Listening to the Story: A Conversation with Madeleine L'Engle
I turn down the long, dirt farm road and go west, into the sun. I recognize the house, Crosswicks, from the cover sketch on one of her more than forty books. In that house in Goshen, Connecticut, Madeleine L'Engle and Hugh Franklin began to raise their family while Hugh managed a small general store and Madeleine struggled to publish the stories that came, that kept coming. When the family moved back to New York, Crosswicks remained their home for part of the year, a family gathering place.
Now Madeleine lives across the road from the family home in a bungalow built on the foundation of an old farmhouse. She welcomes me into her home with the same spirit of openness she brings to hundreds of public engagements each year--workshops, retreats, speeches. Tea is poured. Time is open. As we talk, neither of us can resist taking in the brilliant sea of grass, wildflowers, and sky outside the windows. Down the hallway, I can see that the writing desk in her room faces directly into it.
I have known her stories from childhood. As an adult, her journals and reflections on writing have inspired me--and given me plenty of space to laugh at myself. But the miracle of the whole sweep of her diverse work, from science fiction to theology, is how clearly it has reflected her vibrant and changing Christian faith.
What will the writer, the woman, the mother, the friend share from the perspective of this year in which she turns eighty? This is the story I have come to hear.
--Dee Dee Risher
Was there a point at which you consciously claimed Christianity as your own?
People ask, "When did you become a Christian?" Probably when my father inseminated my mother with me. It's in my genes. It's coded in my DNA. Christianity is simply incarnationally the way I think of things.
I grew up in a house full of books. My parents read aloud to each other every night. They went through Alexandre Dumas, where I found a sense of story. I read a lot of George Macdonald, excommunicated from his church because he would not believe that God considered two-thirds of the people on this planet as unworthy of attention. I was very influenced by this loving theology.
I didn't have a Damascus-road experience. I just wandered along in the world of literature and allowed myself to see stories more and more as proof. Some stories we have heard so often we've forgotten what they mean.
How can one understand the incarnation except in terms of complete love? I don't believe God looks like Moses with a bad temper. If I want to see God, I'll go out on a clear night and look at the stars; at the God who says: "I love you this much."
How did you come to write your latest book, Bright Evening Star?
It is a book about Jesus--a book I did not want or plan to write. But I was irritated at the stuff that passes for Christianity and realized I was supposed to write about the God I know--a God of Love.
I spent several years writing it. In the first draft, I was proving my points. Then I realized that was going to do no one any good. I don't want to antagonize. I want to convert and to love.
I use story to explain the love of God, retelling Oscar Wilde's The Happy Prince. In that story, the statue prince gives himself away out of compassion, piece by piece--his gold finish, his sapphire eyes, the ruby in his sword. Finally, the mess that is left is thrown in the dump yard. This is what the gospel is to me--Jesus giving himself away, giving himself away.
God comes to us as a human baby--a complete rejection of power. Even while Jesus is healing people, he is continually throwing the worldly power he is being offered away. They want to make him king. He runs.
That last week must have been so lonely for Jesus. At the Last Supper, the disciples still argue over who is going to be most powerful in heaven. He must have thought, "Haven't you heard a word I've been saying?"
He had failed. He had to face the fact that they hadn't heard. And I think a lot of Christianity today, organized Christianity, still hasn't heard.
Have you found a church community that has heard?
One Sunday about six years ago, I was visiting an Episcopal church in New York so low it's sort of underneath the ocean. A man stood up. "I hope this is appropriate to ask. I was an abused child. I'm terrified of being an abusive father. I need help and prayer."
I knew then it was a church I could stay in. Because people are willing to be vulnerable, this church is very different. Sometimes it gets messy, but that's okay. People are not afraid to ask questions. We're able to admit we're all broken, we've all made terrible mistakes, we're all in need, and we all want things we don't have.
We meet in an upper room. The building was sold, and we gave all the beautiful things to the Metropolitan Museum. There's not a mink coat in the place, and there's not anyone else my age there either. They're all very young, very alive. The five o'clock Eucharist is largely street people--on drugs, HIV positive, or with AIDS. One member told me it was the only place where he was called by name.
