Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Learning From L'Engle

"The beginning of our happiness," Madeleine L'Engle once wrote, "lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living. What we lack is not a will to believe but a will to wonder."

I first encountered Madeleine L'Engle when I checked out copy of A Wrinkle in Time from my elementary school library. Intrigued first by the book's title when I noticed it on the shelf, so I took it down, looked at the cover with its image of children riding on the back of a centaur in the sky and, having just finished C. S. Lewis' Narnia chronicles, was ready to jump into another fantasy series. That's what I love about libraries: how we can unknowingly and for the most peculiar of reasons, come across a book that will forever change our lives. And no books do that like the ones we read in our childhood because we invest so much of ourselves into them. 

L'Engle starts off this novel with the sentence that every writing class one ever takes tells you not to begin with . . .

Yet I was drawn in by this storm and by the protagonist, Meg Murry. Like myself, she struggles to fit in. Meg is awkward and bookish. Unlike her mother, she's not pretty but is an "oddball" (her description of herself), stubborn, smart but does not apply herself in school, impatient and, at times, angry. All of the things she dislikes about herself will become assets later. The character was very much based on L'Engle herself who was tall and awkward, bullied by classmates, was considered stupid by many of her teachers because she underperformed in her subjects, and was terribly lonely. I could relate, being a shy, introverted, short and terribly skinny boy who was bookish. Both of us retreated to our books and our created worlds. Certainly we were drawn to fairy tales, including those by George MacDonald (He was a Scottish poet, author, and pastor whose works influenced both L'Engle, C. S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, G. K. Chesterton, and Oswald Chambers). 

Of MacDonald's work, Mrs. L'Engle wrote, "George MacDonald gives me renewed strength during times of trouble - times when I have seen people tempted to deny God - when he says, 'The Son of God suffered unto death, not that men might suffer, but that their suffering might be like his."

It was his fantasy novels as well as the works of L. M. Montgomery, particularly her Emily of New Moon, that influenced Madeleine to want to become a writer in the first place. Yet it would not be until she was forty and on a ten-week , cross-country trip with her family that she came up with the idea for Wrinkle. As she writes, "As we drove through a world of deserts and buttes and leafless mountains, wholly new and alien to me. And suddenly into my mind came the names, Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which." Yet it was her interest in Albert Einstein, particle physics and quantum mechanics that gave birth to the "wrinkle" or "tesseracts." Because of its scientific nature, L'Engle would struggle for years to get the work published (she received over twenty-six rejections) because publishers complained it was "too difficult." 

The rejections were especially painful because she had written A Wrinkle in Time as a way of  rediscovering her spiritual life because she had not "been able to find spiritual meaning in anything else she had experienced of read until that time." It would be writing this novel that led L'Engle to returning to the Church. Through Wrinkle, she used science and the tesseracts as a way to show connectedness between worlds (as she believes that the sacred and the secular are not disconnected or separate). Like C. S. Lewis, L'Engle writes her fiction as a way of spiritual wrestling. Though the mystical characters of Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which help her to travel through time, Meg is baffled why they cannot solve her problems but send her, Charles Wallace (her younger brother) and her friend Calvin O'Keefe down to a darkness-infested planet Camaztoz to battle with the disembodied brain IT (intellect disconnected from the heart and spirit). The title of that chapter is "The Foolish and the Weak" after Paul's letter to the Corinthians about how God uses the foolish and weak of this world. All of Meg's weaknesses will become her strengths, especially sacrificial love. 

I was around Meg's age, twelve, when I first read this book and I remember the line, "Believing takes practice." It was a profound statement for a child to read just as everything in this amazing book was. A Wrinkle in Time was like nothing I had ever encountered before. Somehow it made the world seem larger (and not in the fantasy way that Narnia did) but in a more real, tangible way of science and the universe. The concepts she presented in this children's book were such that it caused me to see how much bigger and more mysterious this God I had heard about in church really was. It planted the seed for the theological concept of kairos (real time, God's time) and chronos (our time). That there was more than one was thrilling. Wrinkle , like Lewis' works, were embedded in theology, but, unlike Lewis, they were also rooted in science. She helped to connect the two for me just as the tessarect connected two different worlds for Meg. And it made me devour the other three books in L'Engle's Time Quintet (A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters and An Acceptable Time). 

A Wrinkle in Time would go on to be published in 1962. It would be translated into 15 different languages and it would become a classic of children's literature, winning the Newberry Medal, Sequoyah Book Award and Lewis Carroll Shelf Award

Unlike many children's authors, Madeleine L'Engle, like C. S. Lewis, was not a writer I outgrew but, as I grew up, so, too, did their works and their influence not only on my imagination, but my theology. During my college years, I came across new writers, ideas and philosophies. I found myself questioning a lot of what I thought I believed. Certainly the allure of Paris and existentialism with its image of cafes and discussions of the deeper questions. Writers like Albert Camus, Jean Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir were romantic images of the artistic life I had hoped to have. Drink coffee while sitting in the Cafe de Flore debating and creating great art. It didn't hurt that Camus looked like a movie star.

