A Light so Lovely is a beautifully written book by Sarah Arthur that brings back good memories of how Madeleine L’Engle influenced my life. Madeleine L’Engle came to Wheaton college during the spring of my first year. My classes that quarter had coalesced into one class that seemed to be about creativity and called me to be a poet, at least that’s how I perceived the things I was learning and my response to them.  

Dr. McClatchey explicated “The Windhover” in such a way that I caught a vision of what it might be like to be a writer when he talked about the windhover buckling to give up flight, to come to earth, and that buckling changed everything to “gash, gold vermillion.” As a young woman, my heart lifted up when I watched hawks soaring and sitting on wires. They were my bird, a totem, so when this poem came up I thought of them soaring over the back country by my parents’ farm in upstate New York. 

There is a plunging from the sky that happens when a writer takes stories out of their lives and imagination, puts them on the page and offers them to their readers. There is always the risk of rejection, being ignored, or becoming beloved. 

I think it was that same day, our creative writing teacher played a tape of a writer quoting Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet: “Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die it were denied you to write. This above all–ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: Must I write?” (18 -19). Well, yes, I must write, I answered. I worked late into the evening writing a poem. That morning I saw, I saw for the first time a rain drop on a pine bow, saw how tiny it was, how beautiful.

I marched up to my teacher saying I was called to be a writer. His face went blank. He said that my gift was like the loaves and two fishes, God would surely multiply. I heard the words behind his words: Your gift is humble, not much to write home about, but God can use it like those pieces of bread and fish. That’s pretty much how my work as a writer has played out–bread and fish feeding people, small, homespun like a bag lunch. 

My First Encounter with L’Engle

When Madeleine stepped onto campus I saw a vision of glory that crashed over and through me. She walked on the sidewalk between Williston and the student center looking like a queen–tall, regal, head up, her clothes flowing. She was a woman with great dignity and fierce beauty.  But her dignity had come through great trial like gold that has been cooked in a fire. She seemed ageless. She stood tall, braced against whatever might come and what had come to pass. In A Light So Lovely, Sarah Arthur quotes Luci Shaw, “What the world saw was 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”  (34).

When I saw a Rottweiler walk across that same sidewalk between Willisten and the student center I was gobsmacked by how he too was regal, a mix between a dog and a bear and a lion. His owner said his name was Adam. I felt honored to touch his head.

(Years later, I answered an ad for a Rottweiler off California Avenue in Chicago. He was about a year old, and became the dog of my grief, with Adam in his lineage.) I was caught up in a vision of glory, like the one I wanted to write. I felt T.S. Eliot’s line: “Ecstasy is too much pain” because I dumped into summer break utterly exhausted, but tuning my life to pursue this call to be a poet. The phrase “daughter of the King” came to mind, not just of seeing how regal L’Engle was, but impossibly a label for myself.

(Lately I have written in my Five Minute Journal the affirmation: I am a daughter of the King who is able to keep me from stumbling and present me blameless before the presence of His glory, with great joy. I scrawl the words ending Titus because I am so rattled by how I don’t live up to the ways Titus has said I should be.)

 I don’t remember what L’Engle said when I repeated I was called to be a poet, but she had to have been kind because if she hadn’t been, I would not be writing this. ( A big sigh over how my mind remembers the hurtful and erases the sweet.)

Artistically, though I tried too hard, writing poems that slammed images together in one line. One person thought my lines looked like a schizophrenic wrote them, and a poet thought I’d been on LSD when I wrote another poem. I was sober, but I pressured my imagination to leap like Gerard Manley Hopkins, when I needed to learn to write a plain English sentence. In grad school I wanted to write poems that a high school educated farmer could understand. My teachers obliged by working hard to teach me how to accomplish this. I cried after nearly every workshop–five semesters worth. 

My Second Encounter with L’Engle

The next time L’Engle crossed my path, was during our commencement. As I listened again to her talk, I was struck by how she turned to us, the class of 1977 and said she was addressing us, not just the wider audience sitting in Edman chapel. She called up the image of Mercury, the planet closest to the sun and charged us to be like the temperate zones of Mercury where the light side that continually faced the brightness of the sun and the dark side that faced the universe oscillated. (A scientist friend assures me that without oscillation there can be no life.) L’Engle urged us to be like the temperate zone that joins the light and dark side. She urged us to reconcile the two, to bring them into wholeness. “I’m asking you to be menders. To be healers of this broken generation.” The search for wholeness begins with acknowledging our brokenness. This isn’t always easy to do, but it’s where Christianity asks us to start. While we are made in the image of God, we  still can’t get our lives right.