It's a church in which a mother whose twenty-seven-year-old son has died is free to say, "People think I'm terrible because I can't pray." And I can reassure her, "You don't have to pray. We're praying for you. That's what the body of Christ is about."
Many churches don't have that kind of freedom. I have a friend who comments, "At AA groups, I can admit my faults. At church nobody wants to hear them." What an indictment of the church!
Why do you think our churches fear acknowledging weakness?
I don't know where we got this idea of a punitive God, a God who required death, Jesus' death, as a substitute for ours. When I hear some believers plead with God, "Oh, please forgive them," I think: "This is dreadful. God doesn't need to be taught to forgive."
According to my etymological dictionary, atonement means "at-one-ment." That word has nothing of sacrifice or substitution. It means Jesus was at one with God, and we are at one with God also.
Instead of thanking Jesus for dying for me, I want to rejoice that Jesus was born for us, to thank Jesus for showing us how to live.
The incarnation is incomprehensible love. It will never be explained.
How does imagination interact with faith?
For me, imagination is essential--because what I believe is not in the realm of fact. At night, I go out to the most gorgeous view of the sky and wonder that the Maker of all these galaxies-- and those fifty billion other galaxies we just discovered--came down to be one of us. You can't put that into language of fact.
I've discovered that many Christians, perhaps especially evangelicals, fear imagination. Just last year, it occurred to me why. In the King James version, which many Christians use as their only translation, imagination is always a bad word. I went through and found phrases like "Put them down in the imagination of their hearts" or "their imaginations are always only to do evil." In the 1600s, imagination was a negative word. I find myself using many translations. For instance, I like Eugene Peterson's The Message. I sometimes switch to French to try to get a fresher feeling.
How do you listen to imagination, to the story?
It's very similar to prayer. So often we're so busy talking to God that we forget God might have something to say to us. Our challenge is to turn ourselves off and listen. It's the same with story. I try to listen to the story--and the story surprises me.
In The Arm of the Starfish, my protagonist, Adam, is a young marine biologist. After three days without sleep, he finally crashes in a Lisbon hotel. He wakes up to find a young man called Joshua just sitting there. Adam is very surprised to see Joshua.
Well, I was also very surprised to see Joshua. There was no Joshua in my plot. I could either let Joshua in, which I did, or I could say, "Go away." Then it occurred to me that Joshua and Jesus are the same name and that something might happen to Joshua.
I was reading the last draft of the book to my mother and my son--then about ten. When Joshua is shot, my son said, "Change it." I said, "I can't change it; that's what happened." He said, "But you're the writer, you can change it." I said, "No, I can't change it. That's what happened."
It's as real as that. And if it isn't as real as that, the story hasn't been listened to.
You've described prayer as love unleashed in the universe, love which always has effect--even if we cannot see it. How has your prayer life changed over the years?
I'm more disciplined about prayer than I used to be. I start and end the day with prayer. I go to the Eucharist as often as possible. But in a sense, I just need to look out the window.
There is a simplicity of prayer that we know as children. Children find things easy to believe. They are believers. In Penguins and Golden Calves, I tell a true story about a family who has a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter and expects another baby. They do all they can to soften the displacement she might feel, encouraging the daughter to hold and change the baby.
Everything is fine until they try to put the daughter to bed. She says, rather frantically, "I want to see baby." "Well, of course, darling, we'll take you to see the baby." "No--alone." "No, Mummy or Daddy will go with you." "No! I want to see baby alone!" She's distraught.
Finally, they let her go. She bends over the cradle and says, "Tell me about God. I'm forgetting."
We, too, forget. Plato believed that all learning was remembering. We have to try to go back and remember what we knew as children.
As a younger adult, I lived in the realm of proof. I'd had a good education, and I wanted everything explained. Now that I'm older, it's much easier to believe in--and accept--the impossible. I am able to accept more completely the idea that God loves me, no matter what I do. I have stopped wanting certainty, which will never come. Instead, I look for those things God gives us as affirmations.
Sometimes these affirmations are very simple. Across the street lived an enormous fifteen-year-old golden retriever. My children had two puppies--little, dark-haired demons. One of the demons decided that his proper bed was the golden retriever. At night, he would climb up on the golden retriever and go to sleep.
