Last week I tessered through time and space, recalling my first exposure, as a high school senior, to the progressive Christian serigraphs of Sister Corita in the 1960's. This week I tessered again, through a novel that left a deep impression on me when I was eleven or twelve years old: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle (1962). More than recalling the plot, I have always remembered the feeling I had while reading it: a sense of wonder, fascination, and warmth. All that came flooding back through me as I read it for the second time a few days ago.
I pulled a yellowed paperback copy of it out of my library, because soon I will give it to our nine year old granddaughter, Rumi. At her Waldorf school, she crossed the "rainbow bridge" a few years ago, holding a rose in her hand as she went from the land of fairies and stories to the land of letters and numbers in a ceremony with her graduating kindergarten classmates. Since then, she's taken a joyful ride on her exponential learning curve into literacy. What a pleasure it's been for us to listen to her reading to us aloud, haltingly at first, and now with fluency, as if she knew how all along! She may not be ready for this book quite yet, but I figure it's good to err on the side of challenge.
In order to be able to discuss the book with her, I decided to revisit it myself. I discovered that it is a sophisticated yet simple meditation on mystical, progressive Christianity - and on religion and spirituality in general - for children. While it contains sexist language and plot lines, and contains some linguistic anachronisms, it was far ahead of its time in 1962 and remains ahead of our time in many ways, as well. How much of my perspective on Christianity can be traced back to this book, I wonder? Clearly, fifty years ago, Madeleine L'Engle's book planted seeds in my soul that are still sprouting.
In A Wrinkle in Time, an awkward tweenaged girl named Meg lives with her scientist mother, her handsome and well-adjusted younger brothers, and her awkward and brilliant five-year-old baby brother, Charles Wallace. Their father is also a scientist, but for mysterious reasons he's been absent from the home for over a year. The baby brother wanders off to a mysterious old house near their home in the country, and there encounters a strange old lady named Mrs. Whatsit. When Meg meets her, the old lady mutters something about the reality of the tesseract: the act of traveling through the fifth dimension beyond space and time. (The explanation of tessering clearly was lifted, in part, from another of my favorite books, FLATLAND - a nineteenth century novel about a world in which a three-dimensional object passes through a two-dimensional world. It's a matheomatical allegory about our human inability to conceive fully the spiritual dimension.) An athletic, gangly fourteen-year-old named Calvin appears on the scene, drawn for reasons he cannot explain to the home of Mrs. Whatsit, where they meet one of the old lady's friends, Mrs. Who, who is given to quote constantly from classical literature. Suddenly Mrs. Whatsit's third friend, Mrs. Which, appears, and in an instant, the three old ladies "tesser" with Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin to an idyllic planet called Uriel. From there they get a view of the Dark Thing in the stellar distance which shrouds the planet Camazotz, to which the kids' father had traveled by tessering as part of a top-secret scientific experiment - never to return. It becomes clear to the kids that the three old ladies are angels: protectors and guides in their quest to save their father. Mrs. Who lists the great spiritual heroes of humanity as fighters protecting Earth from the Dark Thing. She quotes to the kids a passage from the gospel of John:
"And the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not." "Jesus!" Charles Wallace said. "Why of course, Jesus!" "Of course!" Mrs. Whatsit said. "Go on, Charles, love. There were others. All your great artists. They've been lights for us to see by." "Leonardo da Vinci?" Calvin suggested tentatively. "And Michelangelo?" "And Shakespeare," Charles Wallace called out..... "And Schweitzer and Gandhi and Buddha...."
After a rest on Uriel, the kids are sent on their own, with blessings from the old lady angels, to tesser to Camazotz, a grim planet centered on a grim city by the same name. There everybody does everything the same way every day, at the same time. It appears to be modeled on Moscow in the Soviet era, or Berlin in the Nazi era: a state controlled by a massive entity called CENTRAL Central Intelligence. Surely L'Engle was swept up in the American reaction to communism at the time, but her characterization of Camazotz goes to the heart of the problem with totalitarianism in all its many forms: missing from Camazotz is creativity, the very thing that L'Engle used to describe the planet. And missing from Camazotz is love, which generates the creative urge. Into CENTRAL's enormous edifice the kids enter with trepidation, and make their way deep inside to confront a quivering, pulsing brain which controls the behavior of everyone on the planet except them. "IT" attacks the kids with an overwhelming temptation to give over all willpower and choice-making ability. Charles Wallace, thinking that by yielding to "IT", he can get closer to his father somehow, succumbs and becomes an automaton, telling Meg that it is good that in Camazotz, everybody is equal to everybody else. "Like and equal are two entirely different things," she thinks, fighting against the mental force of "IT". Meg and Calvin try mightily to snap Charles Wallace out of the spell, and in the process, the little boy leads them to their father, who is trapped in a force-field in the building. Meg puts on Mrs. Who's glasses, which the angel had given her, and thus is able to get into the force-field to free her dad.
The father, the daughter, and Calvin tesser to a safe planet, unable to take Charles Wallace with them. There they plot how to rescue the little boy. The three angels return to coax Meg gently into taking on the task by herself. Mrs. Who recites scripture to her: "The foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called, but God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty. And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are." The one force "IT" doesn't know, and can't overcome, is the power of love - even the love of the weak for the weak, Meg realizes. She tessers back to Camazotz and by intensely concentrating her love for her little brother on him, she breaks the spell. They all tesser back to earth, where the angels take their leave as the family reunites.
In 1980, Madeleine L'Engle, an active Episcopalian, published another book. Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art is a profound exploration of the intersection of spirituality and creativity. I was especially impressed by her observation in the book that some of the worst art, and least inspired artists, call themselves Christian, and that some of the most profoundly religious art is made by people who are not religious. The gospel can be found in highly evocative forms in paintings and music and dance created by atheists. A Wrinkle in Time makes no pretense to be a Christian book. That's the last thing the author wanted. In her novel, L'Engle hints at her pluralistic approach to religion. For those who have eyes to see, they will discern the gospel in the story, delivered in a fresh mythical form. For those who don't, L'Engle would have been satisfied to know that the story touched their hearts, for the good, in an unseen gospel-shaped place in their souls. For her, Christianity wasn't just for Christians. And the gospel didn't have to be known as the gospel in order for it to do its mythical, depth-psychological, mystical work. L'Engle trusted children to travel freely in the fifth dimension with these insights. She even let adults in on these secrets, too, if they picked up her book to see what their kids were reading.
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