L’Engle said the “world of Dives offers several superstitions.” She named several but the one that seemed almost prescient back in 1977 is the search for self fulfillment, because these days we’re all looking for ways to make our dreams come true. I tuned into her words as I listened again because I’ve pursued this call to be a poet and studied life coaches like Martha Beck. I have  watched how Beck moved from “following your North Star” to mystical powers like bending spoons and calling rare, wild animals into your presence. I have wondered how this seemed a natural progression, how this seemed like a quintessential humanism. I have seen how following your dream can wreck people’s lives, bankrupt them, blow up marriages, the resulting pain seemingly needless. Big sacrifices all on the altar of self fulfillment. My own call has lead me to a hidden, quiet place, not bestsellerdom.

L’Engle continued, “the paradox is the only sure road to true personhood is self abandonment. To write a book is an act of self abandonment. To love a man is self abandonment. To listen to a friend is an act of self abandonment…Real love is exemplified by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.”

She charged us to go into the world as whole people, as healers, as providers who give back rather than consume. It was one of those speeches that felt like her laying her hands on each of us and blessing us as we left the safety of Wheaton and began to serve the world. Now as I listen again I feel the drive I have felt when a call comes: I want to do this, be a reconciler between intellect and intuition, one who helps people reconcile with themselves and each other. I want to be a bridge person. 

My Third Encounter with L’Engle

Through my publicity work at Crossway Books, I would encounter Madeleine infrequently. I remember going to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and hearing her speak about laying hands on a woman in terrible pain from breast cancer, each person standing around her took some of her pain. They shared it. 

Once I interviewed for a different publisher and she said, “You’ don’t want to go there. He’s bad news. Stay away form him. He hurt a dear friend.”

“I’ve already had a run in with him. He’s not done much damage. My grief was like a mattress around me.” I said I’d written a revenge story I titled “It Wasn’t about Sleeping Your Way to the Top or Was it?” 

But it was her words in The Irrational Season that saved me, when I was sick with the activism of evangelicals driving their faith hard into politics. I didn’t like how faith was being defined by where you stood on abortion. That seemed like redefining the gospel. They were talking small groups that would police other Christians and I thought of how they did that in other countries to control people–neighbors ratting on neighbors. I smelled the armpit of evangelicalism and it was rancid, with love for political power. I tasted power just enough to know how seductive it was, how it could grab your heart and soul and strength and wring your integrity dry. I’d reached a point where if this was Christianity, I didn’t want it. (I wrote about it here.)

My boss loaned me L’Engle’s The Irrational Season. While I was feeling this and hitting rock bottom, I read: “Once Alan preached about the necessity of Christian atheism; we must top worshipping the false gods which have crept into Christianity (all those Anglo Saxon moral virtues); we must be atheists for Christ’s sake. He did not mean, of course, that we are to stop believing in God, God who is One, God who is All, but that we must be certain that it is God we believe in, and not all those false spirits masquerading as the Holy One.” (136 – 137).

I continued reading, stretched out on my antique bed, the room full of light, Cane lying at my feet. My whole body felt the nausea–If this is Christianity I don’t want it–easing. L”Engle wrote,  “I am saddened when the very air I breathe throughout Christendom is Pelagian: The Church can take care of all the ills of the world as long as we are morally virtuous and politically liberal. Not that I am against  either virtue of liberalism! But I watch in horror as a great liberal, passionately interested in the cause of–shall we say–the leper, very carefully avoids the leper in his path in order to et on with the cause…Jesus stopped. And healed. And loved. Not causes but people” (138)

The people I worked with yammered about the cause, the cause, the cause but I wondered if they cared about real people. I wondered if they cared about me, a woman hired to promote them, but who was grieving the death of her parents, while working to promote that infernal cause. The week after my dad died, while I was finishing my tour with my authors, I saw famous evangelical pastors trip over me to get to the authors I was shepherding. I sat at dinners, not able to lose it, because I was with the devout, while a woman I didn’t know saw the pain written on my face, “What is wrong?”she asked over and over. And I couldn’t say, or I would have heaved, deep, terrible tears. L’Engle’s words spoke to my spiritual nausea, helped me not feel so alone in my perceptions. Her words settled me on rock bottom, let me find prayer like breath.  

