Madeleine L'Engle was an inspiration to me.
Passing on into God's hands at age 88, she leaves behind a world that still needs her graceful approach to imagination and faith.
Most accounts of her life celebrate her Newberry Award-winning novel, A Wrinkle in Time. But her fiction doesn't stand out in my mind and life.
Her masterpiece, to me, is a set of reflections on creativity and faith entitled Walking on Water.
When I decided to live out consciously my life as a follower of Christ, I figured my fiction-writing days were over. I was pretty sure God wouldn't be happy with my writing anything that contained curse words, sex, or any other questionable behavior. And I was smart enough to know I wouldn't be able to stand writing sanitized stories like that.
Plus, I figured writing was frivolous based on the deep needs besetting humanity: reaching out to the lost and broken, discipling those starting out in the faith-- building up the Kingdom, in the jargon. No place for "secular" fiction in my world.
But of course if you have a seed of compulsion for telling a well-made story, it doesn't matter what philosophy you subscribe to. That seed is going to burst and something is going to grow in you.
So as a young man I came to Madeleine L'Engle, who contended in Walking on Water that the writer of faith is not constrained by subject matter.
Incredulous, I found her address and wrote her. I do not have her reply to me-- written on a tiny piece of St. John the Divine Cathedral letterhead-- and filled with typos, to my considerable astonishment. She wrote that nothing is secular in God's world, because God made the entire creation. Therefore it is all sacred, and it is all worthy of the writer's attention. The only thing that is not sacred is that which man has twisted and robbed of its spirit.
L'Engle calls this quality of the world Incarnation, "God's revelation of himself through particularity." This quality is found in all art that sings with a spirit of life, or points to the goodness of God in any way, Christian-created or not. L'Engle writes:
If I cannot see evidence of incarnation in a painting of a bridge in the rain by Hokusai, a book by Chaim Potok or Isaac Bashevis Singer, in music by Bloch or Bernstein, then I will miss its significance in an Annunciation by Franciabigio, the final chorus of the St. Matthew Passion, the words of a sermon of John Donne.
L'Engle asks us to be open to God in every form, every corner, every moment.
We live by revelation, as Christians, as artists, which means that we must be careful never to get set into rigid molds. The minute we begin to think we know all answers, we forget the questions, and we become smug like the Pharisee who listed all his considerable virtues, and thanked God that he was not like other men.
All of L'Engle's inspirational words have not stopped there from being a multi-million dollar market of "Christian" books, written for people who believe that curse words and sex should not be in books read by Christians (you can still have violence, however). Just for the experience of being published, I once came close to being paid to write a novel for this market.
But I have taken on Ms. L'Engle's attitude towards creation, and towards myself.
I finally was able to reason that if I was a member of God's creation, and God gave me a gift to write fiction, then it was my duty and service to exercise that gift. All other service is well and good, but the important thing is to find the deep gift inside and bring that out.
If the work comes to the artist and says, "here I am, serve me," then the job of the artist, great or small, is to serve.
Thank you, Ms. L'Engle. Peace be to you, may you go from strength to strength in God's service, and pray for me and the world.