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Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art by Madeleine L’Engle

Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art by Madeleine L'Engle

Summary: What does it mean to be a Christian artist? What is the Relationship between faith and art?

Walking on Water is a book that it is hard not to hear about if you are in circles where you interact with Christian who write professionally. I have been hearing about the book for years, but Sarah Arthur’s recent biography of L’Engle reminded me again about how many writers (and other artists as well) were impacted not just by L’Engle’s art, but by her speaking and writing about the role of art in the Christian life.

In many ways Walking on Water is like a fifth volume of the Crosswick Journals. It is not as full of personal stories as the Crosswick Journals, but it was first published in 1982, between books three and four of the Crosswick Journals (Irrational Season in 1977 and Two-Part Invention in 1988). Walking on Water has a similar sense of listening to an older friend share wisdom about life. It is more focused on writing, but there are definitely overlapping themes with A Circle of Quiet (first book in Crosswick Journals).

Writing is more of a means of processing than as an art form for me. I do not edit as much as I should. So the thoughts on writing were not really my focus. This is a book that was written to be read and re-read. There is wisdom here, but like a lot of books of wisdom, there is some vagueness where the reader has to read into the text.

A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeleine L’Engle by Sarah Arthur

A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeleine L'Engle by Sarah ArthurTakeaway: People are complicated.

Over the past several years since I have started thinking more about how to spiritual formation works, I have been intentionally reading memoirs or biographies of people with the express purpose of mining spiritual wisdom.

Among the most helpful books last year was a quartet of memoirs from Madeleine L’Engle that I was completely unaware of before picking them up. That set of memoirs left me wanting more, but there is not that many options. Her granddaughters have a children biography of L’Engle and there is a 2012 book of reflections by a number of authors about L’Engle, but A Light So Lovely is as close to a biography of L’Engle as I have found.

A Light So Lovely is not a straight biography. It is ‘the spiritual legacy’ of L’Engle. I have read several ‘spiritual biographies’ (CS Lewis, Flannery O’Connor) and it feels like it is more in that genre. A Light So Lovely has a rough sketch of her life, but most of the focus is on her influence on others. The chapters are titled and focus on tensions in L’Engle’s life, a both/and focus instead of an either/or focus. L’Engle wanted to draw the sacred and the secular together, she wanted to see faith and science as different, but both as ways to see God. She wanted religion and art to support one another.

Along the way Arthur complicates the picture that L’Engle draws of herself in her Crosswick Journal memoirs. Her marriage was a fairly close one, but Hugh and their relationship was idealized in the Two Part Invention and one quote suggests that her vision of their marriage was in part ‘an invention’. There is a good exploration of L’Engle’s tendency to fictionalize reality as she says she is doing in places in the Circle of Quiet, but also does in other places without saying so.

Two Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage by Madeleine L’Engle (Crosswick Journal #4)

Two Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage by Madeleine L'Engle (Crosswick Journal #4)Summary: The last of the series of memoirs, about her husband and their marriage.

Memoirs are about recounting and processing different of life. I appreciate that L’Engle has four different memoirs that are themed. I do not know of any other author that has done this. The first is about being a writer, mother, teacher and creative person. The second is about her own mother and the grief she feels at her decline. The third is about her faith using the liturgical year and a method of organizing.

And Two-Part Invention is about her marriage to Hugh. All of these books are really about Madeleine of course. But we are created by our interactions and integration with others. Marriage impacts us because it is a relationship of choice that at its best is for a lifetime.

There is a lot of background on Madeleine before her marriage. And the years between meeting Hugh and the current story she is telling. The story main story is about Hugh’s dying. I suppose that is a spoiler, but he died over 30 years ago. It is a remembrance and dealing with grief. Marriage, when not interrupted through divorce, is ultimately interrupted by death. That is the normal way of life.

The Irrational Season by Madeleine L’Engle (Crosswicks Journal #3)

The Irrational Season by Madeleine L'Engle (Crosswicks Journal #3)Summary: More wisdom, riffing off of the liturgical year or the Irrational Season.

The Crosswick Journals are hard to describe. Each of the three that I have read has been very different. But the central reason for reading them is the same, wisdom.

