by Sarah Arthur
Editor’s Note: What follows is an excerpt from A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeleine L’Engle, Author of A Wrinkle in Time by Sarah Arthur.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. 1 John 1:5, NIV
A few months shy of her 73rd birthday in 1991, while being driven to a speaking gig in Escondido, California, Madeleine L’Engle was chatting in the car with her hostess when a truck ran a red light and broadsided them. As Madeleine recounts in The Rock That Is Higher, while her hostess was obviously injured, Madeleine herself seemed, at first, merely sore. But at the hospital it became clear she had extensive internal damage and would require immediate surgery to remove her spleen. Alone, almost 3,000 miles from home, she found herself being wheeled down a hospital corridor, the words of the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me”) echoing in her soul:
I knew that once I went under the anesthetic I might not
come out of it, not in this life. I was not afraid. The Jesus
Prayer was still with me, a strong rope to which I held
like a sailor fallen from a ship. If God was ready for the
curtain to come down on this final act of my life’s drama,
I was as ready as I was ever going to be. I am grateful
for that feeling of readiness, for the lack of fear, for the
assurance that whatever happened all would be well.
“But all shall be well,” wrote the 14th-century Christian mystic, Lady Julian of Norwich; “and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” It’s a refrain that Madeleine reiterated, time and time again, in her writing and in her life. Many years earlier, when her nine-year-old granddaughter Léna had been hit, as a pedestrian, by a truck in July of 1977, Madeleine was awed by the miracle of people praying, all over the country, for that little girl—not just people like her good friend Luci but total strangers. Yet Madeleine knew that prayers did not guarantee the hoped-for outcome. She wrote in Walking on Water, “The largest part of that act of thanksgiving was gratitude for my children and grandchildren, for the first nine years of Léna’s life, and then to say with Lady Julian of Norwich, ‘But all shall be well’ . . . and then to add, ‘No matter what.’ That was the important part, the ‘no matter what.’” Whatever the outcome, Madeleine would cling to the goodness and mercy of God.
Léna survived her accident. Years later, Madeleine survived her own. But Madeleine knew such happy endings were not a foregone conclusion. She was no stranger to loss, to things being not well, as story after story from her early life demonstrates:
As a young teen, for instance, while staying with her parents and maternal grandmother (“Dearma”) at the grandmother’s beloved beach cottage near Jacksonville, Florida, Madeleine somehow intuited, late at night, that Dearma was dying. Madeleine woke her parents, and together they went into Dearma’s room, where indeed, the old woman was barely breathing. They sat with Dearma, keeping vigil, till she breathed her last.
At age 17, Madeleine somehow knew that when she said goodbye to her father on a train platform on the way to boarding school, it would be the last time she would see him. His failing lungs succumbed to pneumonia within months. Urgently summoned to Jacksonville, Florida, where he was hospitalized, she prayed on the train, “Please, God, do whatever is best for Father. Please, do whatever is best.” She arrived too late. His death left a hole in her heart and in her life that would never be filled.
Then a close friend committed suicide when Madeleine was a young woman—a devastating act that left Madeleine bewildered and frightened, never able to fully recover from feeling blindsided that anyone would choose to not be.
After Madeleine met Hugh in 1944 during the theater production of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and the two began dating, Hugh suddenly, unaccountably withdrew. For six months. “I can remember that Hugh’s turning away hurt agonizingly,” she would write in Two-Part Invention, “and that even in my pain I knew that I would wait for Hugh to come back to me.” Then he returned, just as suddenly, as if nothing had happened. She would never name that experience as a kind of betrayal, but when her fictional character Mac similarly abandons Camilla in Madeleine’s 1996 novel A Live Coal in the Sea, it’s not hard to imagine the author working through old, unresolved wounds.
After their marriage, Madeleine and Hugh’s adopted daughter, Maria, came to the family in 1956 at age seven after a series of tragedies involving the early deaths of several of the Franklins’ friends. Maria would write in Mothers and Daughters (coauthored with Madeleine), “My new mother, also shocked by the untimely death of her dear friend, suddenly found herself a mother of three children instead of two. Thus, ours has been a stormy relationship.” Even without Madeleine’s unwelcome fictionalization of that experience in Meet the Austins, one can only imagine how such a deep trauma affected them both.
