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2.27.2013

A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle

I can't remember the first time I read Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, though I have read it since at least half a dozen times. It feels new every time I pick it up, and for that reason alone it belongs in the category of Great Books.

It is a great book for other reasons, though I'm not entirely convinced it's a good book. I don't want to be confusing about this distinction. What I mean by this is that the book contains a lot of faults. There are awkward moments, hiccups in dialogue that should have been scribbled over by a good editor. And the very premise has a certain degree of obviousness to it that's only forgivable because of the book's age - and it's not really that old.

But the book has magic. I suspect in part because the author believes in the world she creates - and we do too. Our vision of the universe expands even as we read it.

At the moment, I've begun reading the book again along with my book group from Grace. It's the largest group I've had so far, and everyone seems very responsive. I'm looking forward to their thoughts, especially as we're reading it along with L'Engle's Walking on Water.

Don't concern yourself with that book quite yet. A Wrinkle in Time should first be read in childhood, with the anticipation and curiosity of an explorer. Then again in adulthood, and then again following Walking on Water. The latter gives insight into L'Engle's creative inspiration, its subtitle being "Reflections on Faith and Art." Most of it will feel familiar somehow if you've first read the Time Trilogy, not the least because of her talk of angels and believing in them. It may be new to you, but it will not feel new. If first you have read her novels, it will feel as though she affirms many things you've suspected for a long time.

Madeleine L'Engle donated all her papers to the library at Wheaton College. I was there when they were sorting through them, though I never went upstairs into the archive rooms to take a look. I would have loved to, but I had no academic excuse. I suspect L'Engle hoped to someday be incorporated into the Wade Center across the street (more or less) from Buswell Library. The Wade Center contains one of the most significant collections of C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, G.K. Chesterton, Owen Barfield, J.R.R. Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers, and George MacDonald of any library in the United States. I tried to work there as often as I could while at Wheaton, but again, my excuses were few. I only have one clear memory of curling up in the large armchairs by the bay window, looking out on a snowy landscape. I'd been assigned some reading for Modern Mythology and decided to use their catalog instead of purchasing the book myself.

It might take a revision of the Wade Center's criteria for L'Engle to be included, as the seven authors it features are strictly British. In all other respects, she belongs among them. Her novels, too, are deeply Christian, and her non-fiction is richly perceptive of the correlation between art and faith. It would not be remotely surprising, should I find that excuse I needed to peruse her papers, if I found she had developed her creative creed from the Wade Center's own masters.

Most importantly, like them, she felt one ought to approach her work first with the heart of a child. Which is the first reason A Wrinkle in Time (along with the Narnia books and MacDonald's fairy tales) is considered a children's story. This is also the reason I say to read the Time Trilogy first in childhood and then again as an adult. You will be amazed by how much of the rich theological truths you understood in your youth, and how much of it you needed to be reminded of as an adult. 

There is more love...

It's an interesting thing to give an appraisal of a person based on their Twitter tagline, or the section on Facebook titled "About Me." I always feel a bit stumped by those requirements of a social networking profile. What do you need to know about me that can be summarized into a single sentence? My profession? My hobbies? My sense of self-deprecating humor? My cynicism toward the world at large and profile summaries in particular? 

There's a similar section in the profile of a Pinterest user, and regular readers know well that I take my Pinterest account very seriously. So it was with much consideration that I decided to forgo the usual descriptors and opt, instead, for a quotation by George MacDonald. 



The line is from the book Sir Gibbie, a novel set high in the Highlands, about a little boy whom no one thinks much of until it turns out that he's very important after all. That's about the vaguest summary of a novel I've ever come up with, but I don't like giving things away. Everyone who bothers to know Gibbie Galbraith loves him, and Gibbie loves everyone in turn. So it shouldn't have been surprising, especially in a novel by George MacDonald, to come across a line like this:

There is more love in the world than anything else.

And yet it was surprising. For me, at least, because the moment I read it, I rejected it. There is more love than anything? I thought. I doubt that. More sin, more like. Or more desire, or more waste. There are plenty of things there might be more of than love. But I couldn't shake it, of course, this suggestion that perhaps I was a little more cynical about the world than it quite deserved.

I decided that I must be wrong. Between MacDonald and myself, I concede to his judgment. He has the Highlands to teach him, after all, and globalization and the advent of the internet doesn't change fundamental human experience so drastically that the measure of love or the lack of it should be tipped to one side of the scale or another. There is, then, more love in the world than anything else.

But I need to be reminded of it, and often. This is why I use MacDonald's line in my profile, not so that others might know me better, but so that I might know myself better. Be reminded, self, that there is, in fact, more love in the world than any other thing. Love is abundant.

