Book Review: L’Engle’s Walking on Water – Overly Lofty

9780804189293In one sense, Madeleine L’Engle’s “Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art,” was pleasant to read and stroked my ego as as a wanna-be writer. Parts of it were inspiring. Overall, however, I found it insipid and overly foofy; it talks of writing and art in the loftiest of idealistic prose, as the highest reaches of human meditation and striving.

In a sense, I agree with most of it. But an idealization of the writing vocation is only a tenth of the story. The other nine-tenths are work, the basic discipline of hitting the nail with the hammer every single day. In this sense, it’s like any other skill or job, one where talent and know-how deepen as experience progresses.

Here’s an example of what I didn’t like:

“The world of fairy tale, fantasy, myth, is inimical to the secular world, and in total opposition to it, for it is interested not in limited laboratory proofs but in truth.” (46)

I love fairy tales and fantasy far more than the average fellow, but science is not something to dismiss. I am not a scientist, but I suspect that a tech-minded reader might react defensively, “Hey that’s what my lab tests are all about–truth.” Of course scientific methodology excludes philosophy, meta-narrative claims, but the whole purpose is to learn true things about how the universe works in order to understand it better. This mentality oversteps when we view ourselves as masters of the universe, meant to tame it. But in general, I would say science and laboratory experiments are at the service to truth, a different approach to understanding our world. I think it throws the baby out with the bathwater to pit science in opposition to truth, as if creative types have some sort of lock on that.

Then there was this:

“In art, we are once again able to do all the things we have forgotten; we are able to walk on water; we speak to the angels who call us; we move, unfettered, among the stars.” (47)

Bleck. I am an idealistic person, and I am sympathetic to what she is getting at, which I take to be that art or creativity is an attempt at knowing or expressing truth. Seeking the fullness of truth can be understood as a sort of prayer or connection with reality aka God. That striving to speak truth can bring the speaker to the heights of human calling.

But. I find L’Engle’s language so over-the-top as to discredit it. It’s as if she divinizes the artist himself rather than showing him as a mere human glimpsing at participation with the divine–which is really the intention. Much of life, and I suspect much of an artist’s life, is spent in murky misunderstanding, darkness and trials, and the prosaic daily activities of buying materials, preparing food and changing sheets. Even the highest peaks of sublimity in creation pass unnoticed because the artist is so absorbed in the act. Never is she really conscious of “moving unfettered among the stars.” Maybe L’Engle is, and that sounds amazing.

But the work of other writers and artists, such as Stephen King and Flannery O’Connor, who have explained their craft, spend more time focusing on the process, on the work, of being surprised by the product despite their best plans. So while the artist does do some amazing co-creation, it is rather unknowable. My concern is not that L’Engle is wrong, but that the tone is deceptive.

Artists are not really a breed set apart for transcendental experience, but rather fellow stumblers along the road. More accurate would be Oscar Wilde who said, “We are all lying the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” Continue reading


My essay, 2 places: The Desert Spirituality of Motherhood

This essay was first published on my usual home, The Truth and Charity Forum of HLI. Then the editors at Ethika Politika liked it and requested a few revisions and to republish. Here are links to both.

The Desert Spirituality of Motherhood on the Truth and Charity Forum:

“When St. Anthony of the Desert went out to the Egyptian wilderness to be alone with God, he probably didn’t think that he was setting an example for mothers. But I believe that he did. St. Anthony gave up the comforts of society in order to face himself and let God purify him. Perhaps this is not so different from the path of mothers and families and, by extension, all people striving to live in accord with truth and God.”

The Desert Spirituality of Motherhood on Ethika Politika

“And for what good? To be at the service of life, the greatest earthly good, and also at the service of the Lord, who created life. To bind oneself to a family, to a spouse and to children is really like a religious vow: It gives up a great many goods in order to grow in the good of commitment and formation. To do it well, it will take everything we have, and then some. It will lead us into the desert of our souls and present the furnace of solitude. It is here that we will stare darkness in the face and fall back onto Christ.”

-Finding our true vocation is a lifelong process I think. What has your journey been like?

Way Better Idea of Success than Money and Status

A friend of mine posted this article from On Being, called “Scrapping Outdated Definitions of Success” by Courtney Martin.