I wrote a nine page letter to L’Engle pouring out my heart. She wrote back saying I could write a novel. It took me thirty years to work out the book that became The River Caught Sunlight.  

When I published my first collection of poetry, When the Plow Cuts I was well out of the publishing industry, beginning to teach again. I asked L’Engle if I could use her response to my poems. She said yes. “The poems are strong and tender and beautiful. She is poet.”

And now I am remembering these good things because Sarah Arthur wrote her well researched book that coalesces L’Engle’s thought and life in one place.  She brings Madeleine’s presence back to me through A Light So Lovely, the title itself a challenge: “We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing the a light so lovely, that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”

Joy, a friend at Wheaton College, said that sometimes we have brief encounters that change our lives, sometimes we don’t have to have a long relationship for this to happen. She called it a “moment for eternity.” This is how my encounters with Madeleine L’Engle were for me. They changed my life for good. 

What are your moments for eternity when a person changed your life with a little or maybe a long term touch?


  • Mark says:

    I dreamt the other night that I called Frank Schaeffer on the phone to talk with him, and he said, “Oh, hi, Mark, um . . . ” And in the dream I could see him like in a split screen scene in a movie depicting a phone conversation between two people. Frank then said, “I’m really kind of busy right now . . .” and he didn’t even have to say what I knew he was going to say next, “I don’t have time to talk with you.” And I knew that he meant that he never wanted to talk with me again, that he was never actually interested in talking with me, only in selling me his wares, and that he wasn’t even interested in doing that with me anymore.

    But as sad as I felt waking from that dream, I’ve realized that had I never read Frank Schaeffer and never tried to talk with him, I’d never have met you and Bruce and that Karen and I would never have prayed with you both and known the love we all share in our lives and in Jesus.

    “Beauty from ashes,” huh?

    • katiewilda says:

      Oh Mark, what a painful dream. I can see how Frank can be that way, though I’m not sure the dream is a true one. Have you contacted him to see if it’s true? Do you even want to? Sometimes people who aren’t good for us self select away from us, saving us a lot of grief because we have moved to a healthier place. Maybe that’s what’s happened. If you want to look at this a different way that might be BS, I have heard that the people in our dreams are parts of ourselves, which makes me wonder what part of you might Frank represent? I’m not sure, as angry as he seems, maybe it’s not all bad for you to lose him. I just checked his page. No change there…

      But you’re right. What a gift you and Karen have been to me. I feel that our friendship is one good thing that came out of publishing my book the way I did (something I’ve been ambivalent about, though what’s done is done.) I hope we can meet one day, this side of Paradise…Would you and Karen be interested in a prayer group on Zoom or Google Hangouts like we did with Morgan? It’s something I’m thinking about starting…I’d love to hear your thoughts…It’s so good to hear your voice again.

      • Mark says:

        I don’t know, Katie. Maybe the Frank in my dream is a projection of myself. There’s a real good chance of that since I’m so self-absorbed . . . but aren’t we all?

        This is something that Mark Twain wrote about in The Mysterious Stranger, the book that made the 19 year old me think that I was God, until the 20 year old me found out that I wasn’t when God, Himself, in the Person of Jesus Christ, straightened me out on that subject . . . but not completely, because I still to this day over forty years later mostly act like I still think that I’m God . . . but don’t we all? The really ironic thing is that the only human being who wasn’t so damned self-absorbed, who didn’t go around all the time acting like He thought He was God, was Jesus of Nazareth, Who, in fact, IS God. So go figure!

        But enough about me. I’m was so glad to read about you and the kindness of Madeleine L’Engle with you and the deep impression that she made on the young version of you. I’d never ever heard of Madeleine L’Engle, but now you’ve made me want to read this book about her, A Light So Lovely. In fact, I paused just now and ordered it on Amazon onto my iPhone’s Kindle app. (Ah, the age we live in . . . I’m really not sure what I just said, all techno gibberish as it is, huh!) But, surely I digress and so easily fall back into my default self-absorbtion when I was trying to talk about you.

        Anyway, thank you, Katie, for writing this somewhat equally self-absorbed book review. The personal recollections you shared of Madeleine L’Engle and, especially, the link to your 1980’s essay about yourself, God, and so-called Christianity were actually my favorite parts of the review of what you considered to be “a beautifully written book by Sarah Arthur,” whoever she is.