When I read them, I am reminded not only of the moment I first encountered the words - because every time I read them I must be convinced again of their truth - but of all the proof I've seen. In particular, I am reminded of Prague, which I wrote about in this very blog some six years ago.

Thunder and rain in Slavic measure.
I kneel before the crucifix in St Nicholas' Cathedral amd shake my hair. Still it drips on the pages. What is there to do?
the tiles and the tourists
30kC to kneel in worship with the sound of the voice of the tourguide leading her wayward crowds with trivia and tidbits of history.
Before me, you are bleeding on the cross, a bit too quiet for my taste - I, no longer kneeling, but thinking of the rain, wonder when you will rend cloud from sky and come down. Meanwhile, I am chilly here on this wooden bench.

(I think I may have just driven out a tour group by praying in here. Flustered tour guide. Huh.)



Leaving the church, a guard in a clean black business suit was keeping people from coming in the exit door. He spoke to them sternly and closed the door firmly in their faces despite loud protest - only to turn and see me quietly waiting to get out. He had a beautiful face, like the guard in St Peter's who let Chaeli pray in the pews after the five o'clock mass. From stern refusal toward those without, he saw me and transformed. Gentling laying a hand on my shoulder, he opened the door again as though he had kept the others out just to make space for my exit. Perhaps he had seen me praying... I think I could live well from the love I glean from strangers alone.

This is what I am reminded of. And this is what it means for there to be more love than any other thing. Have it in abundance, and you will receive it in even fuller measure.

2.22.2013

Chief of Sinners

For those not paying very much attention, we are in the midst of Lent. Among other things, Lent is the season in which we observe a humility that remembers our shortfall, the great distance between what we are on our own and what Christ has called us toward, made us for, and redeemed us into. I've quoted Richard John Neuhaus before, a line that I remember particularly during Lent every year: "About chief of sinners I don't know, but what I know about sinners I know chiefly about me." This comes from his book Death on a Friday Afternoon, which I probably mention every year about the same time I'm reminded of this line.

I was reminded of it again yesterday while reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Life Together. He addresses the same question, Who among us is the chief of sinners? with the same answer. It brought me back to Neuhaus today, and I think rather than talking about it more, I'll just give you a small passage:

"I may think it modesty when I draw back from declaring myself chief of sinners, but it is more likely a failure of imagination. For what sinner should I speak if not for myself? Of all the billions of people who have lived and of all the thousands whom I have known, whom should I say is the chief of sinners? Surely I am authorized, surely I am competent to speak only for myself? When in the presence of God the subject of sin is raised, how can I help but say that chiefly it is I? Not to confess that I am chiefly the one is not to confess at all."

It is a matter of honesty, and any humility that is not rooted in honesty isn't humility at all. It is also a matter of love, and that is what brings us back to Bonhoeffer. In Life Together, the question of our guilt is raised as a reminder that we come to our neighbors as broken people, children in need of a Savior. Any suggestion that we are less in need than our neighbors is a lie we must disabuse ourselves of if we ever mean to love them with the love of Christ.

"Finally," Bonhoeffer writes, "one extreme thing must be said. To forego self-conceit and to associate with the lowly means, in all soberness and without mincing the matter, to consider oneself the greatest of sinners. . . . There can be no genuine acknowledgment of sin that does not lead to this extremity. If my sin appears to me to be in any way smaller or less detestable in comparison with the sins of others, I am still not recognizing my sinfulness at all. My sin is of necessity the worst, the most grievous, the most reprehensible. Brotherly love will find any number of extenuations for the sins of others; only for my sin is there no apology whatsoever. Therefore my sin is the worst. He who would serve his brother in the fellowship must sink all the way down to these depths of humility*."

In a secular sense, good etiquette requires approaching all people with equal respect, consideration, and sincerity. If you wish to approach any layer of society with an open heart and mind, you need those three things. But I suspect it's not wholly possible, even for the most polite disciple of Emily Post, without the humility of Christ, who bore the consequences of the worst of sinners with a holy willingness, though he himself knew no sin. Better to be his disciple, because in doing so we find not only the most lowly humility but also the adoption into his family. Welcome, then, to the Church, home of the chief of sinners.

*emphasis mine

2.05.2013

Upcoming

Later this month, I'll be starting another ten-week book group in which we'll be reading through three Madeleine L'Engle novels along with Walking on Water. I've featured two of them in my "Book Therapy" box on the left, one of which is there now. Like any normal Madeleine L'Engle reader, we'll begin with A Wrinkle in Time. If you haven't read it since you were a kid, now's your chance. Read along with us and tell me what you think.

I have very few expectations for the group, which is probably a good thing. (Few is not the same thing as low, by way of clarification.) Half the attendees have been with us before, and the other half are brand new. We'll see how it goes. 
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