During the summer of 1971, Madeleine’s own mother declined at home with the Franklins, sinking further and further into dementia. In a moment of bewilderment, her mother confessed to feeling afraid; and Madeleine found herself holding and comforting her with the words, “It’s all right, Mother. It’s all right.” Madeleine recounted in The Summer of the Great-Grandmother:
I mean these words. I do not understand them, but I mean
them. Perhaps one day I will find out what I mean. They
are implicit in everything I write . . . They are behind
everything, the cooking of meals, walking the dogs,
talking with the girls. I may never find out with my
intellectual self what I mean, but if I am given enough
glimpses perhaps these will add up to enough so that my
heart will understand. It does not; not yet.
Still later, after Hugh died of cancer in 1986, Madeleine claimed, “When my husband died, we didn’t have any leftover garbage. We’d gone through the stuff. We were in a good place. And that made grief a lot easier. Still great grief, but very few regrets. And I feel very blessed because of that.” Even in the midst of that loss, Madeleine insisted on a kind of happy ending.
Her insistence that “all shall be well” might be yet another example of Madeleine attempting to manipulate the narrative of her life into the kind of story she preferred. Or rather, maybe it’s of a piece with her claim that God will not fail with any part of his creation: “For the happy ending,” she wrote in The Rock That Is Higher, “is intrinsic to the life of faith, central to all we do during all of our lives. If we cannot believe in it, we are desolate indeed. If we know, in the depths of our hearts, that God is going to succeed, with each one of us, with the entire universe, then our lives will be bright with laughter, love, and light.”
A light so lovely, yet again. But, as she well knew, we must also reckon with the darkness.
Taken from A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeleine L’Engle, Author of A Wrinkle in Time by Sarah Arthur. Click here to learn more about this title.
Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time has captured the imagination of millions—from literary sensation to timeless classic and now a major motion picture starring Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Storm Reid, and Mindy Kaling. A Light So Lovely tells the story of the woman at the center of it all—her imagination, her faith, her pattern of defying categories, and what you can learn from her legacy.
Bestselling and beloved author Madeleine L’Engle, Newbery winner for A Wrinkle in Time, was known the world round for her imaginative spirit and stories. She was also known to spark controversy—too Christian for some, too unorthodox for others. Somewhere in the middle was a complex woman whose embrace of paradox has much to say to a new generation of readers today.
A Light So Lovely paints a vivid portrait of this enigmatic icon’s spiritual legacy, starting with her inner world and expanding into fresh reflections of her writing. Listen in on intimate interviews with L’Engle’s literary contemporaries such as Philip Yancey and Luci Shaw, L’Engle’s granddaughter Charlotte Jones Voiklis, and influential fans such as Makoto Fujimura, Nikki Grimes, and Sarah Bessey, as they reveal new layers to the woman behind the stories we know and love. A vibrant, imaginative read, this book pulls back the curtain to illuminate L’Engle’s creative journey, her persevering faith, and the inspiring, often unexpected ways these two forces converged.
For anyone earnestly searching the space between sacred and secular, miracle and science, faith and art, come and find a kindred spirit and trusted guide in Madeleine—the Mrs Whatsit to our Meg Murry — as she sparks our imagination anew. Learn more at ALightSoLovely.com.
Sarah Arthur is the author of over 12 books ranging from bestselling devotionals to critical engagement with literature. A graduate of Wheaton College and Duke University Divinity School, she’s a founding board member of the annual C.S. Lewis Festival and served as writer-in-residence for the Frederick Buechner Writers Workshop at Princeton Theological Seminary. She’s also the preliminary fiction judge for the Christianity Today Book Awards, through which she grades on a L’Engle-inspired curve. She can’t wait till her two little boys are old enough to be read aloud A Wrinkle in Time.