Madeleine L'Engle and the Practice of Believing; A Light So Lovely

Madeleine L’Engle and the Practice of Believing

A week of teaching children in a backyard Bible club can have a clarifying effect on one’s theology. Just exactly what is it that happened in Zaccheus’s heart when he changed from being a dirty rotten tax collector to a repentant and honorable Christ-follower? When Jesus spoke to Saul on the road to Damascus, how did he just stop believing one thing and start believing something quite the opposite? However it happened, it would appear that both of these iconic New Testament characters became really good at believing. But how to describe this in terms that are meaningful to an eight-year-old . . . ?  Practice.

Children know about practice, because there is so much in this world that they need to master:  reading and writing; throwing a baseball into the strike zone; making a foul shot most of the time; playing scales; fingering an instrument.
But it’s not only children who need practice in believing, and in A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeleine L’Engle, Author of A Wrinkle in Time, Sarah Arthur has reached into the store house of accumulated wisdom from Madeleine L’Engle’s life to help readers along in the practice of believing. Always a champion of the genius of “and” — and a detractor of the tyranny of “or”– L’Engle’s life story is framed around some of the seeming contradictions she embraced in her writing as well as in her own practice of believing:

Icon and Iconoclast

It is ironic with her tremendous word count on the difference between idols and icons that Madeleine L’Engle managed to become both in her 88 year sojourn on this planet. As an icon, she pointed her readers’ hearts toward the God she also loved, but her prodigious output and her words of wisdom on the writing life made her, unwittingly, an idol to many. As an iconoclast, she seemed to delight in exposing the uncomfortable places around faith as she explored the troubling questions and invited  everyone from the “fundalits” to the practical atheists into a reasoned and imaginative place to stand.

Sacred and Secular

“There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred, and that is one of the deepest messages of the Incarnation.”  (35)

Madeleine’s fictional characters quoted Scripture, and she was noted in the publishing world as a “practicing Christian,” and yet A Wrinkle in Time ended up on the banned books list–as well as receiving the Newbery. She was both lionized and pilloried by both secular and sacred audiences. This must be the price for having set her sights on setting people free “from binary thinking about how God chooses to engage the world.” (45)

Story and Truth

Coming from a family of story tellers, story was a powerful element in L’Engle’s life, and her understanding of the Bible as truth was shaped by her gratitude that she “was able to read the Book with the same wonder and joy with which [she had] read The Ice Princess or The Tempest.” (55) She embraced passionately the idea that truth is embodied in story and lived out in our own personal narratives through our use of language and imagination.

Faith and Science

L’Engle readers are well-acquainted with the story of her first exposure to the night sky, being lifted from her crib and taken outside to behold the stars. She was profoundly shaped by the moment, which led to a life time of “star-gazing rocks,” and a mindset that allowed science to inform her faith and to enhance her (and her readers’!) understanding that the heavens really do declare the glory of God.

Religion and Art

L’Engle’s compelling plot lines carried theological questions, explored issues around the meaning of life, and in many ways, her art was the vehicle through which she worked out her own “cosmic questions.” As a mother who still finds it difficult to fit writing into my life as either a ministry or as an art form, I have been encouraged by the way she found writing to be a form of worship, a thought which has impacted my own view of writing as an offering to God.

Fact and Fiction

Sarah Arthur references a 2004 New Yorker profile of Madeleine L’Engle in which the memoir of her marriage (Two-Part Invention), is debunked as wishful thinking. I had also read the article, and at the time I mourned — for the loss of a beautiful story and for the sadness of L’Engle’s wanting. The fervency of her belief in the rock solidness of her marriage and the fidelity of her husband (in the face of all evidence to the contrary) communicates something of the intensity of her longing for it. Her willing embrace of a fictionalized personal reality spilled over into her mothering as well:  Could her son just please stay a precocious five-year-old with an amusing vocabulary and stop being a middle-aged alcoholic with a depleted liver?

Readers have a choice at this point: Let Madeleine-the-idol crash to the ground — or make of her failing an icon. My own writing and ministry life have been formed by her cautionary tale, purposefully delaying any substantive foray into writing until my children were older and forcing myself to ask hard questions before sharing my life on this country hill:  Am I idealizing things here? Would my husband and kids recognize the life I’m describing? Would they recognize me?

