Battlefields and Slums and Insane Asylums

I cannot abide bouillon in a mug, but I’m always a little sorry about that when I read the opening pages of Madeleine L’Engle’s The Irrational Season.  She sips from her warm cup, gazes out her two a.m. window at the Hudson River, and begins an Advent reflection that meanders through the liturgical year and the seasons of her life, ending up at her country farmhouse just in time for the Michaelmas daisies.

Although she passed away in 2007 and the four volumes of The Crosswicks Journal series (The Irrational Season is number three) were published in the 1970’s, Madeleine’s musings are timeless.  I find myself needing to reread them every so often just to be reminded that there are juicy words like anamnesis and eschaton and pusillanimous and that one could refer to a houseful of neighborhood kids as a “charm of children.”  I turn and return to Madeleine L’Engle because her thoughts remind me that there is a Truth that can be expressed in poetry as well as in memoir and that manages to be both orthodox and startling.

On the subject of God — the Creator of a world that now includes “battlefields and slums and insane asylums” — Madeleine expresses both puzzlement and awe.  “Why does God treat in such a peculiar way the creatures He loves so much that He sent His own Son to them?”  Even so, she affirms that a “no” from God is often a prelude to a better “yes,” and that the “only God who seems to be worth believing in is impossible for mortal man to understand.”

Perhaps, as a story teller herself, she realized that her own life was His to plot.

On marriage and parenting, Madeleine was a delightful mixture of progressive and traditional thought:  “A marriage is something which has to be created.  When we were married, Hugh and I became a new entity, he as much as I.”  She was a militant advocate for breastfeeding in an era in which it was considered backward, while at the same time setting boundaries in her home that protected her ability to continue with her writing.

Her faith was subject to “attacks of atheism,” but she also maintained that “anger [at God] is an affirmation of faith.  You cannot get angry at someone who is not there.”  Her writing informed her theology, and her theology informed her writing to the point where she gave her stories credit for “converting” her “back to Christianity.”  Her portrayals of the incarnation are both homely and profound, exulting in the Word made flesh with each of her newborn babies and the touch of her husband’s warm foot under the blankets.

Madeleine L’Engle was at her best when she was describing the writing process and the relationship between a writer and her work.  She attributed her success as a writer to her suffering and her unusual childhood, saying that her “best writing has been born of pain.”  She saw little difference between praying and writing, and humbly attempted “to listen to the book” as she listened in prayer.  Her advice to aspiring writers came from her own standard practice:  “I read as much as possible, write every day, keep my vocabulary alive and changing, so that I will have an instrument on which to play the book if it does me the honor of coming to me and asking to be written.”

The Irrational Season is only one of the fifty books that came to Madeleine asking to be served.

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If you have read The Irrational Season – or if you love all-things-Madeleine – check out this discussion that’s just getting started over at The Red Couch book club.   See you there!

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Michele Morin

I am a teacher, blogger, reader, and gardener who finds joy in sitting at a table surrounded by women with open Bibles. I have been married to an unreasonably patient husband for nearly 27 years, and our four children are growing up at an alarming rate. Nonetheless, two teens still remain at home, and along with an incorrigible St. Bernard, we laugh, make messes, clean them up, and then start all over again. I love hot tea and well-crafted sentences, poems that stop me in my tracks and days at the ocean with the whole family. I lament biblical illiteracy and advocate for the prudent use of "little minutes." I blog at Living Our Days because "the way I live my days will be, after all, the way I live my life." You can connect with me on Facebook or Twitter.

32 thoughts on “Battlefields and Slums and Insane Asylums”

  1. Michelle, what a beautiful testament to a wonderful writer. I’ve never (!! Gasp, shock/horror) read Madeleine L’Engle, which I don’t understand as I’ve heard so much good of her. One of these days, I will get around to it; what do you recommend that I start with? I’ve downloaded A Wrinkle in Time so I’m almost there.

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    1. Oh, Bev, where to begin? I love her fiction (A Severed Wasp is hauntingly instructive), and I haven’t read The Summer of the Great Grandmother since my own mother lived with us and then went into a care facility, but I loved it when I read it years ago. Two Part Invention is probably my favorite of the 4 Crosswicks Journals. It chronicles her husband’s journey through cancer and then his death. Luci Shaw’s husband died of cancer around the same time, so God in the Dark is a good thing to read in concert. Don’t know if you’re following the Red Couch discussion at all, but some of the posthumous junk that has surfaced about Madeleine’s denial over her dad and husband’s “issues” has kind of shaded (for me) her musings on family — not because I don’t believe her, but because I think she was in denial over some things and I wish she could have faced them instead. Anyway, this is too long . . . Nice to hear from you!

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  2. This past summer I read – wait – I inhaled – that’s more like it – the first three in the Crosswicks Journal series. What a treasure! And her words? Like – Ousia. Reading Madeleine is like taking a refresher course in language arts.

    Other than the Bible, I don’t often reread books, there are so many and there’s so little time. But I can foresee a need to revisit this series. How did I not know there was a fourth in the series?

