Madeleine L'Engle – A Woman of Valor

By Catherine Trieschmann 

 I don't remember how the book came to be in my hands, where I bought it, or if it was a gift, but I can recall with great clarity the moment I read the first chapter. I was standing outside the Johns Hopkins Library in Baltimore, Maryland on a crisp September morning, and as I read, I saw a vision of how life might be led, and I wanted to follow it.

The book was The Irrational Season from the Crosswicks Journals and the author, my woman of valor, was, of course, Madeleine L'Engle.

If you ask any Christian woman of a certain age with literary aspirations about her influences, chances are Madeleine L'Engle will be at the top of the list. The reasons for this are both as varied as the individual writers themselves and as singular as L'Engle's voice.

My particular circumstances at the time--young, single, living in an urban environment, trying to hack out a living in the theatre--eerily paralleled (or so I fancied) L'Engle's early years in New York, when she worked as an actress, surreptitiously writing in dressing rooms and hotels rooms. When I moved to New York City the next year, I kept The Irrational Season in pocket. Her descriptions of finding the holy in the dirt and degradation of urban dwelling served as a talisman of sorts. L'Engle gave voice to the particular compress of guilt, compassion, helplessness and pity that knocked me sideways every morning when I stepped over the homeless woman drifting in and out on her cardboard bed. When I wanted to turn to despair, Madeleine L'Engle would whisper in my ear: This woman is a child of God, too. Just smile. Lay an orange in her hand.

More than common circumstances, however, what drew me and so many other young writers to L'Engle was her articulation of the writing life as a sacred art. She understood that writing was akin to prayer, that it involves pushing out the conscious self in order to tap into the irrational, the unconscious, the holy, indeed, the force of creation itself. If this sounds audacious, it's because it is--especially if you're a young woman as uncertain of your place in the world as you are of your prose. In her journals and essays, she empowered a generation of women to define their craft as vocation, equal to the call of ministry, and even more radically, equal to the call motherhood. And then she wrote about the difficulty of writing while rocking her babies, and how it tears the heart in twain, and when I, too, became a mother, I re-read those passages in A Circle of Quiet over and over, not because they were poetic or clever or ground-breaking but because they were true.

L'Engle spoke of writing in the language of Anglican spirituality, yet her audience was ecumenical, non-denominational, universalist, pluralistic, multicultural, translated into many languages. Perhaps no other Christian writer since C.S. Lewis broke down the divide between secular and sacred so thoroughly. In this way, her young adult fiction was missional, even if she, or her publishers, never called it such. What you read when you are young shapes you, plants seeds of longing inside your being that never go away. You can't open A Wrinkle in Time without longing to know the warmth of a New England farmhouse on a cold and rainy night. You can't close A Wrinkle in Time without longing for wholeness and unconditional love.

Though I haunted her neighborhood when I moved to New York and even frequented her church, I never met Madeleine L'Engle. I feel confident, however, in asserting that she wasn't a Saint. In articles about her, friends and family call her brilliant and incisive but also abrasive and stubborn. They say she was endlessly creative and dedicated to her craft but also prone to blur fact and fiction. Her children contest the reality of the home life drawn in her memoirs; I imagine they have a point. She suffered great loss: the death of her husband, Hugh Franklin, to cancer; the untimely death of her son, Bion. I imagine these tragedies took their toll, as tragedies do. Her flesh and blood self was undoubtedly more complicated and contradictory than the self she paints in her books, than the Madeline L'Engle I pieced together in my imagination--part her, part me, part longing. Yet I can't help wondering if maybe our Saints are equally complicated; if, in fact, they aren't entirely Saints at all. Maybe our Saints are stories, and if that's so, then perhaps storytellers are really the ones with all the power. Madeleine L'Engle knew this and was brave enough to share it.

***

Catherine Trieschmann is an award-winning playwright who lives in Hays, Kansas with her husband, two daughters, and the wind.  Her plays, How the World Began, Crooked, and The Bridegroom of Blowing Rock are published by Samuel French, Inc. You can read her monthly column on writing and parenting at www.howlround.com, or follow her on twitter @ctrieschmann.

This post is part of our Women of Valor seriesEshet chayil—woman of valor— has long been a blessing of praise in the Jewish community. Husbands often sing the line from Proverbs 31 to their wives at Sabbath meals. Women cheer one another on through accomplishments in homemaking, career, education, parenting, and justice by shouting a hearty “eshet chayil!” after each milestone.  Great women of the faith, like Sarah and Ruth and Deborah, are identified as women of valor.  One of my goals after completing my year of biblical womanhood was to “take back” Proverbs 31 as a blessing, not a to-do list, by identifying and celebrating women of valor. To help me in this, you submitted nearly 100 essays to our Women of Valor essay contest. There were so many essays that made me laugh, cry, and think I’ve decided that, in addition to the eight winners we featured in August, I will select several more to feature as guest posts throughout the fall. 

We have honored a single mom, a feisty professor, a midwife, a foster parent, an abuse survivor, a brave grandmother, a master seamstress, a young Ugandan woman who reached out to a sister in need, and many more. 

Read the rest of the Women of Valor series here.

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