I was not prepared for my visceral response to A Light So Lovely. Reading with shallow breath and a lump in my throat, I turned pages as if reading news of a loved one, gone for a long season and greatly missed. As Meg declared in The Wind in the Door, believing does take practice. Like finger exercises on the piano, Madeleine L’Engle wrote her way toward a deep belief in some ideas that were false, but many more that were true and admirable. Drawn by her words toward the Light so lovely, let’s commit ourselves to showing up, to serving the work to which we are called, and to anchoring our souls in the practice of believing.

 

Many thanks to Zondervan for providing this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with complete honesty.

I  am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. If you should decide to purchase A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeleine L’Engle, Author of A Wrinkle in Time, simply click on the title (or the image) here or within the text, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

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Michele Morin

Michele Morin is a teacher, blogger, reader, and gardener who finds joy in sitting at a table surrounded by women with open Bibles. She has been married to an unreasonably patient husband for nearly 30 years, and together they have four sons, two daughters-in-love, two grandchildren, and one lazy St. Bernard. Michele loves hot tea and well-crafted sentences, poems that stop her in her tracks and days at the ocean with the whole family. She laments biblical illiteracy and advocates for the prudent use of “little minutes.” She blogs at Living Our Days, and you can connect with her on Facebook or Twitter.

54 thoughts on “Madeleine L’Engle and the Practice of Believing”

  1. Somehow, I don’t know Madeline! I read this first quote and realized I need to get to know her! This looks so good, Michele! Thanks for sharing! Going to get this one!

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    1. She wrote Walking On Water, a great resource for writers, but is best known for A Wrinkle in Time. The movie has been in theaters for a while now, but I can’t bring myself to consider seeing it because I already have the characters picture a certain way in my head . . .

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  2. I’m with Donna and once again, the excellence of your review draws me into discovering new authors, new ideas and thoughts, and enrichment to my life. Thank you! You are a gift!

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  3. I join the ranks in saying I have not read a book of hers, only quotes here and there. You have made me think it is time to pick one up. Wonderful review!

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    1. She gives wonderful help and inspiration to writers in Walking on Water. And of course, her fiction is amazing. I hope you’ll share what you eventually decide to read and how you like it!

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  4. I have heard of Madeline L’Engle but I have never ready anything of hers. Thank you for sharing about this one, I’ll have to remember it. Thank you for linking up over at GraceFull Tuesday!

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  5. I didn’t read A Wrinkle in Time until I was an adult and loved it! Even though I’m not much for that genre! I loved Walking on Water too. Thanks for letting us know about this book and for your thoughtful review. Now I’m off to Google why on earth A Wrinkle in Time would have been banned???

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  6. Oh Michele, those probing questions are such good ones: Am I idealizing things here? Would my husband and kids recognize the life I’m describing? Would they recognize me?
    I admire your ability to glean what is good and learn from what is not in the lives of those you review!

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    1. Thank you, Linda. It’s always a horrible crash to the ground when we find that our idols have feet of clay, but then I need so much grace for my own failings that it ends up being helpful and reassuring when I’m reminded that I don’t have to be even close to perfect for God to work through me.

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  7. Michele, I didn’t know much about Madeline L’Engle, but your post opened my eyes to some of what formed her writings. I loved A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door as a girl.

    I also loved what you shared about how she found writing to be a form of worship. That is sometimes how it feels, but I’ve never framed it that way in my thoughts.

    This review gives me a lot to think about. Thank you for that!

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  8. The only work of hers I have read is Wrinkle in Time. While reading that, I perused some other articles about her, some favorable and some not. So I have never been quite sure what to think of her, yet I haven’t had time to explore her writings any further.

    Interesting thought about practicing faith. I’ve often thought of faith as something like a muscle – not just something we have, but something that must be exercised. I think there are some similarities between the two lines of thought.

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    1. Yes, I think you are right. And the hard part is in the exercising (or the practicing) of it. Most of the time, I think a lot of believers just regard their faith as a static thing rather than a growing presence in their life.

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  9. Love the initial Madeleine L’Engle quote and graphic. She sounds like a wise and compassionate woman. A real student of human nature. Thank you for sharing!

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    1. Oh, I hope you get to read some Madeleine. If your kids like audio books like mine did, you might really love listening to Wrinkle in Time. Not sure if it’s still available, but we borrowed the version of Madeleine reading it herself from the library (so long ago that it was on cassette tape.)

