Review: The Irrational Season

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The Irrational SeasonMadeleine L’Engle. New York: Open Road Media, 2016 (first published in 1976).

Summary: The third in a four book collection titled The Crosswicks Journals consisting of reflections shaped around the church year, and memories of different season’s in the author’s life.

Madeleine L’Engle’s work is receiving renewed attention with the release of the film version of A Wrinkle in Time. I first discovered this story, and those that followed in college. Later, these were among our favorites in “read aloud” times as a family. Eventually I discovered that this was only a small part of this author’s work, which included children’s stories, fiction and science fiction, poetry, journals, a trilogy commenting on Genesis, and various collections of essays. Running through all of this is the author’s hard-won Christian faith

This work, the third in The Crosswicks Journals series of autobiographical memoirs, is a collection of reflections organized around the church year, from Advent to Advent. The work begins and ends with what she describes as her struggle between atheism and faith, her struggle to believe in something as incredible as the Incarnation. Her reflections take us through the church year–her struggle with the Slaughter of the Innocents that Christ both escaped, and embraced in the cross, reflections on the outworking of the Beatitudes during Lent, a beautiful icon of Mother and Child and the Cross hung on her property deliberately destroyed by a gunshot at close range, and the resurrection of hope at Easter, her thoughts on the Holy Spirit, who she describes as the person of the Trinity she most understands (unlike most of us), reflections on the Trinity, and the grace of community she experienced in a rural congregation, and musings on the Transfiguration as her setter chases a swallow in a meadow.

The journal is full of rich, beautiful, and earthy wisdom. She writes extensively about marriage and sexuality in her chapter on Epiphany:

“It takes a lifetime to learn another person. After all these years I still do not understand Hugh; and he certainly does not understand me. We’re still in the risky process of offering ourselves to each other, and there continue to be times when this is not easy, when the timing isn’t right, when we hurt each other. It takes a lifetime to learn all the varied ways of love, including intercourse. Love-making is like a Bach fugue; you can’t go to the piano and play a fugue the first time you hold your hands out over the keys.”

In several chapters she writes on the “Noes” of God, and how in our own lives the cross must precede the resurrection, and the “no” of God often precede God’s “yes.” She shares this reminiscence of the time when she was seeking a publisher for A Wrinkle in Time:

“Experience is painfully teaching me that what seems NO to a man from man’s point of view, is often the essential prelude to a far greater YES. The Noes which have been said to me may be as small and inconsequential as the opportunities given me for peacemaking, but they are mine. During the two years when A Wrinkle in Time was consistently being rejected by publisher after publisher, I often went out alone at night and walked down the dirt road on which Crosswicks faces, and shouted at God; ‘Why don’t you let it get accepted? Why are you letting me have all these rejection slips? You know it is a good book! I wrote it for you! So why doesn’t anyone see it?’

But when Wrinkle was finally published, it was exactly the right moment for it, and if it had been published two years earlier it might well have dropped into a black pit of oblivion.”

I, for one, am glad that it didn’t and that this particular “No” of God let to this wonderful “Yes.”

L’Engle has faced criticism for her universalism, about which she writes in this work. She affirms, “No matter how many eons it takes, he [God] will not rest until all of creation, including Satan, is reconciled to him until there is no creature who cannot return his look of love with a joyful response of love.” I do not agree with L’Engle, but I do not think this is reason not to read,  her works. A few pages earlier, she vigorously defends the bodily Resurrection of Jesus and its centrality to Christian faith. Throughout, one finds wisdom tested by the vicissitudes of life–pain, failure, suffering and loss–as well as the embrace of all that is good in life from private moments with one’s love, to glorious dinners, to childbirth, to a last, precious visit with a dying saint. In our most honest moments, we find ourselves with Madeleine, vacillating between atheism and a vibrant faith. Her reflections remind that we are not the only ones to face this, and that if we are in the darkness of a “No” from God, that it is not the last word, but the prelude to his “Yes.”

Review: Certain Women

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Certain WomenMadeleine L’Engle. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1992.

Summary: As actor David Wheaton dies of cancer, his daughter joins him on the Portia and as they re-read the unfinished script of Emma’s estranged husband Nik on King David, they consider the parallels with their own lives, and struggle to come to terms with life in its brokenness, and its joys.

Madeleine L’Engle was best know for her Young Adult fiction work, A Wrinkle in Time, and the sequels to that work. For a time she was married to a successful actor, who she lost to cancer, and wrote about in several works, and I suspect draws upon in writing this. It was my familiarity with her other work that led me to pick up this book when I spotted it in a second hand store (I don’t believe it is in print at present).

The story is that of the last summer of actor, David Wheaton, dying of cancer, diagnosed as he finished one of the ultimate roles of his life, playing King Lear, in which his daughter Emma also had a role. Now Emma, estranged from playwright husband Nik, is with him on the Portia, along with David’s ninth wife (!) Alice, a physician, cruising the waters of the Pacific Northwest, David’s favorite place to be when not in New York.

As David muses and tries to sum up his life, he keeps turning to an unfinished play Nik was writing, on the life and wives of King David. Nik had envisioned Wheaton in the title role, and as David reads sections of the unfinished script, he considers the parallels between King David and his wives, and his own nine marriages, the children from those marriages, and both the wondrous moments, and the brokenness such an unusual family inevitably brings.

It is not only David who is attempting to come to peace with and work out the relationships and mistakes of his life. Emma, relatively fresh from separating from Nik, also is wrestling with what had come between them, and the loves and losses she experienced in this family as well, again with parallels to the family of David. Yet oddly, although her parallel is Tamar, it is Abigail, David’s second wife to whom she is drawn, as well as to David Wheaton’s second wife who comes to visit, also an Abigail, who share with her the experience of losing children.

Eventually, a number of the surviving family arrive, along with Nik. Key in this narrative is the question is how do we come to terms with brokenness and failure, and the paradox of both a love of life, and the darkness of our flawed beings and that we often bring down upon ourselves and others? And with that is the question of what it means to choose life, and love while being these kind of people. Perhaps this is captured most succinctly in a question described by a wise Native American woman, Norma, who spoke of being at a crossroads in her own life and having to choose between a funeral, and a wedding.

Much of this is a story of the wives, and the daughter, Emma, that loved David Wheaton, and much of the conversation, remembered or present occurs between these women, particularly between Emma, Alice, and Abby. The dialogue between these women is perhaps what makes this book stand out, as they listen, choose to uncover pain, explore, wonder and tenderly share whatever wisdom is to be had at the time. At one point, they talk about “friendships of the heart,” in contrast to romantic relationships, particularly between those of the same gender. There is a kind of understanding, of care in the relationships in this book that indeed characterize such friendship of the heart, that is far too rare, and wonderful to behold in this work.

If indeed this work is out of print, I hope it will not always be so. There is a quality of writing here to be savored, even as it wrestles with both life and death, and the dynamics of human relationships, particularly within families and between men and women. One senses in this a writer who wrote out of her own rich experiences of love, loss, brokenness, and yet joy in life, in which every word of dialogue seems to ring true.