Reading the Season: Poetry by Madeleine L’Engle

The brilliance of A Wrinkle in Time is that its author Madeleine L’Engle can convey scientific and spiritual concepts at the same time and in a way that young readers can enjoy. There’s no conflict between the cerebral and the spiritual; they co-exist comfortably in L’Engle’s work. Not only that, they fuse together and from that alchemy rises a whole new, inexplicable entity: Faith.

It’s that time of the year when I try to tune out distractions to dwell on the meaning of the Season, the reason why we have Christmas in the first place. I call these posts ‘Reading the Season’.

This time, I’ve selected four of Madeleine L’Engle’s poetry. ‘After Annunciation’ I have posted before. But I’d like to share it again here because the deceptively simple lines carry much depth and wisdom. Same with ‘The Risk of Birth, Christmas, 1973’. These two remain my favourite thoughts during Advent. 1973 or now? Ever timely. The poems are taken from The Ordering of Love: The New & Collected Poems of Madeleine L’Engle, published by Shaw Books, 2008.

The Ordering of Love

**

After Annunciation

This is the irrational season
When love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason
There’d have been no room for the child.

**

Sonnet, Trinity 18

Peace is the centre of the atom, the core
Of quiet within the storm. It is not
A cessation, a nothingness; more
The lightning in reverse is what
Reveals the light. It is the law that binds
The atom’s structure, ordering the dance
Of proton and electron, and that finds
Within the midst of flame and wind, the glance
In the still eye of the vast hurricane.
Peace is not placidity: peace is
The power to endure the megatron of pain
With joy, the silent thunder of release,
The ordering of Love. Peace is the atom’s start,
The primal image: God within the heart.

**

Instruments (I)

The sky is strung with glory.
Light threads from star to star
from sun to sun
a liv­ing harp.
I rejoice, I sing, I leap upwards to play.
The music is in light.
My fin­gers pluck the vibrant strings;
the notes pulse, throb, in exul­tant harmony;
I beat my wings against the strands
that reach across the galaxies
I play

NO

It is not I who play
it is the music
the music plays itself
is played
plays me
small part of an innumerable
innum­ber­able
orches­tra.
I am flung from note to note
impaled on melody
my wings are caught on throb­bing fil­a­ments of light
the wild cords cut my pinions
my arms are outstretched
are bound by ropes of counterpoint
I am cross-eagled on the singing that is strung
from puls­ing star
to flam­ing sun
to

I burn in a blaze of song.

**

The Risk of Birth, Christmas, 1973

This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war & hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late.
That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honour & truth were trampled by scorn–
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.
When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by a comet the sky is torn–
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.

***

‘Reading The Season’ Posts over a Decade:

2020: Jack by Marilynne Robinson

2019: ‘A Hidden Life’ – A Film for the Season

2018: A Verse from Madeleine L’Engle’s The Irrational Season

2017: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

2016: Silence by Shusaku Endo

2015: The Book of Ruth

2014: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

2012: Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis

2011: Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle 

2010: A Widening Light by Luci Shaw

2009: The Irrational Season by Madeleine L’Engle

2008: The Bible and the New York Times by Fleming Rutledge 

2008: A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis

***

Reading the Season: Luci Shaw

Every year around this time, I try to stay afloat in the sea of chaos and consumerism.  My method of survival has been to seek a quiet haven where I can dwell upon the meaning of the Season.  I entitled my annual December post on this theme ‘Reading the Season’.

This year, watching the daring flash mob singing of Hallelujah Chorus in a shopping mall food court has jump started my quest for a spiritual respite.  In a time where the legitimate word is Jollity over Jesus, where Christ has been declared politically incorrect at Christmas, and where God is denounced together with Bigfoot and the tooth fairy in ads on buses, I want to mull on some subversive counter-reflections.

This time, I’ve steered my search towards poetry and found this collection edited by Luci Shaw.  It is the 1984 Regent College Publication of  A Widening Light: Poems of the Incarnation. (Click on link to read excerpts from Google Books.)


Luci Shaw has partnered with Madeleine L’Engle on her literary journey, including being her publisher, co-author, fellow poet and close writer-friend.  For years, I have enjoyed Luci Shaw’s poetry and her other works, and one time, had sat in her workshop learning the art and craft of journal writing.

