When a Story Happens: Madeleine L’Engle’s Impartation of Courage

Remember that time a story happened to you? It happened like a car accident or a record-breaking snowfall, like a check you weren’t expecting. One moment your life was clicking along as normal, a book in your hands; the next you stood motionless, a wave of words washing over you as relentlessly as the tide. You remember that moment the way you remember major life events, as something that changed you. You’re not quite the same person now.

This past year I’ve heard about dozens, maybe hundreds, of such moments involving the stories of fabled author Madeleine L’Engle. Whether it was her children’s fiction like the 1963 Newbery-winner A Wrinkle in Time (now a major motion picture) or her nonfiction treatise Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, her books have changed her readers, sometimes radically. As the biographer of the book A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeleine L’Engle, I interviewed dozens of people who can point to a moment when one of Madeleine’s books happened. A story or concept or quote hit them at just the right time, sometimes when they least expected it, and their faith or vocation or life itself took a turn.

I heard so many such moments, actually, that I couldn’t include them all in the book. One that just won’t leave me, however, came from my colleague Aleah Marsden. When she heard I was writing Madeleine’s spiritual biography she sent me this account that still gives me goosebumps and begs the question: In what ways will God use the stories we write?

She’s afraid and the only directive she’s given is to not be afraid of being afraid.

Aleah’s Account:

I had been invited to speak at my first women’s event. It was a big deal for me: I was a last-minute addition, and the headliner was a seminary preaching professor—exactly the type you want to share the stage with your first time. It was Instant-Pot level of pressure. And I felt I was being rent in two by competing ideas: I wanted to do this with everything in me, and I knew I was not capable. This was not a comfortable space to be.

As God would have it, my text for the event was 1 Corinthians 1:26-31. I’d chosen it on a hunch; a friend had passed me a post-it note through the window of my minivan during carpool drop-off one morning. Weakness felt like a topic I could speak to.

At this point I’d read two of Madeleine’s creative nonfiction books, Walking on Water and A Circle of Quiet. As a five on the enneagram, I tend to gravitate toward nonfiction but had heard that Madeleine was known for fiction. I was spending so much time studying for the upcoming event I figured fiction might be a nice escape. A Wrinkle in Time seemed to be her most popular story, so I downloaded it to my Kindle.

I immediately connected with Meg, the young female protagonist, and her journey. On a sci-fi adventure to find her missing father somewhere out in the universe, she’s insecure; she’s frightened; she’s smart but feels inadequate. And then I came to Chapter 12. Meg must tesser, or bend the space-time continuum, alone to a dark planet ruled by an evil power called IT in order to rescue her little brother. She’s up against significant odds. She’s being asked to do something terrifying, to put herself in a situation where failure is a real possibility. She’s afraid and the only directive she’s given is to not be afraid of being afraid.

I remember my pulse pounding in my ears. Yes, it’s all so very too much. An unfair amount of pressure for someone so inexperienced. I felt tears prickle my eyes when she is momentarily overcome by doubt and Mrs. Whatsit, her mentor, gives her one last gift: her love. The support of others means so much and yet feels thin as smoke when confronted with such solid fear.

I’m pacing my kitchen now, Kindle in hand. Will Meg go? She must, for the sake of her little brother! But IT! She may not get her brother back. She may not return herself! To stand on a precipice and know that your life will never be the same. To risk falling for the crazy hope you may fly.

And then Meg’s other mentor, Mrs. Who, bestows her gift. One that can’t be understood “word by word, but in a flash, as you understand the tesseract . . . Listen well,” she says. I click to the next page and discover the whole of 1 Corinthians 1:25-28. I fall to my knees in one of the holiest moments I’ve ever experienced, broken and mended in an instant.

I’d been overwhelmed not by a message of “hustle and chase those big, crazy dreams!” but by the gravitational force of a story that showed me that, truly, God chooses the weak things of this world. The low and despised and inexperienced things. This is the medium with which he chooses to work. I’m undone by it every time.

I spoke at that event with the same hesitant steps and palpitating heart. The day ended with the headliner, the seminary professor, placing her hands on my shoulders and telling me to “make small, faithful choices.” It’s become my mantra and will forever be tied up with Meg’s reflection upon approaching the circular building that contains IT at the end of Chapter 12: “No matter how slowly her feet had taken her at the end, they had taken her there.” The outcome became an afterthought; faithfulness was its own reward. And God used the power of a story to confirm his truth in me.

Aleah Marsden is a writer, speaker, and Bible study leader who is passionate about seeing women walk into all the plans God has for them. Her writing can be found in publications like The Banner and Books & Culture, as well as a handful of devotionals in the new NIV Bible for Women: Fresh Insights for Thriving in Today’s World (Zondervan, 2015). She blogs about life, faith, and Bible study at AleahMarsden.com. Connect with her on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter: @aleahmarsden.

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Sarah Arthur
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