I cannot abide bouillon in a mug, but I’m always a little sorry about that when I read the opening pages of Madeleine L’Engle’s The Irrational Season. She sips from her warm cup, gazes out her two a.m. window at the Hudson River, and begins an Advent reflection that meanders through the liturgical year and the seasons of her life, ending up at her country farmhouse just in time for the Michaelmas daisies.
Although she passed away in 2007 and the four volumes of The Crosswicks Journal series (The Irrational Season is number three) were published in the 1970’s, Madeleine’s musings are timeless. I find myself needing to reread them every so often just to be reminded that there are juicy words like anamnesis and eschaton and pusillanimous and that one could refer to a houseful of neighborhood kids as a “charm of children.” I turn and return to Madeleine L’Engle because her thoughts remind me that there is a Truth that can be expressed in poetry as well as in memoir and that manages to be both orthodox and startling.
On the subject of God — the Creator of a world that now includes “battlefields and slums and insane asylums” — Madeleine expresses both puzzlement and awe. “Why does God treat in such a peculiar way the creatures He loves so much that He sent His own Son to them?” Even so, she affirms that a “no” from God is often a prelude to a better “yes,” and that the “only God who seems to be worth believing in is impossible for mortal man to understand.”
Perhaps, as a story teller herself, she realized that her own life was His to plot.
On marriage and parenting, Madeleine was a delightful mixture of progressive and traditional thought: “A marriage is something which has to be created. When we were married, Hugh and I became a new entity, he as much as I.” She was a militant advocate for breastfeeding in an era in which it was considered backward, while at the same time setting boundaries in her home that protected her ability to continue with her writing.
Her faith was subject to “attacks of atheism,” but she also maintained that “anger [at God] is an affirmation of faith. You cannot get angry at someone who is not there.” Her writing informed her theology, and her theology informed her writing to the point where she gave her stories credit for “converting” her “back to Christianity.” Her portrayals of the incarnation are both homely and profound, exulting in the Word made flesh with each of her newborn babies and the touch of her husband’s warm foot under the blankets.
Madeleine L’Engle was at her best when she was describing the writing process and the relationship between a writer and her work. She attributed her success as a writer to her suffering and her unusual childhood, saying that her “best writing has been born of pain.” She saw little difference between praying and writing, and humbly attempted “to listen to the book” as she listened in prayer. Her advice to aspiring writers came from her own standard practice: “I read as much as possible, write every day, keep my vocabulary alive and changing, so that I will have an instrument on which to play the book if it does me the honor of coming to me and asking to be written.”
The Irrational Season is only one of the fifty books that came to Madeleine asking to be served.
If you have read The Irrational Season – or if you love all-things-Madeleine – check out this discussion that’s just getting started over at The Red Couch book club. See you there!
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