Faith and Poetry of Madeleine L’Engle

I was sorry to hear that L’Engle passed away on September 8. I would have liked to meet her, slim though the chance might have been. L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time was one of the first books I bought with my own money. My fourth-grade teacher had read it to the class, and I liked it so much I wanted my own copy. However, my big purchase precipitated buyer’s remorse, so I sold it to a classmate and returned to the bookstore for the title I had not yet read, A Wind in the Door. These two and their sequel, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, remained among my favorites throughout childhood and are still high on my list.

In my college years I stumbled on L’Engle’s poetry collections (the only two I am aware of): The Weather of the Heart and A Cry Like a Bell. I was–and still am–surprised that I have not run across references to them elsewhere. As I have already attested, I am not a critic or even a great reader of poetry, but L’Engle’s verse captured my attention, and I have returned to these two small volumes numerous times.

A Cry Like a Bell works its way through the Hebrew and Christian scriptures with poems written from the perspective of major and minor characters (some even unnamed, such as “A Man from Phrygia, at Pentecost”). Beginning with Eve, it ends with Mary in Ephesus (where, according to tradition, she was taken by the apostle John and lived out her old age) and Nicola, “a proselyte of Antioch” (Acts 6:5). I have found that the Christian speakers and writers I most enjoy are those who bring imagination to the scriptures. Not that they reinterpret what’s there, but somehow they overcome familiarity and place themselves in the shoes of people who lived millenia ago. Who better to do this than an author who can bring fantasy to life–convey the inside world of mitochondria?

The Weather of the Heart is a diverse collection of poems, including soliloquies from the perspective of biblical characters, celebrations of the birth of children (presumably grandchildren?), and lighter verse, such as the composition spoken by a dragon seeking a housekeeping position:

May I borrow that apron, please, and the kettle? Have no
hesitance.
Watch. I spout a little flame. Fear not, I’ll never eat your daughter.

I haven’t fancied female flesh for years.
A touch more fire. See there? The kettle’s boiling.
No, I’m a vegetarian now, eat modestly, make children
laugh, dry tears,
Need little sleep, am not afraid of toiling.

“The Dragon”
The Weather of the Heart, p. 52

In addition to her imagination, I admire L’Engle’s creative twists. The prophet Moses had a number of mountain-top experiences, including several trips to the summit of Mt. Sinai to receive the Jewish law from the Almighty. Deuteronomy 34 relates that God later took Moses up a mountain before he died to see the Promised Land, which he would never inhabit. In the telescopic “Moses: Dialogue with God,” L’Engle depicts these as well as Jesus’ transfiguration, in which Moses and Elijah appear alongside Jesus on another mountain centuries after their deaths (see Mark 9:2-9).

Come. Follow.
But this river is death. The waters are dark and deep.
Swim.
Now will I see your face? Where are you taking me now?
Up the mountain with me before I die.

These men, they want to keep us here in three
tabernacles. But the cloud moves. The water springs
from a rock that journeys on.

A Cry Like a Bell, p. 28

Above all, though, I appreciate L’Engle’s transparency. It is encouraging to hear from a contemporary who is an artist, an intellectual, and a person of faith. L’Engle grapples with disturbing accounts, like God’s hardening Pharaoh’s heart (see Exodus 9:12), or Jephthah’s sacrificing his daughter in order to fulfill a thoughtless pledge (see Judges 11:29-40). L’Engle’s writing conveys the impression not of someone who has talked herself into faith or avoided the hard questions–or even resolved them all; rather, she comes across as someone for whom the truth is so inescapable she can’t not believe. “Pharaoh’s Cross” begins:

It would be easier to be an atheist; it is the simple way out.
But each time I turn toward that wide and welcoming door
it slams in my face, and I–like my forbears–Adam, Eve–
am left outside the garden of reason and limited, chill science
and the arguments of intellect.
Who is this wild cherubim who whirls the flaming sword
‘twixt the door to the house of atheism and me?

A Cry Like a Bell, p. 23

Also recommended:

Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. This devotional-style collection represents the thorough integration of L’Engle’s faith, art, and personal life.

The Crosswicks Journals (A Circle of Quiet, The Summer of the Great Grandmother, The Irrational Season, and Two-Part Invention). In these intimate meditations and memoirs, L’Engle meditates on heritage, marriage, death, life passages.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Faith and Poetry of Madeleine L’Engle

  1. Jan Schad

    Right after I learned of Madeleine L’Engle’s death, I activated Google Alert to notify me about any new items regarding Madeleine L’Engle. Reading through the postings is like going to an Internet version of a big Irish wake. Everyone has their story to tell about how Medeleine’s books affected them, when they discovered her works, and what characters really spoke to them.

    What struck me is that so many of us only knew Madeleine through her books. So even though Madeleine is dead, I still have her books, which is as much as I ever had of her, not having the privilege of knowing her personally.

    So anytime I want to bring Madeleine back into my life, I can go to my bookshelf and decide whether I want to visit with Vicki, Camilla, Polly or Katherine. I can choose to resurrect any portion of my friend Madeleine. What a legacy she has left us.

    And wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could have such a record of each friend who has died?

    Madeleine L’Engle will be long remembered by many of us, her friends through her written word.

  2. jamela

    Jan,

    So very true. Thank you for this fitting eulogy.

  3. Faye

    It always seems to happen that way, someone dies and then you need them back. I did know her personally and I have to admit, the same thing happened to me. It’s so true that you don’t know what you have until its gone. She was such an amazing person. A great actress, writer, of course, and poet. Like you said before, she won’t be forgotten.

  4. Hi there, I discovered this review as I was investigating L’Engle’s ‘A Cry Like a Bell.’ I enjoyed reading your thoughts. I just discovered L’Engle’s poetry this week, and was surprised not to have heard of it.

    I see the book of Job listed as a favorite in your sidebar. I just completed a reading of it this week. A rich, but very puzzling, book!

  5. jamela

    I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Thank you for your comment. I enjoyed a brief look at your blog and hope to be able to spend more time there soon.

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