This really resonated with me as my husband and I have been navigating career moves recently trying to produce a happier household.

The cultural narrative overshadows us all, to the extent that we buy into it: you will be successful if you can go beyond your parents’ earnings and their collar.

The rub is that it’s simply not true.

Bigger earnings don’t always translate into a better life, as evidenced by the preponderance of miserable lawyers, doctors, sales managers, and investment bankers. The trusty old collar metaphor turns out to be dangerously reductive, as was so beautifully discussed in Krista Tippett’s recent interview with Mike Rose.

As the tectonic plates of work shift under our feet, there’s a palpable sense of professional insecurity. On the flip side, there’s a real opportunity to tell the truth in a moment when we don’t have as much to lose. If we successfully scrap outdated definitions of success — salaries and collars, foremost among them — what’s left?

Here’s my attempt at synthesizing what I see among my friends, family, colleagues, and co-housing community. We want to be paid enough to live without the specter of an empty bank account or an empty cupboard hanging over our heads. We want to have access to childcare for our children and doctors for our aging parents. We want work that demands something of our minds and our bodies; we want to think and move. We want to feel like our gifts, whatever weird and wonderful things those might be, are put to good use (which first requires knowing what they hell they are). We want to work alongside other people who see and celebrate those gifts, people who teach us things, people who want to make cool stuff with us, people who are kind and mostly good and don’t create a lot of unnecessary drama. We want to be treated fairly. We want to be trusted, to know how and when and where we do our best work. We want to wake up in the morning and feel like there is a place to direct our energy and that place, while it may not define us, dignifies us.

Then, there was this:

In any case, women tend to walk around with an itchy, un-lived version of their own lives.

Carl Jung wrote:

“Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment and especially on their children than the unlived life of the parent.”

Martin sites this quotation both in relation to moms with careers and stay at home moms, that either way, in the past there has been a sense that something must be lost: that working women may have unfulfilled lives with their children and also that stay-at-home women may wonder about their creative potential or gifts. This is certainly a pressing question that feminism has wrestled with again and again with no good outcome.

I myself addressed it earlier this year and concluded that somehow, it must be possible to use and develop our gifts and to nurture our children well–both for women and men, though both make a great many sacrifices. I penned a similar thought to Martin:

Unfortunately, our standard of “success” is usually public recognition or the number of zeros in a paycheck. The standard should be though a happy, purposeful life.

This Jung quote struck me though as a powerful reminder that wherever we struggle for fulfillment, it really does matter, both to us and to our families, whether it’s wanting to be with children more or develop our gifts more. We are actually better parents when we find balance and take care of ourselves, which looks different for different people and even for husbands and wives. But the shared truth is that by attempting to suppress any good and real part of our beings, something is lost and our children feel that too.

It is worth adding that may people live through difficult circumstances and do not always the chance to strive in both or either of these areas. Compassion and aid to these people is a must, for our happiness and success as individuals is not unrelated to the success and happiness of our neighbors. And it’s simple decency. But it is not selfish to seek sustainable, healthy development in all areas of life. As I’ve cited before. this quote from Pope John Paul II sums it up:

“It is not wrong to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life which is presumed to be better when it is directed towards ‘having’ rather than ‘being,’ and which wants to have more, not in order to be more but in order to spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself.”
— Pope John Paul II, Centesimus Annus
Question then: what does success mean to you?

Growth vs. Stagnation: The Primary Challenge of Adulthood

It’s easy–painfully easy–to resort to established ways of doing things: patterns we’ve learned, methods we know. We already know how to do it–and it works. In everything from how we communicate, the style of clothes we wear, the movies and music we consume, the technology we utilize and especially in our thought heuristics, we tend to opt for what we know.

As an adult, the fatal temptation is to resort to only these established methods and become confined by them instead of helped.

It’s been seven years now since I completed my undergraduate degree. College makes it easy to learn: it’s a new environment which demands us to adapt. It’s full of stimulating and challenging courses, people and events. We are encouraged to try new things, travel, consider and reconsider. It feels exhilarating and mind-stretching to piece together one’s own worldview from fresh and exciting ideas and experiences.

Then comes graduation, a job, parenthood and adult life.

