A Window Rippled with Imperfections

Madeline L’Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time.

By Courtney Lott –

Writing can be frustrating – even for the talented.

In a moment of dramatic renunciation of her craft after multiple rejections of her manuscript, Madeleine L’Engle covered her typewriter. Very quickly she realized that, in spite of this gesture, her mind had already started planning a novel about failure. It was this discovery that made her realize she had no choice but to write, that she was called to it by a power greater than herself.

“It is easy to say you’re a writer when things are going well,” L’Engle wrote in her book A Circle of Quiet. “When the decision is made in the abyss, then it is quite clear that it is not one’s own decision at all.”

L’Engle would go on to write and publish over forty-five books including the best-selling children’s fantasy, A Wrinkle in Time – a novel for young readers loaded with deep spiritual messages.

To understand the novelist’s legacy, writes Sarah Arthur in her biography on L’Engle, A Light So Lovely, it is necessary to delve into her spiritual formation as well as her formation as a person. Though not an unwanted child, she never quite fit into the routine of her parents’ lives. As they busied themselves with operas and plays, L’Engle (1918-2007) spent most of her days with only her Irish-Catholic housekeeper, Mary O’Connell, for company. Writing sustained her through a few miserable years at an Anglican boarding school in Switzerland – where her parents dropped her off without warning – and eventually became her longed-for profession.

Her craft led L’Engle to read scripture as well. While under the tutelage of scholar-author Mary Ellen Chase, she was encouraged to study and become completely familiar with the King James translation of the Bible. Said Chase, “the power of this great translation is the rock on which the English language stands.”

When her father died in 1936 L’Engle found no comfort or community in the Episcopal churches she visited. Arthur writes that in this time, “she eschewed organized religion and became, for lack of a better description, a deeply unhappy, deeply moral, artist-agnostic – who also happened to read the Bible because her writing professor at an otherwise irreligious college told her to.”

It was a troubling conversation with a peer about her father’s existence after death that led to L’Engle’s affirmation that we should not be abandoned by the God who made us. Her ravenous curiosity would not allow her to remain an artist-agnostic. She wrote that she “did feel, passionately, that it wasn’t fair of God to give us brains enough to ask the ultimate questions if he didn’t intend to teach us the answers.”

This drove her first to German theologians – who she claimed put her to sleep – then finally to Albert Einstein. She read his writings ravenously and continuously, even on family vacations. Eventually, her fast developing obsession with this theoretical physicist’s work became a turning point in her spiritual journey.

“Einstein wrote that anyone who is not lost in rapturous awe and amazement at the power and glory of the mind behind the universe is as good as a burned-out candle,” wrote L’Engle. “I had found my theologian.”

This might appear somewhat non-sequitur, says Arthur, but reading Einstein and others opened L’Engle’s eyes, revealed to her that Christianity was a faith worth claiming. She could now conceive of a world in which a loving God who not only kept track of every particle in the universe, but also cared about our little planet enough to become one of us.

These themes thread all throughout her novels, particularly her most famous work, A Wrinkle in Time. And yet, L’Engle faced critics on both sides of the spectrum. The secular community resisted her Christianity, while Christian fundamentalists — who she called “fundalits” — fought to ban her books from libraries across the country.

Like The Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings before it, Winkle was viewed with suspicion due to its genre. Claiming that L’Engle’s angelic protagonists were witches, these “fundalits” condemned Wrinkle as fictional poison for children. They even attempted to ban her books from libraries, schools, and churches by launching salacious allegations of untoward innuendo in the scenes where Meg and her fellow characters travel to other planets.

“There is a new and troublesome fear of the imagination — though without it, how can anyone believe in the Incarnation, the Power that created all of the galaxies willingly limiting itself to be one of us for the love of us,” wrote L’Engle. “And this fear is expressing itself in a new kind of book burning and witch-hunting.”

In spite of all this, L’Engle attended church faithfully. “If I go to services with reasonable regularity, it is largely becauseI believe that if I am attempting to understand what it means to be Christian, this cannot be done in lofty isolation,” she wrote in The Rock that is Higher. “So I go to church, not for any legalistic or moralistic reasons, but because I am a hungry sheep who needs to be fed; and for the same reason that I wear a wedding ring: a public witness of a private commitment.”

L’Engle also refused to allow the censure from either the secular or Christian community to direct her literary path. Unwilling to believe in the false dichotomy of the sacred and secular within art, she continued to write books, to talk unashamedly about Christ. Like C.S. Lewis, she acted as an apologist who sought to explain the plausibility of Christian faith to skeptics.

And she won a Newbery anyway. The Newbery award is a literary award given by the Association for Library Service to Children to the author of “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.”

“An icon is not a mirror, merely reflecting our own selves back to us,” writes Sarah Arthur. “It’s a window that points to light and truth beyond itself. It’s not to be mistaken for the light… If Madeleine taught us nothing else, as both icon and iconoclast, it’s that we are flawed and imperfect beings. It’s not our own light we bring to any situation, but the light of Christ we attempt to shine on others.”

Arthur wisely devotes time not only to the lovely elements of L’Engle’s life, but also the lowly. Often blurring the line between fact and fiction, L’Engle weaved her own family into stories and, on occasion, hurt them in the process. Inspired by her youngest son Bion as a child, she created a character and a set of expectations from which he never could shake free. This blinded her to his fight with alcoholism and, though she was with him as he was dying of liver failure, they never truly reconciled.

“When it comes to the impact of Madeleine’s storytelling on her family, hers might be a cautionary tale,” writes Arthur. “To what extent are we leveraging our own preferred plotlines at the expense of giving our loved ones as ‘complete and free a life of their own’ as we hope to give our invented characters, even our invented selves?”

Far from perfect, L’Engle served as a storytelling icon, not meant to be worshiped, but to point to the one who we ought to worship. We tell stories because our creator is the great story-teller, because our savior clothes heavenly truths in story. L’Engle understood this deeply.

“Why does anybody tell a story?” L’Engle wrote in A Rock that is Higher. “It does indeed have something to do with faith, faith that the universe has meaning, that our little human lives are not irrelevant, that what we choose or say or do matters, matters cosmically.”

L’Engle made it her quest to tell a better story, writes Arthur, a story that pointed others to the same “light so lovely” she herself glimpsed in great literature during her childhood. Her books served as icons directing us to a source of truth beyond ourselves. L’Engle challenges us to do the same with our craft. Who are we pointing to? Ourselves? Or our creator?

Courtney Lott is the editorial assistant at Good News. 

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