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

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2016: Welcome Waterways and other Themes

In 2015, I picked a theme for the year instead of resolutions. For us, it was Farm Year: we planted a vegetable garden, learned about tractors, plows and combines, visited farms, learned about farm animals, sang Old MacDonald had a farm, read books about farms and animals, talked about where our food came from.

Farm year wasn’t remotely stressful; it just provided inspiration for activities. Since it was such a success, I’ve decided on a new theme for 2016.

Waterways.

We will learn about and visit streams, lakes, rivers, ponds and the ocean. We will learn about the animals that live in them and the vessels that travel atop or within them. Connecting it to farm year, we will talk about irrigation and the importance of water for food production and human life.

I don’t expect my one year old and three year old to fully absorb all this, as I am still absorbing it myself, but it is part of their foundation.

I like the themes concept. It has proven more transformative and less stressful than “resolutions,” which just seem like one more thing on the to-do list.

What else for me in 2016?

  1. Keep writing; keep the articles coming, and post at least one blog post per week.
  2. Finish first draft of a longer project
  3. At least 5 minutes of Scripture or spiritual reading per day
  4. Participate in Pope Francis’s Jubilee Year of Mercy by making a pilgrimage (albeit a small one) to the National Basilica in Washington DC (more info on this to come)
  5. Focus on kindness and generosity especially with my husband and children and in general
  6. Run my home more like a monastery or try to. Read The Rule of St. Benedict

Whelp, there are more detailed things that I have in mind, but those are the basics.

What are you thinking for this year? Did you make any themes or resolutions?

 

“Woman, what does your concern have to do with me?” The Reason Christ Is Not Being Rude to His Mother at the Wedding at Cana

I don’t often do biblical commentary posts, but this exchange from the Wedding at Cana had troubled me ever since I read it years and years ago. But this thought came to me recently about explaining it, and my husband said I should write it down, which is saying something. I offer an explanation and then a re-telling that might resonate more with modern listeners.

We all know the story of the Wedding at Cana; it is where Jesus does his first miracle; he famously turns water into wine. But there is a difficulty, on a surface reading, it really seems as though Our Lord is blowing off his mother. “Woman, what does your concern have to do with me?” he asks.

John 2:1-5 reads: On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2 Jesus also was invited to the wedding with his disciples. 3 When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4 And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does your concern have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” 5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

Jesus response to Mary in this translation sounds like a rhetorical question to our American ears, as though he does not actually mean it. It can seem like Christ is assuming the answer in the question and saying instead: “Your concern has nothing to do with me; it isn’t time for me to reconcile the world yet.”

Such a reading is troubling. Our Lord seems snippish and disrespectful. However, from what we know of the Faith and the rest of the Gospels, there is no good reason to believe that Our Lord is being insincere or rude.

How, then, can we read it in a way that makes sense with the whole of the Faith, a way that is true to the person of Christ Jesus, which is how the Faithful are meant to read Scripture? We can read it instead with the understanding that he truly means each of the words he speaks. On such a reading, he is sincerely asking Mary to explain how her concern affects him; he sees that she is worried, and is sitting there, giving her the space to make a request of him. In short, he is presenting the opportunity for her to intercede because he loves her and sees that she is upset.

Such a reading would mesh well with what we know about Christ’s divine and human knowledge. Continue reading