Learning from L'Engle: Icons of the True

Walking on Water by Madeline L'EngleAs I’m continuing to blog through Madeline L’Engle’s book on the intersection of faith and art, Walking on Water, I’m reminded that creating, for the Christian, should equal incarnating. How seldom this thought crosses my mind when writing. In Chapter 2, “Icons of the True,” L’Engle speaks to that deeper purpose of the artist and again provides encouragement for the budding creative.

“But even when one denies God, to serve music, or painting, or words is a religious activity, whether or not the conscious mind is willing to accept that fact. Basically there can be no categories such as ‘religious’ art and ‘secular’ art, because all true art is incarnational, and therefore ‘religious.'”

In my estimation, L’Engle could have written an entire book on this topic alone. How many outside-of-the-church experiences have I had when the story of God and the goodness of the gospel have been presented in an unmistakable way? Of course, her statement demands defining “true art,” since you and I could have wholly different meanings for that phrase. Is true art only that which points outside of itself? Is true art only that which personally resonates with its audience, regardless of whether that audience numbers one or a million?

“Cardinal Suhard says, ‘To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda, nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.'”

Recently, my boss relayed a Bible study lesson he led for his small group, covering the astounding fact that Jesus never coerced a person into action. Take more than a minute and think about that. I’d never considered the fact before, but it completely upends many of the ways we go about our lives. Suhard speaks to that end, noting that being a witness, whether through your art or through your life, shouldn’t result in cajoling or pressuring your subject to accept your work. Instead, being a witness revolves around letting your life or art speak for itself, even if the words being spoken are mysterious. Isn’t it the mystery that draws a person in, that causes them to wonder why this (this person, this painting, this book) speaks to them at such a deep level? Suhard’s last line in this quote is my favorite definition of a witness.

“Unamuno might be describing the artist as well as the Christian when he writes, ‘Those who believe they believe in God, but without passion in the heart, without anguish of mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, and even at times without despair, believe only in the idea of God, and not in God himself.'”

This is a brutally true statement that cuts to the heart of contemporary America’s oftentimes casual and comfortable Christianity. In Rob Bell’s first book, Velvet Elvis, he said, “The moment God is figured out with nice neat lines and definitions, we are no longer dealing with God.” To fully comprehend God is to be God. In the same way that we supposedly use only 10% of our brains, I’m willing to bet we only use .5% of our spiritual capacity to understand God on any given day. And if there’s no passion, no fire, and no doubt or despair in your relationship with God (or your relationship with art), what idea of God are you actually serving?

“And I copied in my journal from Tchekov’s letters: ‘You must once and for all give up being worried about successes and failures. Don’t let that concern you. It’s your duty to go on working steadily day by day, quite quietly, to be prepared for mistakes, which are inevitable, and for failures.”

Again, L’Engle touches on the necessity of butt-on-chair time that every capable, productive writer espouses. Though he wasn’t specifically talking to writers or artists, Jesus said the same thing a long time ago, “Don’t worry about tomorrow.” Remember, “feed the lake.” If it decides to feed you back isn’t within your power.

From Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet: “You are looking outward, and that above all you should not do now. Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you to write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write. This above all—ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: Must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple ‘I must,’ then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and testimony to it.”

This is so good, so challenging, so necessary. “Build your life according to this necessity.” Rilke doesn’t only speak to writers, but to anyone wrestling with a calling that seems to oppose their current profession. Following your calling may be one of the most challenging tasks of your life, but the end result, regardless of financial reward, will be worth it.

“We cannot create until we acknowledge our createdness.”

To be created in the image of a Creator God means that, by original design, we’re creative. Regardless of talent level, we are all born creative. Whether or not we foster that creativity or choose to use our powers for good is another story. By acknowledging our createdness, we humbly come to a much deeper appreciation of the tasks set before us. We incarnate with our art and our lives, bringing nothingness into somethingness, echoing God’s work at the dawn of time.

“There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred, and that is one of the deepest messages of the Incarnation.”

That’ll preach. Christ deigned to inhabit a human body, the ultimate example of the sacred consuming the secular. If we have eyes to see and ears to hear, this transformation occurs all around us, every day, but, for me, I’m often too myopically focused on my own work and my own life. If I believe in an all-powerful God, then I believe in that God’s ability to redeem anything for his purposes. Nothing is beyond his grasp. But how often do I see the sacred in the secular?
Which of the quotes above resonate with you, and why?