One of the great joys—and occasional challenges—of being a writer is getting letters from readers via email, social media and even snail mail. Those messages often lift my spirits and encourage me to carry on with my writing when everything else tells me it’s time to pack it in. No matter how often I hear from readers, it is always an unexpected gift when I open up my computer and see a note from a stranger who was touched in some way by something I wrote.
Not everything is a bed of roses, of course. I do hear from folks who take issue with this or that and some who write to me almost daily as they read through a reflection book and send comments and critiques all along the way. Even those make me smile, because I am making that person think, and that’s never a bad thing. Every once in a while, however, something unusual and anonymous shows up in the mail, signaling from the packaging alone that concern is warranted.
Last week, it was just such a snail mail package that caught my attention. It arrived in my office mailbox, a manila folder fashioned into an envelope and taped up with no return address. It was puffy and said to handle with care. I was intrigued—and a little afraid. I opened it gingerly and saw a long hand-written letter with no signature and a lace chapel veil—mocha-colored with a burgundy bow, wrapped in plastic.
I’ve never worn a chapel veil. I was born the month before Vatican II officially opened and was a CCD child of the late ’60s and ’70s. I sang in my parish folk group, made felt banners and homemade hosts for sunrise Masses. I sang Kumbaya, and not ironically. So, the gift of the chapel veil was interesting to me, and also touching. That someone would purchase and mail me this lovely gift was so sweet. I tried it on and thought that if I ever went back to Italy, I would pack it in my suitcase and take it for a spin over there, because I couldn’t see myself wearing it to church here.
Which made me think back to the letter writer’s comments about when she first started wearing the veil her mother gave her. She felt self-conscious and possibly judged, fearing what fellow parishioners might think. But she continued to wear it and found the benefits outweighed the stares. The veil cut down on distractions and helped her to focus, she explained. The veil offered a little protection when she’d had a late night caring for her babies and looked worn out. The veil made her feel feminine and special.
I thought how sad it is that we are so quick to judge one another, that someone wearing a veil knows the eyes on her will likely make a snap decision about who she is and how she worships. And the truth is, I’d probably be one of those people. But we are one, whether we wear a chapel veil or sport Birkenstocks, kneel to receive Communion or accept the host in our hands, find our connection to God in the words of a novena or in the glories of nature.
I am so grateful to my anonymous friend for sending me the chapel veil. She brought joy to my heart with her generosity and reminded me that the many traditions of our faith pave a wide path to heaven, giving us so many ways to bridge the divide between here and there.
She closed her letter with one of my favorite quotes from Dostoevsky: “Beauty will save the world.” Seek out beauty each day and you will find God all around you, maybe even in an unusual envelope in your mailbox.
This column originally appeared in the April 8, 2021, issue of Catholic New York.