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?