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  10. The only Madeleine L’Engle I’ve read so far was a A Circle of Quiet. It wasn’t quite what I expected but I did get some lovely things out of it. I do want to read more, perhaps Walking on Water next. I loved your quote: “As a mother who still finds it difficult to fit writing into my life as either a ministry or as an art form, I have been encouraged by the way she found writing to be a form of worship, a thought which has impacted my own view of writing as an offering to God.” I’ve always thought of writing more of ministry so thinking of it as worship is an interesting idea to me.

    And I agree about the finding it difficult to fit writing into my life part!

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    1. Yes, I think those of us with families end up putting our writing on the back burner to make room for life. I get frustrated sometimes about this, but then I remember that if I didn’t have all those interruptions, I’d probably have nothing to write about. And I do think the urgency helps me to say what I need to say economically. 🙂

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  11. I appreciate how you used the words and beliefs of Madeleine L’Engle to frame some of your thoughts toward your own writing. These words speak to me: “let’s commit ourselves to showing up, to serving the work to which we are called, and to anchoring our souls in the practice of believing.” Here’s to anchoring my soul in the practice of believing. Thank you for sharing this at #TellHisStory.

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    1. I discovered Madeleine’s non-fiction when my kids were little, and the way she persevered in her craft and decided that she was a writer whether or not her words ever saw daylight was such an encouragement to me in those days of writing nothing but grocery lists and scavenger hunt clues for kids’ birthday parties.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Sounds interesting just have to consider the height of my pile or really I should say piles of books plus the ones that are listed on my kindle. When will we ever have enough time to read everything we would like to?

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  13. Like many others who have commented I have never read any of Madeleine L’Engle’s writing but it sounds like it would be really interesting. I love the idea of truth being embodied in story- I think that’s why Jesus used story so much in his teaching.

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  14. I definitely want to read this book, Michele! A lot of these things about Madeleine L’Engle are new to me. I’m interested to learn more about the woman who wrote one of the books that was a huge part of my childhood. Thank you so much for sharing this insight into her life and faith, as well as this book, with the Hearth and Soul Link Party. I hope you are having a lovely week!

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    1. If you love Madeleine’s books, you will love Sarah Arthur’s balanced and beautiful sharing of the life behind the writing.
      So good to know you have also been shaped by those beautiful books.

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  15. Michele, I read a book called Pain and Pretending many years ago. It talked about people who create am imaginary “reality” in their minds when a portion of life is too harsh to handle. Your post reminded me of that. I love the thought that our writing can be worship. I believe it should be. Even Noah built an ark out of reverence.

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    1. Wow, that’s a great way of understanding L’Engle’s “alternate” reality. And I guess there are a lot of things that can become worship if they are done as an offering to God.
      Thanks, Deb, for sharing these good thoughts.

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  16. I’ve always found it odd when religious people discount science – as if God would not have engaged us on every level of the planet. I loved A Wrinkle in Time due to her meeting the two head on. #GlobalBlogging

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    1. When I was homeschooling very young children, we always considered that science was one way we discovered all the beauty, both visible and hidden, that God had built into the universe for us to be amazed at. It is discouraging when either scientists or Christians adopt an us/them mentality.

      Liked by 1 person

  17. As far as I was and am concerned, her books are wonderful stories to be enjoyed by children. I never saw the theology just as I never saw the theology in the Narnia series. I take these books at face value

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    1. I think I recall L’Engle writing somewhere that much of the theological slant of her fiction came pretty much as a surprise to her. In retrospect, for example, she realized that the huge brain that was “IT” in Camazotz was symbolic of a world run completely on logic and the tangible realities. And Lewis was very reluctant to have people go fishing around in his children’s fiction for parallel meanings. I think you’re right to focus on the narrative arc, and if God uses it to shine light on something deeper, consider it as a gift.

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  18. I like the quote at the top, I suppose I am guilty of it, wanting to share Jesus but more often on the receiving end of it, the ridicule, but it has not dissuaded me. Things that are sacred to me may not be to others, grace made me know that, lately more than ever and that grace is still there for them. I think her writing sounds wonderful.

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  19. You’ve written this review so well. I always have a harder time verbalizing my response when a book hits me close to home, but you’ve done brilliantly. Thanks for linking up at Booknificent Thursday on Mommynificent.com this week!
    Tina

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  20. I’ve only read one of her books–and it wasn’t A Wrinkle in Time! It was a sweet love story set in a Swiss boarding school or something like that. Maybe it’s time I read more of her works :).

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