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  3. I recently used a great quote of hers:
    “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” Madeleine L’Engle
    🙂

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  4. Lovely. I return to Walking on Water time and again. A Wrinkle in Time was my first L’Engle read. Are you familiar with Laity Lodge, in Kerrville, TX? It’s a retreat center—one which I’ve been fortunate to visit on several occasions. I read Walking on Water there, for the first time. And, Madeline herself was often a guest at Laity Lodge. Standing in the same places she stood, and reading that book in place where she’d once been was a crazy experience of time and space and place folding in on themselves.

    I do appreciate her forthrightness with questioning God and doubting the faith and how, somehow, even those acts can serve to bring us back around, as it were. Thanks so much for this review!

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    1. What an amazing experience that must have been. When she was still conducting writer’s events (sometimes in tandem with Luci Shaw) I used to dream of learning from them, but in a way, I really have through their books. I love Walking on Water – for a while when my kids were all small I kept it in the bathroom . . . my office. 🙂

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  5. Michele, can you tell me which have been your favorite of L’engle’s books? It sounds as though I have a treasure trove waiting. I am especially interested in her thoughts on writing and her own story… I welcome your recommendations. The red couch read just came to the library today so I will be getting started there for now… I look forward to the discussion! Linda

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    1. I’m also looking forward to the discussion. My favorite of the 4 Crosswicks Journal Series is Two Part Invention, but they’re all friendly and comforting reads. I love ML’s theology! Her fiction runs a little dark, but her characters are so well-developed, and they have a tendency to show up in one book as the main character, but then show up in another book in a supporting role. Nice surprise. I’ve even enjoyed her juvenile fiction. Her famous time-travel series is good, but the Austin series is equally good. Just different. I read Walking on Water continuously for a couple of years. (A series of essays.) Blessings, Linda!

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      1. Thanks Michele. I’m shaping up a tentative reading list to insure I take time to read more this year. I have always treated reading like a luxury but for a writer it is essential grist. I want to give more time to reading. L’engle’s books will be in my list! Thank you for your thoughts!
        Linda

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  6. I’m sorry to say I have never read any of Madeleine’s book except A Wrinkle in Time when it was required in school. But reading your description of her spirituality or theology intrigues me. I love these words so much because I also believe that a “no” from God can lead to a greater “yes”. Even so, she affirms that a “no” from God is often a prelude to a better “yes,” and that the “only God who seems to be worth believing in is impossible for mortal man to understand.” Great review as always and Happy New Year because I don’t think our paths have crossed yet this year!

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  7. Michele, this is such a fantastic piece!!! I loved it. And this is a timeless truth: Even so, she affirms that a “no” from God is often a prelude to a better “yes,” and that the “only God who seems to be worth believing in is impossible for mortal man to understand.” I have such a hard time accepting “no.” This will be staying with me I’m sure, especially this year when I am already praying for so much. Thank you!

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  8. Thanks for sharing about Madeline L’Engle. I didn’t know much about her beyond that she wrote A Wrinkle In Time, which I was not allowed to read as a child for some reason I don’t fully understand but did eventually read and enjoy. Now I’m very intrigued to check out her other writing!

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    1. Hmmm . . . I wonder if your parents may have been put off by some of the mature themes Madeleine tackled in her kid’s lit. Thanks for reading the review. Hope you enjoy the adventure of her writing!

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  9. So glad to see this review here, Michele, since I’m reading along too! I’m enjoying it, but I confess that it’s meandering waltz sometimes has me wanting more structure. ha. But her words are beautiful; her thoughts are inspiring. So I’m forced to slow down and simply savor. That’s good for me.

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    1. Yes, her non-fiction is a bit like that, but I can remember on my earliest reads feeling as if I was having a visit with a friend. Glad you’re reading too – hope you’ll be there for the discussion!

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  10. Michelle, I feel like I’ve read something of hers before, or at least have heard of her, but maybe not read her? Sounds like something I’d have to really concentrate on. I’ll have to check it out—when I can concentrate. And look up those words, too. I’ve never seen those words before!

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  11. I had the privilege to meet Madeleine L’Engle in person. The speech she gave fascinated me. Her spirituality exuded strength and beauty. I need to re-read these works too. Thanks for sharing on Literacy Musing Mondays.

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  12. Michele, I always enjoy your book reviews!

    This book in particular intrigues me. The name of the author sounds very, very familiar. I almost think I might have read one of her books during our homeschool years. I’m going to have to look into what book that was.

    I’m so glad stopped by. I will be putting my new Kindle to good use with all these great book recommendations! 🙂

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  13. okay, you did it! I’m ordering her books! So many have suggested her writings..it keeps slipping my mind, but after reading your blog, I know she’s a woman after my heart! Thanks much, so glad I found you today on #playdateswithGod!

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  14. I adore Madeleine L’Engle, but I’ve only read a couple of her non-fiction works. I hope to remedy that soon! Thanks so much for sharing this at Booknificent Thursday this week on Mommynificent.com! I loved it!
    Tina

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