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. Most of 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.
There is a real admiration of L’Engle from Arthur and from the whole host of people that were interviewed, but this is not hagiography, L’Engle is clearly flawed with blindspots and sin.
One minor complaint that is especially noticeable in the audiobook is the repetition in the titles of the commenters. By the fourth time Jeffery Overstreet or Lucy Shaw or Philip Yancey or Sarah Bessey was introduced I just needed their name, not who they were. Most of the interviewed I was aware of, many I am casually acquainted with via twitter or Facebook or their own books. The comments about L’Engle or her impact on her, especially personal contacts is helpful, but I think there is probably too many of those comments for the length of the book. More details of her life or a broader exploration of the range of books that L’Engle wrote or more about her family I think would have been more helpful to the story of her life.
A Light So Lovely is probably more interesting for people that are authors or artists or book lovers. These are L’Engle’s people. Those are the people that that not only love a good story, but are probably already aware of how much she has influenced the conversation about art and the arts within the church.
I am still looking for a fuller straight biography of L’Engle. I would like to see more about those smaller details. But I also believe that I will be re-reading A Light So Lovely again, because while biography is important to me, spiritual influence is probably more important. L’Engle was flawed. She was human. She was not a perfect mother, wife, author, or Christian. But she was serious about her faith and someone that I think we can learn much from as a Christian in her inperfections.
A Light So Lovely also makes me want to just sit down and read more of L’Engle’s books, which I think is a sign of a good biography. I am thankful that virtually all of L’Engle’s books are still in print and that new ebook and audiobook editions are being produced to keep them in print.