        PS: To answer your question, yes Karen and I would like to pray with you and Bruce and, even, Morgan too, if he’s still around. We’d like to do that for a whole host of reasons, not the least of which is that communal prayer gets me out of myself . . . well . . . almost.

        • katiewilda says:

          I don’t think of you as self absorbed at all. In fact you strike me as someone who has served others and your community and your family in a powerful way. When I think of Frank I think of anger, of the “old man” and I wondered if your dream might be an image for you, for me of our old self leaving us. The old timers called it the carnal self. When I think of Frank of think of anger, but I also think of compassion, because he has been very kind to me. I think there is grief involved when we let go of the old parts of ourselves, when new things come. That’s what I thought of. And could be off base.

          How did God in the person of Jesus straighten you out on the subject of being God? What is the story? That is amazing how Jesus who was God didn’t go around being self absorbed.

          I should have explained that Madeleine L’Engle wrote A Wrinkle in Time, which won the Newberry Award. The book was just made into a big motion picture that featured Oprah. She also wrote several more books in the series with A Wrinkle in Time as well as other books. Her nonfiction spoke to me a lot. Arthur’s book, distills a lot of L’Engle’s wisdom into one place. It’s a good book that got me thinking about how L’Engle influenced me. Also got me thinking about how I rubbed shoulders with all these well published Christian writers, but how I stepped away from that world. I cut the opening which talked about wishing I’d been interviewed for the book, but I wouldn’t be because I don’t travel in Arthur’s circles and I’m no longer a part of the relige-biz. I’m not well published. Not sure I know what to make of that with all the intensity I felt over being called to write, but it is what it is. Small isn’t always bad.

          I’ll be interested in hearing what you think of A Light So Lovely.

          I hear you on the self absorbtion part but sometimes I think that’s all we have to offer, like the loaves and two fishes, and trust God can use it. I know that it’s very good to hear your voice, and that I don’t think of you as self absorbed. Humble yes. Soulful yes. Full of Jesus’ love yes. Serving others, yes.

          Sounds good about the prayer meeting. Morgan has gotten his cafe up and running. It’s beautiful and is drawing young people in. But he’s been busy as far as prayer goes. When he starts up again, I’ll give a shout through Karen on FB and will do likewise when I start my group, which may just be us.

          It’s very good to hear your voice. My love to Karen.

          • Mark says:

            “We draw people to Christ . . . by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”

            Beautiful . . . but I’m not so sure about that, Katie.

            It’s such a beautiful, beautiful thought that I wish it was so . . . but I don’t think that it is. For one thing, how many “so lovely light”-hearted people can you think of. Not near enough now or through all time to do all the great drawing of souls that is needed. No “so lovely light”-hearted people . . . with the exception of Jesus of Nazareth . . . and we crucified Him!

            And yet souls are still drawn to Him . . . but not because of us. Holy Spirit draws people, as He always has, paradoxically through the darkness all around and, even, in each and all of us.

            It wasn’t the lovely light I saw in the Christ-followers who I remember trying to tell me about, even, trying to show me Him. It was the misery I realized in my own darkness that ultimately led me to Him and still does.

            One day the darkness will be gone. I believe this with all my heart. In fact, I’ve bet my very soul upon this Truth.

            Andrew Peterson sings about that Day in a song I’ve come to love, “The Dark Before The Dawn.” The final lyric is so truly wonderful that it makes me ache inside for its fulfillment.

            “I had a dream that I was waking at the burning edge of Dawn and I could see the fields of Glory, I could hear the Sower’s song . . . and all that rain had washed me clean, all the sorrow was gone . . . and I could finally believe The King had loved me all along . . . I saw the Sower in the silver mist, and He was calling me Home!”


          • katiewilda says:

            Mark, you know? I think you’re right. Doesn’t Paul say in Corinthians that we are a sweet fragrance to those who are being drawn to Christ and a stench to those who aren’t? Many in our culture have a knee jerk reaction against Christians, and in other places, Christians are being murdered for their faith. Also didn’t Paul say, “Those who are living in Christ Jesus will be persecuted”? That’s not drawing people with a light so lovely. A friend said that my dour personality kept her away from Christ when we were kids. It was a heartbreaking thing to say to me then.

            It is wonderful that the Holy Spirit is the one who draws people to him. What a relief, that that’s not on us.

            I am looking forward to the day when the darkness is gone. I’m looking forward to seeing him as he is, being like him. It’s been great chatting. The peace of the Lord be with you always.