Patron Saint: Madeleine L’Engle

It was Madeleine L’Engle’s birthday recently, and I didn’t celebrate it. I should have written or drawn something that day, or at least taken a bath, something small and personal to celebrate the life of a woman who has come to be so important to me. But I didn’t. I didn’t do anything. I let the day come and go. And that’s okay. That’s okay.

I never read anything she wrote until college, when I was assigned Two-Part Invention in a non-fiction writing class. When I read it, I felt a sort of confirmation, a chance to exhale. I thought, thisThis is the sort of writer I want to be. This is the sort of writer that maybe, somehow, I am, or could be someday. Her pureness of heart, her simple thoughts given value and dignity in ink on a page, her persistence, her humility, her questions, her longing.

I have one living grandmother, and I love her very much. She’s quirky and kind, she smothers me with love, she had hundreds of tea parties with me when I was six. But she hasn’t been a fountain of wisdom for me, the sort of thing I long for from a female relative. It’s a thing that seldom exists, the thing I want. I want a singled-out knowingness. An ability to speak prophetically into my life. A mystical mother. A godmother, if you will, fairy or not. That’s what I’ve always secretly wished for and never had. Never, that is, until I adopted Madeleine L’Engle as my godmother. I just decided it one day. She’s it. A mentor, a friend, someone to speak into my life. Even though she’s not alive. Even though she never knew me and I never knew her, even though we never once shared space on earth. I think it still works. In fact, I know it does. This is why she wrote, I’m sure of it. And it’s why I write too, I think. On the thin hope that somehow, someday, someone will read these words and feel known, spoken directly to. That they’ll feel a spider’s-web-thin thread of a feeling that someone somewhere has known them, has lifted them up to God. I think the world works that way, that things span time and space, things we can’t touch. I think Madeleine L’Engle thought that too, in fact, I know she does because she wrote about it. Kairos.

I think Madeleine L’Engle is my godmother. I think she is if I say she is.

The funny thing, though, is that probably a decent number of young women in the world have felt this way about Madeleine L’Engle, and about the other women I consider my sort of god/life-mothers. It’s the magic of reading, when you hold a book in your hands it belongs to you. The words are yours to carry or not. To jot down in notebooks, to remember, to hold, or to forget. When you write, you hope beyond hope that someone will understand what you’ve said, that it will mean something, something, to them. I imagine that countless women have felt known, confirmed, counseled, held by Madeleine L’Engle. I imagine us an invisible network, young women trying to love God and make things, sitting down to write, thinking about our very beings. It’s not just me, but it is just me. Extremely personal, secretly communal. Madeleine L’Engle doesn’t belong to me, and yet. And yet.

I suppose I’ve developed a bit of mysticism as I’ve grown. Maybe we all do. As a child, I think I thought that I would figure more things out, that the wonky things would start to make sense. But they haven’t. In college, I realized that they never would, that they weren’t supposed to. Holy mysteries, they’re the very stuff of what we’re about. None of us will ever understand, and that’s what’s so wonderful about trying to be the church. The wine and the bread, baptismal waters, every fount of every blessing, none of it makes any sort of sense if you’re trying to make sense of them. So you adopt mysticism. You press into the mystery. You start to mold your beliefs into a desire for fewer answers and more faith. You attend an Anglican church and weep at Easter when you watch the women wash the altar with real water, real cloths. You wish you could wash the altar too. You search for godmothers and you find them. The wine becomes Christ’s blood right before your eyes, if you squint.

“I think of my children asking me why God created mankind if mankind was going to make battlefields and slums and insane asylums. The city around our pleasant apartment building is not at easy place in which to see the hand of God. Mankind has imposed its imprint of ugly buildings and dirty streets and desperate people. But if I cannot see God’s love here on the Upper West Side of New York where we seem to have done everything possible to destroy the beauty of creation, it is going to do me little good to rejoice in beauty in the uncluttered world of the country. 