All those methods we learned, we stick to because they work and they helped us to learn and understand and do things quickly. Parents especially –I am one– have priorities (babies) that demand so much of our attention that expending extra time on finding new bands or reading a new book of philosophy or even driving a new route doesn’t always happen. Welcoming a baby is so demanding that we resort to those time-tested ways of knowing and doing that we’ve learned.

The temptation is to stick with what we know because it’s safe and it works. But this temptation is deadly: deadly to our souls, our intelligences, our Faith and our bodies.

In the book Dune, author Frank Herbert elaborates the prescient abilities of the hero Paul Muad’Dib:

Muad’Dib could indeed, see the Future, but you must understand the limits of this power. Think of sight. You have eyes, yet cannot see without light. If you are on the floor of a valley, you cannot see beyond your valley. Just so, Muad’Dib could not always choose to look across the mysterious terrain….And always, he fought the temptation to choose a clear, safe course, warning “That path leads ever down into stagnation.”

The clear, safe, easy path leads ever downward into stagnation, like the business man who keeps pursuing more money, more security, more promotions and wakes up at 45 years old to find his wife and children strangers.

Life is always changing. Attempting to force things to stay the same or expecting them to stay the same is a recipe for a shrinking consciousness. Even in faith. Karl Barth wanted to break Christians out of the old ruts of reading the Bible and have the Faithful see the vibrant, fresh living God-man who is Our Lord, Jesus Christ. From personal experience, we know that if we aren’t growing in the Faith through devotion, prayer, holy reading and otherwise, it’s easy to forget things. It’s easy to think that Jesus is the man we think He is. But Jesus is God; God is infinite and ultimately incomprehensible to man–that is we can never understand or know Him completely. But we can get closer the more we read, pray and act. God is always surprising us, as Pope Francis put it: “A God of surprises.” God is always calling us to go deeper, love more, give up more and follow Him more purely.

Earthly reality, as created by God, is like that too. We can never know or understand it all, but the more do learn, the more developed we become. The more open we will be to admitting that we don’t know it all and that we can learn A LOT from other people and other ways of thinking and doing.

I believe it is essential, imperative for all humans to always be developing and growing. Even for adults and parents. Even for those of us who have demanding priorities such as small children. I don’t mean that we have to go snowboarding then river rafting then coffee-tasting every weekend (those that’s a fine thing to do). I just mean that we should never give up our drive to learn and continue and set new goals.

If we don’t set new goals and grow, life becomes an empty sort of waiting for the end. That’s not a life any of us want or are called to. Even if we are bound to a bed, we can grow.

Further, we know that skills and expertise atrophy if they aren’t used. That’s why I reject the well-meaning sentiments of a lot of mom-sites that say, “don’t worry about this or that. It’s not the ‘season of life’ for that. You’ll have time later.” This is true when it comes to keeping an immaculate house. Parents of young children have a real struggle there. But when it comes to skills and development, that advise isn’t helpful. We can’t abandon a skill or knowledge set (such as drawing or politics) and expect it to be there fifteen years later when we have time again. There’s never time. Skills diminish in time. Do it now.

That being said, for the mom in me and for other moms, parenting is a hugely demanding and developmental moment if we let it be. It can teach us and stretch us further than we ever thought possible. It demands that we love selflessly and nurture a new life that we will one day have to relinquish to live on its own and make its own decisions. It’s a huge undertaking.

Yet in the midst of parenting, the parents can and will flourish by continuing their own development. It will make us better parents and caretakers and better spouses, (provided of course that we can order it properly to our vocation to Faith and family life).

As I thought about all this, it reminded me of Erik Erikson’s Stages of Development, which I learned in high school. For adults 40-65, he identifies the primary challenge as “generativity vs. stagnation.” He understands stagnation as “a dissatisfaction with the relative lack of productivity.” His his concept of generativity is a little different from mine of growth. For him, generativity specifically involves contributing to the next generations. That’s very important. I think it’s also important to note the importance of growth for our own individual well-being too. Creating, growing and developing turns us into the people we were meant to be as spouses, parents, children of God, artists, or whatever.

So we must grow boldly where we have never grown before. In order to be happy and in order to be the people God created us to be. It’s hard once the schooling ends, but it is all the more essential.

Up Next: three types of activities in life: creating, consuming, relating