readers. 

“Women find that it speaks to them,” Griffith said. 

Andrews, 42, her husband, Mark, and children John, 5, and Margaret, 3, live in Evanston, Ill. She teaches mathematics at Northwestern University and is the recipient of the Annie Dillard Award for creative non-fiction. 

Griffith, 32, her husband, Dave, and children Charlotte, 7, and Alex, 2, live in Sweet Briar, Va. Her writing and essays have appeared in numerous publications. 

Our Sunday Visitor: Why is it important for women to have close friendships with each other? 

Jessica Mesman Griffith: We always say that when one of us stumbles in the darkness, the other has a lamp that shows the way. Friendships between two women, or between a man and a woman, or between men, can really carry us through those dark nights. That’s why it’s important to belong to a community or a parish, so that you feel held up. Everyone has doubts, everyone falls, and you are held up, whether it is a crisis of faith or a crisis of anything. If we buckle, there is someone there to light the candle and say the prayer if you can’t. 

Amy Andrews: Friendship is the most basic form of love. One of the most profound discoveries I made with Jess is that we are on a pilgrimage to find God. We are finding God at Easter, we are finding God when we convert, and we are always imagining that we will find God in the future, at some end point. It becomes clear to us that God’s presence is always with us. God’s providence that we have been searching for was in our friendship. 

OSV: Even though women today are out in the workforce and socially connected, many often find themselves feeling isolated and lacking deep friendships. Why is this? 

Love and Salt
Courtesy of Loyola Press

Griffith: What we love about the story of Ruth and Naomi is that it’s a model of a deep spiritual friendship and a deep commitment that was rooted in the belief in God. Women still have deep and lasting friendships, but our culture tells us that they are not deep, that we are brought together to just gossip. Superficial models of friendships are reflected back to us most often, and that doesn’t reflect our experience that friendships with women are some of the best friendships of our lives. 

Andrews: We are living in a time of cultural collapse and the stories that we have available are so shallow. I have known so many people who define their friendships as the four women in “Sex and the City.” They try to see who they are by looking at those models — “which one are you?” But I think women are deep and long for deep companionships and probably have them in many ways. 

OSV: What have you done for each other spiritually? 

Griffith: In such a profound way, our spiritual lives are very tied to our letter writing practice, for better or for worse. When we are not writing letters, I feel very disconnected. It’s very important to our spiritual lives and it’s still a needed connection. It has never since matched the intensity of the period that the book represented, and maybe that’s just because of life with small children. When I look back at them [the letters] in this book form, it’s very clear that we were on a path that was laid for us. 

Andrews: It is really part of the road to God. Day to day, we told our stories to each other. We built this whole world of stories and were able to see the Christian life being fleshed out. At this point in my life, I wanted to believe. I wanted to be part of the Church, and I didn’t want an argument anymore. I didn’t want or need arguments. I needed to see the possibility of it, and I think Jess did that for me. 

OSV: What did you learn about yourself through these letters? 

Griffith: In graduate school, I had been trying to write about my Catholic upbringing, about my mother’s death, my father leaving the Church and remarrying, my needing to repair that relationship, and my struggles with the faith. But I was failing. For whatever reason, I just could not tell that story because, really, I didn’t know what the story was. But the story needed to be told of my dad. I didn’t realize how important it was in my life until I started writing, and it wasn’t until we were going through the letters that it emerged so strongly.  

It was through the letters that I was suddenly able to see things from his point of view. Now we really repaired the relationship and it helped me to forgive and understand a little better. 

Andrews: We would be great fools if we didn’t set out to discover our souls and from what country we came. Jess and I set out to discover that, and from that point, there was a deep intuitive conviction that we wanted to find God, that we wanted to be on this road, but we didn’t quite understand ourselves and what were the roots or our convictions. We set out to tell each other about our childhoods. We were able to see the very roots of our faith, which really shores up your faith when you understand where it’s coming from. 

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.

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