A Widening Light is a collection of poetry by some of twentieth century prominent Christian writers and scholars, including C. S. Lewis, Eugene Peterson, Mark Noll, as well as lesser known but just as inspiring contributors.  My favourite in the collection are those from Madeleine L’Engle and Luci Shaw.

As a meager attempt to stoke the flame of faith and keep the Reason in the Season,  I’d like to share some excerpts from this collection here.

Made flesh
After the bright beam of hot annunciation
Fused heaven with dark earth
His searing sharply-focused light
Went out for a while
Eclipsed in amniotic gloom:
His cool immensity of splendor
His universal grace
Small-folded in a warm dim
Female space—
The Word stern-sentenced to be nine months dumb—
Infinity walled in a womb
Until the next enormity—the Mighty,
After submission to a woman’s pains
Helpless on a barn-bare floor
First-tasting bitter earth.

Now, I in him surrender
To the crush and cry of birth.
Because eternity
Was closeted in time
He is my open door
To forever.
From his imprisonment my freedoms grow,
Find wings.
Part of his body, I transcend this flesh.
From his sweet silence my mouth sings.
Out of his dark I glow.
My life, as his,
Slips through death’s mesh,
Time’s bars,
Joins hands with heaven,
Speaks with stars.

Luci Shaw

 

Some Christmas stars
Blazes the star behind the hill.
Snow stars glint from the wooden sill.
A spider spins her silver still

within Your darkened stable shed:
in asterisks her webs are spread
to ornament your manger bed.

Where does a spider find the skill
to sew a star?  Invisible,
obedient, she works Your will

with her swift silences of thread.
I weave star-poems in my head;
the spider, wordless, spins instead.

Luci Shaw

 

 

After annunciation

This is the irrational season
When love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason
There’d been no room for the child.

Madeleine L’Engle

.

.

The risk of birth

This is no time for a child to be born.
With the earth betrayed by war and hate
And a nova lighting the sky to warn
That time runs out and the sun burns late.

That was no time for a child to be born.
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honour and truth were trampled by scorn—
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.

When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by greed and pride the sky is torn—
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.

Madeleine L’Engle

 


 

 

‘Reading The Season’ Posts over a Decade:

2020: Jack by Marilynne Robinson

2019: ‘A Hidden Life’ – A Film for the Season

2018: A Verse from Madeleine L’Engle’s The Irrational Season

2017: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

2016: Silence by Shusaku Endo

2015: The Book of Ruth

2014: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

2012: Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis

2011: Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle 

2010: A Widening Light by Luci Shaw

2009: The Irrational Season by Madeleine L’Engle

2008: The Bible and the New York Times by Fleming Rutledge 

2008: A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis

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Photos:  All photos in this post except “Water drops on spider web” are taken by Arti of Ripple Effects, All Rights Reserved.

‘Water drops on spider web’ is in the public domain, please refer to Wikimedia Commons for further  details.  CLICK HERE to go there.

Reading The Season: The Irrational Season by Madeleine L’Engle

Striving to maintain some inner quiet, I casually took from the shelf a book by Madeleine L’Engle. Pure serendipity.  It’s one of The Crosswicks Journals, which I’ve shoved to the back of my mind for years, albeit they’ve been my all time favorite reads.  But how apt it is to flip through The Irrational Season, the third installment of The Crosswicks Journals, at this Christmas time.  Oh what joy to discover Madeleine L’Engle all over again.

Famous for her Newbery Award winning young adult novel A Wrinkle In Time, L’Engle was a prolific writer who had 63 publications to her credits.  Her works span from young adults to adults, fiction, science fiction, memoir, journals and poetry, with non-fiction books on faith, art, family, and humanity.  Yes, I say humanity, because L’Engle’s essays depict her strive to be human, and how her faith has defined the essence in her quest.

The Irrational Season comprises L’Engle’s ruminations on the significant events in the liturgical calendar.  And of course, it is Advent and Christmas that I dwell upon for my seasonal read.  This time, my reading has stirred in me a deeper appreciation of her insight and eloquence.

Art is for me the great integrater, and I understand Christianity as I understand art.  I understand Christmas as I understand Bach’s Sleepers Awake or Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring; as I understand Braque’s clowns, Blake’s poetry.  And I understand it when I am able to pray with the mind in the heart… I am joyfully able to affirm the irrationality of Christmas.

