Madeleine L’Engle would have been ninety-two today.
I think of her every Advent (and a number of other days as well) because she is the one who taught me about the Liturgical Year – through her writing, that is. I never got to meet her, though I had a couple of near misses. If you click her tag in the sidebar of this blog you can get a sense of the way she has been a mentor to me in faith, life, and writing going all the way back to my fourth grade year when I read A Wrinkle in Time for the first time.
I said I think about her, but that’s not the right verb. She haunts me during Advent the way a spirit haunts an old house. I’m not trying to conjure up a spooky vibe, but haunt is the right verb. In these days of brilliant darkness, the night is full of shadows and saints, the substance of things hoped for brushing up against us in the hallways, their whispers sliding down the banisters and slipping into the corners of our hearts. Thin places the Celtic Christians called them, where the divine and the human can touch.
There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred and that is one of the deepest messages of the Incarnation. (Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art)
Her statement is so over the top that it captures the subversive nature of Jesus’ birth. To celebrate God with us is to grasp to all that is good about being human. The Word became flesh on purpose, with purpose, and it was good. Then Jesus walked from town to town, eating and drinking, talking and healing, as if he had all the time in the world. There was no strategy to employ other than to love people face to face. In A Wind in the Door, my favorite of the Time stories, Meg Murry has this interchange with Progo, a cherubim.
“Progo,” Meg asked. “You memorized the names of all the stars – how many are there?”
“How many? Great heavens, earthling. I haven’t the faintest idea.”
“But you said your last assignment was to memorize the names of all of them.”
“I did. All the stars in all the galaxies. And that’s a great many.”
“But how many?”
“What difference does it make? I know their names. I don’t know how many there are. It’s their names that matter.”
We had a discussion around the dinner table the other night about what the word “normal” means and whether or not that word is useful or helpful. For me, it depends how its used. If it is used to describe what can be expected in a given situation, it offers something of value. However, when it is a means of comparison, the word does far more damage than it does good because it becomes a semantic weapon: I am normal (meaning straight, white, and male – or whatever the dominant power group) and the rest of you don’t measure up. No need for names because the un-normal don’t count. In the face of normalcy, Jesus came from the very womb of the Great Unwashed and turned a feeding trough into an altar where everyone is welcome.
And the angels called him by name: Emmanuel – God with us.
Two of the central callings of Christianity are to wait and to remember. Both require us to come to terms with time, which is the quintessential thin place. In A Wrinkle in Time, Mrs. Murry says, “Time exists so that everything doesn’t happen at once.” Madeleine talked about the moments in our lives stacking up on one another, like an altar. She said it this way in Walking on Water:
I am still every age that I have been. Because I was once a child, I am always a child. Because I was once a searching adolescent, given to moods and ecstasies, these are still part of me, and always will be… This does not mean that I ought to be trapped or enclosed in any of these ages…the delayed adolescent, the childish adult, but that they are in me to be drawn on; to forget is a form of suicide…
Her image stayed with me such that in one of my rare forays into short fiction I wrote about a man in a doctor’s waiting room:
I am fourteen at my brother’s military funeral;
I am seven putting a tooth under my pillow;
I am twenty-eight and my son has survived the surgery;
I am sixteen pulling out of the driveway for the first time;
I am fifty-four holding my first grandchild;
I am thirty stretching to touch a name on the Wall;
I am nine going to the principal’s office for cutting off Sally Jeffrey’s pigtail;
I am twenty-five laying down next to my wife for the first night in our first home;
I am seventy-two being pushed down a colorless hall to a semiprivate room;
I am eighteen registering for the draft;
I am forty-five with my Christmas bonus;
I am sixty-one at my wife’s funeral;
I am thirty-seven waiting to hear the results of my brain scan.
Remembering is putting the stack of time back together again; waiting is being content to sit in the thin place as though time were more essence than schedule, more holy than hurried. When time stands sacredly still, waiting and being are the same thing and I can see the shadows and saints that haunt me with their hope.
and you beneath life’s crushing load
whose forms are bending low
who toil along the climbing way
with painful step and slow
look now for glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing
o rest beside the weary road
and hear the angels sing