The first was mostly about writing and family and calling and art. But there was lots more to it than those ideas. The second was mostly about family history, especially Madeleine L’Engle’s Mother, who was dying during the period being written about. The third, Irrational Season is even more hodgepodge than the first two. But there is a theme of the liturgical year, while not strictly focused on, does bring some organization.

One feature that is new in The Irrational Season is a lot of L’Engle’s original poetry. I am not a particular fan of poetry. I understand the appeal. But I also do not want to put in the time. Poetry doesn’t work if you skim it. Poetry requires slow and repeated work. I don’t like giving books slow and repeated work. I like reading quickly and absorbing what I can and then maybe reading again a while later and absorbing some more.

The Arm of the Starfish by Madeleine L’Engle (O’Keefe Family #1)

The Arm of the Starfish by Madeleine L'Engle (O'Keefe Family #1)Summary: L’Engle’s writing style and ideas, but re-imagined as a young adult spy thriller.

My wife and children were gone for the weekend so I spent most of the weekend either doing data entry with an audiobook in the background or walking/driving around playing Pokémon Go (with an audiobook in the background). I finished four books this weekend and listened to part of a fifth.

After listening to a book on modern philosophy and then a somewhat depressing spy thriller by John le Carré and a quarter of a depressing Walker Percy book, I decided to pick up The Arm of the Starfish.

I have read several Madeleine L’Engle books this year, but mostly her lesser known fiction or non-fiction that has been out of print and is now only available in ebook formats. I still have a couple of her young adult books that I have never read, including most of the O’Keefe family series.

The Arm of the Starfish is the first of the O’Keefe family series (Calvin and Meg from the Wrinkle in Time series are married and the focus is primarily on Polly their daughter.) I had some insight into the family because the main focus on this book is Adam Eddington, who is also a character (set a summer later) in the Austin Family series book A Ring of Endless Light.

Because I have read A Ring of Endless Light, I knew some of the results of the Arm of the Starfish but not the main story. The Arm of the Starfish is set as a young adult spy thriller. Adam is a young college biology major (he graduated from high school early and is only 17.) He has been encouraged to apply for a job with Dr O’Keefe that is on an island off the coast of Spain working with starfish and regeneration.

A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle (Crosswicks Journals #1)

I am reposting this review from earlier this year because the Kindle Edition is on sale for $1.99.
A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L'Engle (Crosswicks Journals #1)Summary: The wisdom comes with reflection by those that age. 

A month or so ago I was asking for a good biography or memoir from a pastor or theologian. I was thinking of something like Eugene Peterson’s The Pastor or one of Lyle Dorsett’s biographies. What I was looking for was wisdom.

Wisdom is something that is earned by time. It is not guaranteed with age, but it is only comes to those that are aged. Part of what is required to earn wisdom is reflection. And that is what Madeleine L’Engle has done here. She is writing her thoughts and musings about life and her writing and meaning based on the journals that she has kept for her own purposes.

L’Engle was in her mid 50s when A Circle of Quiet was written. (And the fourth Crosswick Journal book was published 23 year later.) So she is not so old that she has forgotten what it is like to be young, nor was she that far distant from the failures of her life as a writer. (A Circle of Quiet was published just 11 years after A Wrinkle in Time was published.)

A Circle of Quiet is a bit meandering. Much of it is reflections on what it means to be a writer or story teller or how she has taught writing and story telling to others. But mixed in are thoughts on parenting and child development, living in a small town (Crosswick is the name of their home in rural Connecticut, where they lived for 7 years full time early in her marriage and that they kept as a summer home when they moved back to New York City), living in a large city, love, church, and many other random thoughts.

A Live Coal in the Sea by Madeleine L’Engle

A Live Coal in the Sea: A NovelSummary: Camilla, now in her 60s, recounts her story to a questioning granddaughter.

A Live Coal in the Sea is a sequel to Camilla, published 45 years later. That distance in time between the two books is nearly the distance in time within the books.

Camilla was about a 15 year old growing up in New York City and coming to be aware of the tragedies of life outside of herself. A Live Coal in the Sea is about Camilla sometime in her mid to late 60s. The story catches up on the intervening years through flashback and story. Camilla’s granddaughter, Raffi, is going to college at the small school where Camilla is an astronomy professor.

