Author Archives: Claire Matheny

Claire Matheny ~ A Pastoral Prayer: Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr

As a daughter of Tennessee, I hear the echoes of bullets that blasted before I was born. The same sounds that drew my parents from Mississippi to work in Memphis’ inner city, as Martin Luther King, Jr., fell on a second floor landing.  We hear the shots even now.

For guns still yield brutal killings. And so often even now the color of one’s skin increases the chances of falling on the balcony of freedom.

And so from the seemingly lilted view of nearly 50 years we long for the top floor, for the highland’s celestial ceiling. Even if we can only seem to get as high as one set of stairs a decade, there is the lasting hope that we are still in one way or another ascending to greater understanding, greater compassion, and greater elevation.

But no matter how high we climb, we recall that beloved community also rests on the ground. At best, our upward ascent is a steady retracing of our steps down and up again as we make out the determined footprints of Jesus. And we recall the shots that freeze even the best of intentions. We recall that the future of sanitation workers are always in peril somewhere as we attempt to clear the refuse impeding the path that would guide us all upward.

And so we pray today for our some day ending, for the will to keep on working, descending and ascending. We pray owning our roles to play in the unequal state of the terrain. We take one step at a time past suburbs of privilege and down the streets of cities trembling. Our companions on the journey don’t always look like us, talk like us, fret like us. We pray for collective movement as we plod along together covered in the mud of the mountain.

May we march until the sound of shots is overcome by the sound of singing. May we march with the drum major who has been to the top: two steps forward, one step back as long as it takes for the motion of peace and justice to advance everyone.


Featured image courtesy Unseen Histories on Unsplash; original black and white negative by Rowland Scherman.

Claire Matheny ~ Easter: Bonus Material

Now after he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. She went out and told those who had been with him, while they were mourning and weeping. But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it.

After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them. – Mark 16:9-13

It’s about time. I want to trust that it is true; good news comes in all different forms. I really want to believe it. I want to wake up one day to emerge from the dark of the room to find that things have changed, and that there in the cave of uncertainty I will find it, that our wait would be over.

I want to find…my child’s first tooth. A parent can expect teeth anywhere from 5-6 months to 18 months. Some are early sprouters and some are late bloomers…and then, well, there are the outliers. My daughter turned 18 months old last week and she passed this mile marker with an all-gummy grin.

When my child is grumpy, fussy, cranky, I no longer default to the thought that a tooth is emerging. Twelve long months of teeth not being the cause of her pain has made that feel silly. So many times we have been “faked out,” passing her teething rings, cold presses, sympathetic fingers to the mouth in order to feel whatever may be emerging.

I talked to my dentist. She assures me that she has never seen a child with no teeth. We have an appointment lined up with the pediatric dentist. I hear other parents say that it is strange to look at an x-ray and see baby teeth just below the surface in your kid’s mouth…and then oddly on the layer above these baby chompers is the row of adult teeth hanging back ready for their day in the sun. I am not ready for an adult, I have an outlying toddler. It’s appropriate for the season.

Easter exposes the outliers. That extra stretch of time in the darkness of three days, God is bringing about the best sprout of all time. During Holy Week we heard about those who approached the tomb expecting to find a buried reality, only to be shocked and surprised.

And it could be that Mark ended there with verse eight. It certainly could have ended there according to this Gospel writer. If you go to any Bible, you will no doubt find some cryptic words connected with verse nine and beyond. In some texts these verses even appear in brackets. In the earliest of manuscripts, these words that tell about the Jesus sightings, the actual glimpses of the Risen Christ after the tomb, were not found.

It begs the question: were the original verses lost? It is possible. Did later scholars seek to fill in the other elements of the story that existed from oral tradition and other manuscripts? Or did Mark truly end with the strange words that close chapter eight in reference to the women at the tomb: “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (NRSV).

We are led to believe that there were those who thought that this was anything but a fitting end to the script. It leaves us hanging. It leaves us dangling in wait of what is to happen next. If it were a TV series, it would be the end of one season with a cliffhanger to the next. “Jesus really is alive, tune in next time.” But, something would come next. It could not possibly end there. And we the readers know it cannot, it does not end there. More verses emerge.

