When my best friend, Jenn, moved to Manhattan she commenced with church shopping. She searched the island looking for the congregation that seemed best suited to her theological leanings and preference for worship style. Nice people were also a big plus. She landed at All Angels Episcopal Church on the Upper West Side, despite the fact that she hadn't fancied herself Anglican in the past. It's a great parish, and I'd like to think that the fact that I'd become involved in the Anglican church not long before she departed for Manhattan might have nudged her to check this one out. I would like to think that, but it would be wrong. Because I know the real reason Jenn is at All Angels --- Madeleine L'Engle.
Out on the church shopping circuit, rumor had it that the famed author was a long-time parishioner at All Angels and that fellow congregants often visited her since she didn't get out as much as in her younger days. The thought of whiling away hours chatting with L'Engle was more excitement than Jenn, book lover that she is, could bear. She took up residence in an All Angels pew (well, chair, they don't really have pews) post haste. In the years that followed she became an active member of the congregation, made friends, got confirmed, met her future husband, taught Sunday School, and got married --- all at All Angels. And she has Madeleine L'Engle to thank for all of that, despite the fact that she still has yet to meet the woman.
Such is the power of L'Engle. Trust me, if you'd read her work and had the potential opportunity to spend lazy afternoons in her company, you'd make your decisions on church membership accordingly as well.
Thankfully, the truth of the matter is that you don't have to trust me. L'Engle is nothing if not prolific with over fifty books --- fiction, nonfiction, and poetry --- to her credit. Her latest release is a collection of almost 200 poems, including 18 that have never been published before, and is an excellent starting place to acquaint or re-acquaint oneself with this potent literary force.
THE ORDERING OF LOVE is a magnum opus of sorts, spanning more than 30 years, from the mid '60s to the late '90s, and it includes everything from unbridled free verse to disciplined sonnets --- all of which tread the well-worn ground of love, faith, and suffering. In her introduction to the book, friend and fellow writer Luci Shaw notes "a good poem is layered, does not reveal itself all at once, in one reading." And, indeed, the understanding of these poems develops so much on subsequent readings that the words themselves seem to be ever-changing. One of my favorites is "The Birth of Love":
To learn to love
is to be stripped of all love
until you are wholly without love
until you have gone
naked and afraid
into this cold dark place
where all love is taken from you
you will not know
that you are wholly within love.
In poems like "Fire by Fire" one gets the distinct sense for L'Engle as an "everywoman" who writes about life as it happens and has a gift for seeing the whole spectrum of human experience in the seemingly mundane.
My son goes down in the orchard to incinerate
Burning the day's trash, the accumulation
Of old letters, empty toilet-paper rolls, a paper plate,
Marketing lists, discarded manuscript, on occasion
Used cartons of bird seed, dog biscuit. The fire
Rises and sinks; he stirs the ashes till the flames expire.
Burn, too, old sins, bedraggled virtues, tarnished
Dreams, remembered unrealities, the gross
Should-haves, would-haves, the unvarnished
Errors of the day, burn, burn the loss
Of intentions, recurring failures, turn
Them all to ash. Incinerate the dross. Burn. Burn.
L'Engle also has a very specific talent for turning the stories of Christianity on their heads and making us look at them in new ways. Her poem "Mrs. Noah Speaking" presents a perspective on the flood that we don't often hear but that sounds quite familiar. "The Ram: Caught in the Bush" tells the story of Abraham's almost sacrifice of Isaac from the point of view of the one who would actually go under the knife, conjuring up the image of Christ in the process.
If they ever do meet, I think Jenn and Madeleine L'Engle will get along quite well. Jenn has a knack for endearing herself to somewhat ornery souls and I suspect L'Engle is one, based on her work and the interviews I've read with her. Regardless, she has done her work in Jenn's life merely by living in the space of the written page. Even though Jenn hasn't stopped by at L'Engle's with fresh bagels from Zabar's, she has learned from L'Engle much about life --- the sometimes painful conundrum of faith, the ache of loss, the bliss of love, the assumption of small truths into the Big Truth of redemption --- on afternoons spent with her printed pages. And from a life as a member of All Angels, which she can thank L'Engle for as well.
Reviewed by Lisa Ann Cockrel on March 15, 2005