After some vague and confusing disclosures by her father, Raffi comes to her Grandmother to get the whole story. This begins a long recounting of both special tragedy and the normal process of people coming together as a family, working through issues in a marriage and with children, the aging and dying of people around them and the coming to terms with the meaning of life.

At root, this is a family drama. The sins of one generation impact later generations. And while some members of a family adapt, heal and move on, others cannot and the generational cycles continue.

For me this is a mid-level L’Engle book. It doesn’t rise to the level of her Crosswick Journal insights into humanity. It isn’t as compelling as A Swiftly Tilting Planet or A Ring of Endless Night. But it also isn’t as disturbing as A House Like a Lotus or as boring as Meet The Austins.

This is not a young adult book like Camilla. It is intended as an adult book and it has adult themes. Infidelity, sexual and physical abuse of children, homosexuality, death and loss, and emotional abandonment are all present. It isn’t a particularly happy book, but it also isn’t a book that feels like it was trumped up to be overly depressing. While there is unusual tragedy in the book, the framing of the tragedy is focused on how all of our lives can be, and are, tragic in some ways. But God meets us in that tragedy because God loves us.

L’Engle isn’t writing ‘Christian Fiction’. She is writing fiction that is informed by her Christianity. Most Christian publishers would not touch this. But while I don’t think it is among her greatest book, it is a solid book.

(spoiler discussion below)

The Summer of the Great-Grandmother by Madeleine L’Engle

The Summer of the Great-Grandmother by Madeleine L'EngleSummary: Thoughts and memories of Madeleine’s early life and family as she deals with her mother’s impending death.

I have been really enjoying reading several of L’Engle’s books as they have been brought back to print. It is even better if you can pick them up cheaply. Today (not sure for how long) The Summer of the Great Grandmother is on sale for $0.99. Also on sale is the fourth in this series, Two Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage and one of her novels, The Other Side of the Sun (a dark southern thriller).

The Summer of the Great-Grandmother is about Madeleine L’Engle’s final summer with her mother. You assume from the beginning that at some point her mother will pass away (and she does.) But that is part of what is important about this book. All people will die at some point. Living in family means both birth and death happen.

The setting of this, like her other Crosswick Journals, is their summer home. It is the home that her children were born in. But now that the family lives in New York City, it is where they spend their summers. This summer, and most summers, there are four generations in the home. But unlike previous summers, Madeleine’s mothers is confused and needing constant care.

This allows for L’Engle to reflect on her early life, the death of her father when she was young, the life of he earlier ancestors and the meaning of life and family. As with the first book in this series, there is lots of wisdom in these pages.

The Sphinx At Dawn: Two Stories by Madeleine L’Engle

The Sphinx At Dawn: Two Stories by Madeleine L'EngleSummary: Two short stories about Jesus as a child in Egypt.

I have been reading Madeline L’Engle’s Crosswick Journals. These are a series of four memoirs that are thematic, but tracing a summer at her rural Connecticut home. She and her husband lived there for seven years early in their marriage before returning back to New York City to live full time (her husband was an actor.)

But during the summers they mostly lived at Crosswick. I am almost finished with the second of them and I have very much enjoyed her wisdom and understanding more about her as a person as she recounts her story and the story of her family.

So I am picking up anything that she has written as it goes on sale. (A digital publisher has picked up digital rights to many of her out of print books and has been releasing them over the past year.) The Sphinx At Dawn was released in February and briefly on sale a couple weeks ago.

A House Like a Lotus by Madeleine L’Engle

Takeaway: On today’s after school special, Polly has to deal with serious things.

I love Madeleine L’Engle’s writing. She takes young adults seriously, she writes about serious issues but she makes her characters real. So I pick up every one of L’Engle’s books when they come up for sale and I intentionally don’t read anything about them prior to reading the book.

This is the third book in the Polly O’Keefe series. Polly is the daughter of Meg  and Calvin from the Wrinkle in Time series. And Zachary Gray from the Austin series is also a significant character in this book.

In the time line this book is set just after A Ring of Endless Light which I read earlier this year and about a year or so before An Acceptable Time which I read a couple years ago.

(There are spoilers in this review, but this is a book that cannot be discussed without spoilers.)