One day, the golden retriever just died into the sun, as graciously as he had lived. And the little black dog cried. For me, that's an affirmation of God--the beauty of that little black puppy sleeping on the great golden retriever, the love in that relationship.
You've said that you couldn't worship a God you couldn't be angry with.
If something goes wrong, I still yell at God. But at some point I move out of this childish prayer and acknowledge, "OK, it's your universe."
I've never been afraid to be angry with God. When I wrote The Summer of the Great Grandmother, the book of my mother's last year, many people wrote, "I didn't know I was allowed to be angry at God." What kind of a God is it that you cannot honestly be angry with?
Anger is usually the result of fear. When I'm angry, I'm afraid of what's happening. I'm angry at God for letting this fearful thing become a possibility.
And yet, the summer my husband was dying, and I knew he was dying, I never felt closer to God. This is something I cannot explain. It was there. That summer, we ate out on the terrace.
Night after night, there were the most gorgeous sunsets. There hasn't been a summer of sunsets like that since. God just laid on these sunsets for us.
This is what I mean by seeing the affirmations all around us.
Have you had to learn to see them?
I've always lived with story, and story is always pointing to these daily details of affirmation. It becomes a habit to look for them. But the things we notice and things we don't notice may be equally important. There are probably many things I don't notice that are just as wonderful as that little black dog sleeping on the great golden dog. You have to have both the gift of a sensibility that is open to affirmations, and the willingness to work, to use it.
How has aging changed the way you think about life and death?
Cellular creatures had no life span--a fragment of cellular material was always the genesis of another cell. They could be killed, but they did not die. It wasn't until it took two to reproduce that you began to get life spans. So death and sex, the creation of life, came into existence at the same time.
We have to admit that we are afraid of death. Death is change, and change is always frightening. I was with my husband when he died, and death became a part of the whole experience. But often, we keep people alive long after they are gone. I was recently at a symposium, and one physician, a priest said, "People have a right to die. We have to learn to let them go."
I don't know what happens at death. But I do know that God will not create and then annihilate or abandon. Though I don't know where Hugh is, I have a firm belief that we do not get annihilated. God is not going to let me go until I've learned those things I need to know. It may take several billion years.
Nothing we do changes God--it just changes what we think about God. When we discovered that the earth is not the center of the universe, it didn't change God. It just changed us, and what we think. We have to be willing to allow what we think to change.
Do you think our culture fears death more than others?
Two people in one day said to me, "I'm terrified of annihilation." They are just being honest. We all want the essence of who we are to continue in some way. I think that it does, but I no longer need proof.
Yet there have been incidents. Once I was on a small boat in Mexican waters with members of my family. I went to bed one night, and didn't hear the radio call when it came. But I slid from sleep into a very strong sense that my husband was there in the bed with me. I knew I couldn't touch him, but he was there. Then I went back into sleep. It was very comforting.
The call was to tell us that one of our closest friends had died. I said to my daughter later, "Do you think your father was there to tell me about Edward's death?" She replied, "Well, mother, that thought had occurred to me."
These experiences are outside the realm of explanation. I told that story once at a Christian college, and people were horrified. I thought, "Why are you horrified? Don't we believe life goes on after death?"
Go back and read the Gospels. Why did the demons recognize Jesus and nobody else? Others separated themselves from the world of spirit, but the demons knew who he was. The world of spirit and body are totally connected. It has hurt us badly that we've pulled them apart.
What are the most important questions in your faith journey?
A first-grade teacher told me about one of her students, a small Mexican boy who looked like an old man--callused hands, work clothes. But he wanted to learn everything.
She was teaching the children behavior she felt was appropriate and behavior she felt was inappropriate. One day, he raised his little callused hand. "Miss Clark, do you know why we're not s'posed to behave with behavior that is inappropriate?" "Why, Carlos?" "It'd piss Jesus off." So each day I ask myself: What did I do that would piss Jesus off?
Then I draw from Thomas Traherne, who believed that we live to give pleasure to God. This is my second question: Did I do anything today that would give pleasure to God?
These are the two questions that close my day, my evening prayers.
From The Other Side Online, © 1997 The Other Side, Mar-Apr 1998, Vol. 34, No. 2.
Which I found archived at: http://web.archive.org/web/19990428190443/http://www.theotherside.org/archive/mar-apr98/lengle.html