My breath steams the window but I see a young man walking along the street, his head bowed against the wind. It is cold, but for the moment the city is quiet. No sirens shrieking, no grinding of brakes. A light goes on in a window across the street. 

It is the nature of love to create, and no matter what we do to creation, that love is still there, creating: in the young man who is holding his jacket closed across his chest; in you; in me.”

Madeleine’s words, from The Irrational Season, which I’m slowly savoring now. I think I’ll spend the year reading it, walking through the church calendar with her. I’m reading her Advent thoughts now, trying to let them seep in, meld with mine, teach me something. I, too, am living in a city and trying to see God’s love. I, too, am feeling creation in me and trying to see it in everyone else. I, too, am mystified by love, amazed at my own ignorance toward it, my own inability to take love for what it is or could be, a brightness, a glistening everywhere-ness, a windowpane through which to see the world. I read what she writes and I think, Of course, of course!

I’ve been reading A Circle of Quiet too, extremely slowly, and mostly in the bathtub. I carry it around in my bag, but seldom open it. Only at the right times, when I need it. I’m in no hurry. These books need not be read all at once. In fact, I think they’re a little nicer in little chunks, mixed with life. Time to let things seep in. She writes simply, matter of factly. She writes her insecurities, the ways she hasn’t quite done it all right. She writes her questions, her small memories, the people she loves. No page is spectacular. It’s almost hardly quotable, with most of it sounding like things that have definitely been said before and perhaps have been said better by someone else. But that’s the most wonderful thing about it. It’s not some masterpiece, some revelation, and by not being those things it becomes exactly what it’s not. These books are a masterpiece of quotidian faith. It’s all I can aspire too, that everyday-ness. A small life, nothing flashy or magnificent. That’s all she claims, holds up the light. That’s all I need. That’s exactly the sort of wisdom I desire from a godmother, a woman to remind me of things I’ve already heard but didn’t quite hear. A gentle nudge toward remembering. A simple touch. A page read in the bathtub. She says herself that her nonfiction, or A Circle of Quiet at least, is written as a letter. And, that’s exactly how it feels. A letter written on an afternoon like any other, dropped in a mailbox.

I am speaking here about her nonfiction, of course. She has an extensive, wildly wide body of work, including many young adult novels and the truly, truly masterful A Wrinkle in Time. Of course, of course. Astonishing things done by this woman who always sort of thought of herself as commonplace. Her nonfiction is actually what she is least known for, but to me, for me, it’s her best work. She lets her guard down, speaks about writing as she writes, which I think is one of the most lovely things a writer can do. There have been times in my life when I’ve fallen into novels, fallen in mad love with them, let them mystify me. But most of the time when I read novels I feel like grabbing the curtain and pulling it down, trying to get at the author and what they were trying to figure out while writing it. When I’m reading a novel I’m always just sort of wishing I were hearing the writer talk about their afternoon, their frustration, their fear. Maybe that’s why I don’t really know how to write fiction. I can’t quite figure out how to put the curtain up in the first place. I just want to share myself with you as directly as possible, spill my heart onto the page. I have to communicate, and speaking is hard, so I’ll write, write, write, everything I know, to you, forever, more, more, more. Too much to say, no time for fiction. Because of this mad impulse in me, I deeply appreciate hearing from writers writing as themselves, in their own bodies, their own lives, not transposed onto a character. There’s such beauty in the transposition, but I’m impatient. More life, I say! More life, tell it to me straight!

Madeleine L’Engle does, in her nonfiction. She tells it to me as straight as I’ve ever heard it, with humility and true wondering. With simplicity and grace. So much so that it makes me feel like I can be a writer too, that it isn’t barred to me. That there is a person in the world who has understood me in this way, somehow, far away. Across time and space, beyond physical togetherness. In heaven, when I walk through the gates, I feel almost certain that she may be right there, calmly waiting to show me the way to where Jesus is. Like she has already done on earth, in her way.

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