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.

Ever pursuing the Loveliest of Lights,

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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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