During this time I was working at Waldenbooks & More. I think I spent more than I made because it allowed me access to not only the books on the shelves, but to the computers to search other works and to customers who suggested different authors and titles to me. It was while I worked there that I was once again drawn to the title of a Madeleine L'Engle book called Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. I was interested in becoming a great writer, not a Christian one so I can only assume that I even flipped through this book on my lunch break because I still associated L'Engle with one of my favorite childhood works. At a time when I was questioning my own beliefs, I came across this sentence, "If my religion is true, it will stand up to all my questioning; there is no need to fear."  She hooked me with that one sentence and, once more, I was amazed at how God can so often speak through the writings of others at the times we most need it.

Instead of a godless, cold universe where we bring meaning to the hopelessness of our existence, L'Engle was once again reminding me that great art was there to not only darkness, but, ultimately, hope. As she writes, "We don't want to feel less when we have finished a book; we want to feel that new possibilities of being have opened to us. We don't want to close a book with a sense that life is totally unfair and that there is no light in the darkness; we want to feel that we have been given illumination." 

For her, art is "incarnational," that God invites artists to become co-creators with Him. She opened up creation and the arts for me as something greater and grander than ourselves. It was not a way to get the answers, but to create better questions.  "We live by revelation," she writes, "as Christians, as artists, which means we must be careful never to get set into rigid molds. The minute we begin to think we know all the answers, we forget the questions, and we become smug like the Pharisee who listed all of his considerable virtues, and thanked God that he was not like other men."

She was teaching me that it was okay to question, to have doubts, but to, ultimately, to have hope. With Walking on Water, I began to see that one could embrace one's spirituality with one's creativity. By reading Walking on Water,I was beginning to understand not only the gift God had given me, but also why He had given it to me and, most importantly, that His grace could show up on the shelves of a bookstore in Charlotte, North Carolina.

While in graduate school in Virginia Beach, I began to work for Barnes & Noble, which, at that time, had taken on the role of the big, bad chain bookstore putting small independents out of business (the subject of Norah Ephron's romantic comedy You've Got Mail). At the time I was attending an ultra-conservative Christian graduate school and I had begun to tire of their narrow views of God and the attitude that we could truly know the God who created universes. How can the finite truly comprehend the Infinite? I was finding myself a burned-out Baptist. Once more, God spoke though the works of Madeleine L'Engle. One of the young women I worked with had recommended the author Kathleen Norris and her book Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. It was unlike anything I had read and it ushered me into a more contemplative and meditative form of writing. Spiritual autobiography gave me a sense of not only Norris' life but the landscape (spiritually and geographically) like none I'd ever read before. 

Wanting more, I went to the Christian section but, alas, she had not written any other books at that time. I did, however, see the first in the Crosswicks Journals series A Circle of Quiet. Once more, I opened the book to read, "It is . . . through the world of the imagination which takes us beyond the restrictions of provable fact, that we touch the hem of truth." What a marvelous statement. We live in a world that loves facts, we are overwhelmed with information, but very little wisdom and wonder. Through imagination we can begin to approach the hem of truth just as the woman with an issue of blood dared approach and touch the hem of the Truth. Only then are we healed. 

It was tiresome hearing pastors who had all the right answers or would trot out that trite and empty platitude, "Jesus is the answer," to which I always (secretly and silently) replied, "You don't even know my questions." Yet, once again, there was L'Engle to remind me that it was all okay. My questions were part of the path. "The minute we think we have all the answers," she wrote, "we forget all the questions." And why are the questions so important? "Because nothing important is completely explicable."

The questions are not those of the skeptic who is looking to disprove, but those born of wondering and curiosity, of a desire to not grow further from God, but closer. Questions that do not make God smaller, but bigger and greater than anything we can even begin to understand or comprehend. The God she was showing me was a vast God, but a loving one. Like the Desert Fathers and Mothers, L'Engle was a bit of mystic. By mystic, I am using her definition as "one who sees the facts as inadequate." Once it again, she stresses Truth over facts because it is Truth and not fact that sets one free, both in one's faith and imagination.

The Crosswicks Journals (comprised of A Circle of Quiet, The Summer of the Great-Grandmother, The Irrational Season and Two-Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage) are rich, wonderful reflections on her life and faith all taken from her own journals. They give a warm and deeply moving portrait of the writer and her family. This series became a great comfort to me during a time when I struggled with watching my mother die from cancer. L'Engle reminded me, "I will have nothing to do with a God who cares only occasionally. I need a God who is with us always, everywhere, in the deepest depths as well as the highest heights. It is when things go wrong, when good things do not happen, when our prayers seem to have been lost, that God is most present. WE do not need the sheltering wings when things go smoothly. We are closest to God in the darkness, stumbling along blindly."

She allowed me to be angry and upset with God, but to know that He could not only take it but that He was still a loving, caring Heavenly Father who is most present during the time of my loss and sorrow and pain. 

Many times over the years and, I'm sure over many, many more, I have and will continue to return to her work because they remind me that there is hope, there is light and that it's okay to question. Her writing is vulnerable and honest, questioning and trusting, full of love and joy. Throughout my life, Madeleine L'Engle's writing has drawn me back to a faith I foolishly thought I'd outgrown. She reminded me, as Jesus said, that the kingdom will be inherited by children or the child-like in faith. That is the faith of wonder. 

I am grateful for the light that Madeleine L'Engle has been in my life. 

Here's a link to her official site:

Here are some clips from an interview with Madeleine L'Engle on faith, infinite questions, as well as pain and suffering.

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