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Emailing an Ember Letter: ancient practice meets modern method

Emailing an Ember Letter: ancient practice meets modern method

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When I became a postulant for the priesthood, my bishop reminded me that I would need to be in contact with him on Ember Days. "Do you want me to write a real letter?" I asked, miming a hand moving across paper. He laughed and replied that e-mail would work just fine.

I promptly went home and began researching everything I could about Ember Days and the letters that accompany them, since I wasn't terribly sure what was expected of me. Clergy friends offered everything from "oh, it's not that big a deal" to "yes, you should take this very seriously." Okey-dokey, then. My favorite comment was the advice not to write a "having-a-good-time, wish-you-were-here, postcard-from-summer-camp kind of letter." At least that began to give me the hint of a direction.

The Prayer Book, usually the first place I turn for the inside scoop, told me when Ember Days were (more on that below) but not what they were or what the so-called Ember Week letters are all about. The Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church are much clearer; they read:

Each Postulant for the Priesthood shall communicate with the Bishop in person or by letter [...] reflecting on the Postulant's academic experience and personal and spiritual development.

Now I was getting somewhere! I dutifully worked on my first Ember Week letter during the week after Pentecost and then e-mailed it on Friday. It was a good spiritual exercise, but I have to say it was odd using such a modern, even postmodern, means of communication. I toss off dozens of email messages a day, some with more thought and care than others, but never before had I felt like I was engaging in an ancient ritual via cyberspace. The closest I have come is saying Morning Prayer with the aid of my computer and the Mission St. Clare website, but I much prefer praying in chapel or even in a sunny corner of my living room, actual rather than virtual prayer book firmly in hand.

Here's what else I've learned on the subject:

Ember Days are an ancient part of the liturgical calendar in Western Christianity but are not all that well known in the culture at large. If you're not familiar with them, you might think of them as a little like a quarterly report to God: four times a year Christians are asked to set aside three days for special fasting and prayer. These times coincide with each of the four natural seasons, and some see them as prime opportunities to set aside time to contemplate the gifts God of creation with which God has blessed us. Besides following the more general advice to prayer and fasting, people who are preparing for ordination are required to write an actual report to their bishop on these days (or rather during the weeks that follow these days). Thus the Ember letter journey I related above.

The Episcopal Church observes Ember Days on the first Sunday in Lent (usually early in spring), the Day of Pentecost (summer), Holy Cross Day (fall--September 14), and on December 13 (which in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions is St. Lucy's Day--Saint Lucy is my "confirmation saint," so I prefer to hold on to that connection). The Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after that are the days set aside for fasting and prayer; each of the four Ember Days thus marks the beginning of a period sometimes called an Ember Week.

There is an interesting debate about the origin of the term "ember days" (well, okay, interesting to geeky people like me who get a big kick out of etymological controversy!). Wikipedia covers it pretty well in their article. Basically the question is whether the phrase originates with the Latin phrase quatuor tempora (meaning "four seasons" or "four times") or from the Anglo-Saxon word ymbren (meaning "cycle"). There are probably numerous folk etymologies out there, too. In wondering why we call them "ember" days, I had cottoned on to a different association: the story of the Call of Isaiah.

In the famous vision found in chapter 6 of the book of Isaiah the prophet encounters God on his throne, attended by seraphim. He is filled with dread until

one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ 8Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’

The live coal that touches Isaiah's lips--might an "ember" be a faint reminder of that? I certainly look forward to future Ember Days, and the opportunities they provide to pause and reflect on where and how (and in whom) I am seeing God, on what areas of my life need some cleansing and refining fire (in other words what are the sins that need to be "blotted out" through confession and absolution), and finally on how faithfully I am answering God's call to me.

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