09/22/2014 02:53 pm ET Updated Nov 22, 2014

Windows on a World No More: Why Letters Still Have Much to Teach Us

On a time, people wrote letters that often blurred the line between correspondence and literature.

With gratitude, we remember the gift filmmaker Ken Burns gave the world in his film, The Civil War, when he featured Sullivan Ballou's letter to his wife Sarah, written just one week before his death at the first Battle of Bull Run, July 21, 1861.

Should he not return from the conflict, Ballou had written, "never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name. Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone, and wait for thee -- for we shall meet again."

As a historian, I have so many times encountered books from the 19th century, on into the early 20th, the bear the title The Life and Letters of. These books remind us how important letters once were, and still are, as windows on a world no more, and the many things letters can tell us about people we wish to know more of.

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, for example, is a book I returned to recently -- grateful for one passage written late in Tolkien's life, in autumn 1971.

In letter to Carole Batten-Phelps, Tolkien wrote gratefully of Miss Phelps's suggestion that there was a "sanity and sanctity" in The Lord of the Rings, "which is a power in itself." No one, Tolkien said, had ever written to him with such a thought before, and it set him thinking. So saying, he then spoke of a letter he'd only just received before writing to her.

This letter, Tolkien said, was written by a man who'd described himself as "an unbeliever, or at best a man of belatedly and dimly dawning religious feeling." And perhaps the most telling line of the letter had been this: "You create a world in which some sort of faith seems to be everywhere without a visible source, like light from an invisible lamp."

We are now in an autumn 43 years removed from the time Tolkien wrote this letter, with his unnamed correspondent's enigmatic phrase about "light from an invisible lamp." Many a reader since has written of how this line seems to speak across the years.

For his part, Tolkien observed with gratitude, and humility, that "If sanctity inhabits [an author's] work or as a pervading light illumines it then it does not come from him but through him."

Recently, I was reminded of Tolkien's letter -- and the power of letters and literature to move and inspire on reading the memoir, Not God's Type, by Dr. Holly Ordway.

A scholar of literature, and once an atheist, Ordway's long journey to faith, and her homecoming to the Catholic Church, was shaped in no small measure by encounters with imaginative literature. Reading The Lord of the Rings was a crucial part of that journey, sowing promise, as with the earth Sam Gamgee received from Galadriel, and spread throughout the shire -- bringing virtue wherever he shared it. Likewise, in a moving passage, Ordway has written:

"And at some point in my childhood, I found J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and that changed everything. Not suddenly. Not even immediately. But slowly, surely. Like light from an invisible lamp, God's grace was beginning to shine out from Tolkien's works."

My own journey to faith was shaped though reading the Narnian Chronicles written by C.S. Lewis. I will always remember the winsome image of the lantern in the woods, and how it helped the Pevensie children find their way. Hope sometimes shines where we least expect it, and that is part of the wonder.