Madeleine L'Engle. A powerful woman, large-hearted, fearless, quixotic, profoundly imaginative, unwilling to settle for mediocrity. Tall and queenly, she physically embodied her mental and spiritual attributes. I remember occasions when, in church during Advent, she would rise to full height, spread her arms wide like the Angel of the Annunciation, and declare, "Fear not!" in a tone that allowed no gainsaying. It was a challenge impossible to ignore.
She loved God and his children, but this didn't keep her from questioning and questing in pursuit of truth, which she never equated with fact. Without ever being a scientist herself, she had an uncanny understanding of some of the principles of physics, and the thrust of her life was to integrate her sense of the largeness, diversity, and unity of the universe with the spiritual principles she found in Scripture and her daily practice and rule of life.
We met in the '70s as speakers at a Wheaton College literary conference, exchanged books, affirmed each other as kindred spirits, and started a correspondence. Madeleine was eager for us at Shaw Publishers to republish a book of out-of print poems, as well as some more recent ones. Lines Scribbled on an Envelope thus became The Weather of the Heart, and it became clearer to me that this woman had a lot to say to our particular circles of Christian community.
The following year I asked her to write a book for us about her philosophy of creativity. In a couple of months she handed me an untidy bundle of typescript, saying with some disgust, "Can you do something with this? It has no shape!" After weeks of cutting the whole thing apart and re-organizing it on my dining room floor (this was before personal computers), I presented it to her. She was relieved, pleased that it worked. It became Walking on Water: Reflection on Faith and Art, a book that has been reprinted many times and continues to encourage artists of faith around the globe. And I became editor and publisher of her "non-secular" books.
After we became friends through the mutuality of manuscripts we sensed ourselves growing closer, and we began to teach together now and then. Often this would take the form of public dialogues, unplanned conversations that could lead us into territory where we had to think on our feet, knowing that if one of us went blank or dropped the ball the other would pick it up. We loved the adventure of Q & A, where candor led us to ad lib responses, voicing things we never knew we knew. We were profoundly aware that we were both servants of the word, and the Word.
One such occasion was in Oxford, at the Sheldonian Theatre, Christopher Wren's marvelous U-shaped auditorium. Two upholstered wing chairs were set up on the stage with a Victorian tea table and a pot of hot tea and scones between them. We sat back comfortably and talked about friendship, and our friendship, batting the subject back and forth like a tennis ball, teasing, getting serious, answering questions. When there's enough that is the same and enough that is different in such a relationship, there is a fruitful middle ground to be explored. Madeleine completed a number of meditative books for Shaw, including The Genesis Trilogy, The Rock that Is Higher, Penguins and Golden Calves, and Bright Evening Star, all with scriptural themes. Madeleine knew her Bible more thoroughly and perceptively than many evangelicals. Scripture was very much part of her daily life and thought.
With the success of her Newbery Award-winning novel A Wrinkle in Time and the popular fiction series that followed, as well as her more contemplative nonfiction books, Madeleine's readership grew vast and vocal. She had to deal with the struggle that many public figures face, where everyone wanted a piece of her, wanted to own part of her. She was always gracious and giving, sometimes signing books for a long line of fans until her hand actually bled, but she admitted to me, "I am really grateful to be so loved, but I don't want to be adored."
I did come to truly love her. Raised in the most conservative of circles—British, male-dominated, genteel, and fundamentalist—I was always the questioner, the challenger, the seeker within the group. As a woman, I was out of order if I raised my voice or asked questions, which were to be submitted in private to my husband. I was speaking and writing to Christian groups around the country—activities which signified, to those in my own circle, that I was a "trouble-maker." The radical in me met the feisty, open-hearted, broad-minded Episcopalian in Madeleine, and the mix was warming and enriching for us both. When my husband and I joined the Episcopal Church, Madeleine welcomed us with warm enthusiasm. We converged in the middle and from then on, I believe, influenced each other's understanding of our mysterious life with God.
There was not always agreement. Madeleine was uncomfortable with the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. For her, the idea that Jesus had to be punished by his Father for human beings to be forgiven signified what she called a "forensic" understanding of theology. "How could a loving God ever kill his Beloved Son?" she would ask. In the continuum of God's Love and Righteousness she came down squarely on the Love end of things. She also prayed that eventually "every knee will bow" to God, not just in submission but in adoration, that "no-one will finally be excluded from the party." She hoped that "no human being's rebellion could outlive the love of God," brought to this hope by her reading of George MacDonald's theology. We discussed this endlessly, for my part referencing C. S. Lewis' depiction of MacDonald in The Great Divorce. I guess I came to think: "Well, if universalism is a heresy, it's one I wish were true!"
Inevitably she came under attack from conservatives for her views. The Trojan Horse, a book presented at the Christian Bookseller's Convention back in the '70s, claimed that she was the thin edge of heterodoxy piercing the armor of orthodoxy. She responded with such a sweet spirit, disclaiming the traditionalist stereotype of her as a "New Ager" and refusing to respond in kind, that her opponents had nowhere to go. Her detractors, she felt, were drawing a circle that was exclusionary, while Jesus' circle drew her in. I never stopped feeling that we were in that circle together. The love of Christ bonded us.
Her birthday was November 29. Once when the date was approaching I asked Madeleine, "What would you like for your birthday?" To which she shot back immediately, "Go on a trip with me." We drove together through the Canadian Rockies, in awe at their vastness and beauty. In other years we traveled with our mutual friend Barbara Braver in England and Ireland, to Lindisfarne, and to Iona, the Holy Island off the Scottish coast where St. Columba and his followers found sanctuary in exile. On the narrow country lanes, hedges almost brushing the car on either side, Madeleine, sitting next to me as I steered along the "left" of the road, would often urge me, "More left-ish, Luci. More left-ish." "But Madeleine, I'm as far left as I can go! And as far right, too." This pretty much summed up our being drawn together to the centrality of our belief in God and of the Way of Christ, his strait and narrow, if you will.
Madeleine and I both loved to trace words back to their origins. When the word "companion" came under scrutiny we realized that it referred to those who ate bread together. She observed that when feuding countries forged some kind of peace accord and shook hands for the cameras, it didn't mean much. But if they sat down to a meal together, with bread and salt, it spoke of something more profound. The Lord's Table, with Eucharistic bread and wine, was the feast that joined us together. We regularly walked to noon Eucharist at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, a few blocks from Madeleine's home in Manhattan. And if the weather was too severe we'd stay indoors, thankful for God's presence in the fellowship of tuna sandwiches.
WinterSong, our first book compiled together, mingled our poems, essays, stories, and journal entries that reflected light into the dark period of the year weather-wise. Because we found praying together on the phone so helpful and meaningful, we then assembled A Prayer Book for Spiritual Friends, a collection of prayers "in two voices" that friends can pray together about themes of common interest. Finally came Friends for the Journey, which celebrated the commitment of friend to friend over many years. We called this a "trinitarian" friendship book, reflecting the way our common friendship with Barbara Braver, our fellow pilgrim to Iona and in faith, had enriched all our lives.
Madeleine's legacy is with us in her books, our memories, her friends and ours—an immense cloud of witnesses.
Luci Shaw is the author of many volumes of poetry and prose, including most recently Breath for the Bones: Art, Imagination, and Spirit—Reflections on Creativity and Faith (Thomas Nelson).
Copyright © 2008 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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