A Circle of Quiet
One of the books I received for Christmas is Madeleine L’Engle’s A Circle of Quiet, which seems to be a favorite of her fans. (One of those who enthusiastically recommended it to me is Rachel, a “friend of my right hand,” as Madeleine would put it.) I don’t know that I enjoyed it more than I did Walking on Water, but I did find it engaging and valuable. The first book in the series published as the Crosswicks Journal, it is intimate and inspirational. L’Engle is eccentric but in such a lovely, kindred spirit kind of way; though she is brutally honest, what in another’s hands might come across as nit-picky or obstinate has instead the ring of sincere contemplation and discernment.
“You and Hugh live more existentially than most people,” she recalls someone saying to her. From what she describes of her childrearing-while-writing years at Crosswicks, this is an astute observation. In fact, this book could have been subtitled “Reflections on Living Ontologically.” She talks much about being—intentional being—and the passages that speak most directly to this theme are the ones I find most encouraging and useful.
She says, for example, that the most important questions don’t have answers; it is the questioning itself that is important because it causes us to seek and explore. And so she does question and seek, reading both theology and physics extensively, giving rise to her analogy that just as “our universe is constantly expanding out into space at enormous speeds, so too our imagination must expand as we search for the knowledge that will in its turn expand into wisdom, and from wisdom into truth.” Such spiritual searching is nothing to fear, since truly honest faith does not pretend to have all the answers but holds in tension the mystery that co-exists with faith. When a young woman naively asks her, “Do you really and truly believe in God with no doubts at all?” she replies, “I really and truly believe in God with all kinds of doubts. But I base my life on this belief.” Amen.
Where does writing fit into this ontological life? For one thing, she reminds us that great literature is a “vehicle of truth” and not a “blueprint”; writers must see ourselves as communicators, conveyors, but not possessors of the whole. One particularly lovely reflection is her explanation of why reading a great novel makes one want to write: it is the longing to participate, the “need to make incarnate the new awareness we have been granted through the genius of someone else.” Writers do this primarily through writing but also through conversation with our partners or friends or children and through the priorities we set for our daily lives with these closest to us.
And for these we should ask God to grant a special measure of grace, as writers and other artists are particularly hard to live with, she suggests. “All artists, regardless of degree of talent, are a painful paradoxical combination of certainty and uncertainty, of arrogance and humility, constantly in need of reassurance, and yet with a stubborn streak of faith in their validity.” If it’s not too hard for Madeleine with all her accomplishments to admit this, it should be far easier for a relative novice like me. (And so I do.) Surely referring to herself, she acknowledges that a deeply-thinking and deeply-feeling personality is full of contradiction. It is a flaw, but not, she suggests, an altogether undesirable one, at least for a writer. Just as the “truly great books are flawed” (for example, she believes the Grand Inquisitor scene could be cut from The Brothers Karamazov without damage to the plot and yet considers it the finest aspect of the work), so “a self is not something static…a self is always becoming.” It’s not an excuse for bad behavior but an explanation of the constant searching and striving and weighing out of ideas that takes place within the artist’s soul.
It is the artist’s responsibility to harness this “becoming” and allow it to power his or her art. Madeleine reminds us that writers are either “major, minor, or mediocre.” Living ontologically may eventually produce a “major” or “minor” career, both of which are worthy. (And of course, the “benefits” are not limited to writers only; apply to your particular calling.) Thus, Madeleine encourages us to discover a “circle of quiet” for ourselves where we might nurture the questions and mysteries that lead to truly being.