Thursday, March 8, 2012

2012.03.08 International Women's Day & Madeleine L'Engle

I honor the late Madeleine L’Engle, author and theologian, on this International Women’s Day. She was international in travel and cosmic in her ideas.

Madeleine L’Engle, when I was trying to get ordained priest in the Episcopal Church USA back in the late ‘70s, gave me a commandment I’ve never forgotten and still keep. She stood tall in height and put all her soul stature into this word: “Now, my dear, when you get ordained, and you will, do not become a little man.” Amen, I thought.

I’ve written about keeping Madeleine’s commandment before, but this year her classic “A Wrinkle in Time” turns 50 and I’d like to pay tribute to one of my mentors. I need a hero.

It took me a record time to get ordained at a time when the church had just voted women were “fit” to be priests. After I finally made it in 1988, Madeleine’s words rang in my ears. At one time in my 20s I thought I might like to be like a man just for power-in-the-world. But that passed quickly and gratefully for the sake of bearing wonderful children who filled my heart then—and now.

I’d read L’Engle’s book “A Wrinkle in Time” more than once myself, and later to my children. It took almost as long to get published as it took me to be ordained. Madeleine submitted it to 24 publishing houses before Farrar, Straus and Giroux took a chance on it that paid off. “Wrinkle” has over 10 million copies in print and won the Newbery in 1963.

All those rejections and she already had six books to her authorial name! I have two, the first of which Madeleine, with a provocative prompt, helped me jumpstart at a writer’s workshop. I have more rejections than I can count. Madeleine never lost faith in herself, her story or her voice. I hope I don’t either.

Our connections known and unknown continue to delight me in wonder.

Like me Madeleine was graduated from Smith College, she in 1941, I in 1960, she cum laude, I phi beta kappa. We both wrote out our ideas and feelings in journals from a young age and both loved the Bible. Madeleine wrote a great blurb for my book Spiritual Lemons.

An advanced theological thinker, Madeleine was adamant that there really was no such thing as a book for children, that children had deep thoughts and questions and spiritual longing the same as adults. I can attest to that as one of those children who badgered God, and her parents, with about every mysterious question possible—and never stopped.

We both were born and grew up in New York City. We both had religious imaginations early on and our earliest views were shaped by sky scrapers beyond whose majesty we sought the heavens. She was an Episcopalian and I became one. For me that was about finding a church that had sacramental worship and more hope for being inclusive.

When Madeleine was my spiritual director she talked a lot about the silliness of religious divisions, the pretension of clerics, and the necessity of a deity fit for the cosmos. No corseted divinity, she’d say. And of course there is universal salvation. Of course, I’d agree without hesitation.

And, although Madeleine might not have called herself a feminist, I did. One of “Wrinkle’s” worst offenses, according to some critics was that the book had religious (Christian) themes (far too sophisticated for children) AND a female protagonist who isn’t sweet or pretty and loves science and curious quests. “Wrinkle” is full of insights from quantum physics, intergalactic space, and fractals—mysteries of science and of theological cosmology.

I wasn’t that good at science but I was good at being a girl, and the protagonist of my yet unpublished memoir is a woman. It’s a quest story full of mystery—grace and earthiness all together.

Meg Murry in “Wrinkle” is insecure, plain, bossy, stubborn, and compassionate. I’m four out of those five. Meg sets off on a quest into space, time traveling through the universe, to save her father who is captive on a strange planet. I once thought I could save my father from a planet called alcoholism.

Madeleine L’Engle shared many ideas with me and gave me a portion of her spirit. I am nowhere near her in talent, faith or fame. I don’t aspire to that. I’d just like one more book.

Madeleine died in 2007 and just yesterday I heard her voice on NPR reading from a section of “Wrinkle.” It gave me a boost.

Thank you Madeleine L’Engle.