…  Christmas evoked in me that response with makes me continue to struggle to understand, with the mind in the heart, the love of God for his creation, a love which expressed itself in the Incarnation.  That tiny, helpless baby whose birth we honor contained the Power behind the universe, helpless, at the mercy of its own creation.

Cribb’d, cabined, and confined within the contours of a human infant.  The infinite defined by the finite?  The Creator of all life thirsty and abandoned?  Why would he do such a thing?  Aren’t there easier and better ways for God to redeem his fallen creatures?

And yet, in His most inscrutable, incomprehensible move, the One who called forth the universe from nothing, the Light and the Word, became flesh and drew near to us, to partake life as mortals knew it, and at the end, willingly go through an excruciating experience no mortals had ever known.  Impossible!  Utterly irrational!  And yet L’Engle embraces such an unimaginable scenario:

I live by the impossible… How dull the world would be if we limited ourselves to the possible.

And how grateful we ought to be, that such an accepting spirit pervaded in Mary’s heart and mind as well…

This is the irrational season
When love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason
There’d had been no room for the child.

.

.

But now is the hour
When I remember
An infant’s power
On a cold December.
Midnight is dawning
And the birth of wonder.

*****

‘Reading The Season’ Posts over a Decade:

2020: Jack by Marilynne Robinson

2019: ‘A Hidden Life’ – A Film for the Season

2018: A Verse from Madeleine L’Engle’s The Irrational Season

2017: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

2016: Silence by Shusaku Endo

2015: The Book of Ruth

2014: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

2012: Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis

2011: Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle 

2010: A Widening Light by Luci Shaw

2009: The Irrational Season by Madeleine L’Engle

2008: The Bible and the New York Times by Fleming Rutledge 

2008: A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis

*****

Photos: Except the book cover, all photos taken in Israel by Arti of Ripple Effects, November, 07. All Rights Reserved.

Season’s Musings

At this time of the year I always have a struggle, a fight against numbness.  The hustle and bustle of the Season leaves me striving to grasp something authentic and meaningful.  I have a hard time staying afloat the flood of packaged cheeriness, muzak in jingles or bells, ephemeral Santa’s and reindeer.   With the word “Hallelujah” almost becoming a laughable cliché, an ordinary expression for scenarios from finally finding the right gift for the family pet to paying up the Visa bill,  soon it would take a history lesson to clarify the origin of this festival called Christmas.

Intentionally or not, the Reason of the Season has been masked so not to offend, the birth of Christ replaced by themes acceptable to most cultures, like gift-giving, family reunion, ornaments, decorations, and good will towards all.  ‘Season’s Greetings’ has become the politically correct sign of the time.

On that winter night in Bethlehem, the shepherds bore no gifts. Indeed, their very presence and worship could well be the gift they offered.  Yes, the several wise men brought along gold, frankincense, and myrrh for the Christ child only, not to share among all.  For these gifts symbolized the very reason for His Advent, the infinite King debased, the lowly birth was just the beginning of a short and misconstrued life that ultimately ended in a horrific death.

The Advent, the few weeks before Christmas, is the best time for me to ponder again such a paradox.  If there is any joy or cheeriness, it comes from the initial degradation and ultimate agony of One.  It is from that vicarious suffering with humanity and the offering of substitutional death that Christmas derives its meaning for me.

A few weeks ago during a Sunday message, the name Joni Eareckson re-emerged in my mind.  I was a young teenager when I first read her tragic story.  At 17, she dove into shallow water and broke her neck, and remained a quadriplegic ever since.  I cannot imagine myself paralyzed from the neck down, having had to be lifted from bed to wheelchair for 37 years.

But what she has done sitting in that wheelchair has surpassed many able bodies. Her international ministry to people with disabilities is still thriving after 30 years.  The paintings which she has labored over inch by inch with a paintbrush between her teeth have become a testimony of perseverance, every stroke an ode to life.  Through her writing and broadcasting, Joni has become a voice and inspiration for the disabled and their families, all because she knows her suffering had been vicariously borne by the One who came just to share that pain, and redefine the meaning of life.

The hymn (Phillip Bliss, 1875) that had uplifted Joni in her most despondent hours painted not a cheery figure but a suffering Christ who came with no jingles or bells, and utterly devoid of packaging:  “Man of sorrows, what a name, for the Son of God who came…”

If you have a few minutes in this busy Christmas season, pause and take a look at this short clip.  Of all interviewers, I found Joni talking to Larry King, dated June, 2009.