But why? In part because Mary Magdalene had to tell someone about what she had seen! She cannot keep the bottle on the best surprise. Some people do not have poker faces. Some folks telegraph joy or fright. There is no way Mary Magdalene is getting far before she explodes with the good news. Out of fear comes a wellspring of recognition: the cave, the tomb, could not hold the body.

For Mark, this is all bonus material. It is the spectacular extra tracks. Unexpectedly there is an uncovered song there, the important lyrics of liberation. You have to listen to several minutes of “dead space” in order to hear a guitar fire back up. Recall “Her Majesty,” the hidden, bonus song on the Beatles’ “Abbey Road”?

In light of the risen Christ, each of our days, our opportunities here are like bonus days. That’s what my church member has said to me as she approaches her 93rd birthday. When I ask her how she is doing, she says that these days are all “gravy.”

I find myself a bit envious. I have some less years on me, but what if I treated these days, these now as they are—gravy days. Bold days are here. The resurrection is real. All these days past the tomb living into the Easter story of resurrection are extra.

I am guessing if we asked Georgina Harwood she may say the same thing about the days she has been given. I read the story of this remarkable woman who took a leap out of a plane…on her 100th birthday. She would go on in the next days to swim with sharks to commemorate a century on earth. She wants to make the very most of all the days she has.

Crazy? Perhaps. Crazier than resurrection? Not a chance.

And there is 19-year-old Lauren Hill you may have heard about. She tenaciously played college basketball until a brain tumor progressed last fall and she had to stop. She has since died. But ever since her diagnosis, she advocated and raised funds for research, and kept up a spirit of determination that transcends her death. She was an outlier (in her rare disease, yes), as a courageous woman who transformed a seemingly horrific situation. Who knew her mortality was not the end of her legacy.

We could make a long list of all the signs of death in our midst.

But here at the site of the empty tomb is our leap beyond lip service. When we take up the mantle from Mary and open our mouth to the truth. There is something bursting below the surface. A little seed of germination. This is Easter…we are the outliers who believe that despite all the impossibility of being raised from death that our God did just that.

Do you know what my daughter can do? No, she cannot eat cucumbers, or crunch carrots, or scissor her incisors into celery. But that smile. The way her nose crinkles when she is particularly happy—that has resurrection joy written all over it. And it keeps coming after each fall on the playground, each age-appropriate meltdown, each sniffly nose, each whiny protestation.

And such joy will come even after her teeth cut through the flesh in their painful way. Surely coming back into human flesh as Jesus did had its growing pains as well. The Scripture says that Jesus was now different. In light of Easter, we too are different. We Christian outliers know of life beyond death, life beyond pain—even when we are justifiably upset at our circumstances. As we name the death of this world, let’s admit that it is about time life showed up.

Whatever the state of your teeth: we know that each mouth has good news to share. We have been gifted the bonus tracks. Christ honors all life: aging and emergent, graying and green, nearing the earthly end and the just now newborn. Can we manage a smile in thanksgiving for our gravy, grave-defying days? Can we dare to keep the Spirit of Easter going, in motion, emanating from our flexible selves?

You know, a part of me already misses my child’s gummy grin. Even if we feel the lingering tug of death, Christ sustains his emergence from the empty cave. With our outlying smiles, we keep the promise that first burst from the mouth of Mary Magdalene.

Claire Matheny ~ Lenten Justice

The text for this sermon, Mark 2:13-22, can be read here.

Many of us have suffered a punch-the-clock kind of job. This is the kind of job that you see as a stepping stone, and you hope there may be a day when you do not have to live through its drudgery.

Perhaps even now you currently yearn for the other side of your employment and dream of something else. I first knew this longing after some long hours dedicated to the art of sandwich making. I worked at Lenny’s Sub Shop the summer after my senior year in high school in Memphis, Tennessee.

I knew that I wanted to work at Lenny’s because of the crisp white uniforms and the steady smiles. The employees seemed to be having a good time. It always seemed clean and welcoming, friendly and festive. Did I mention there were also cute boys?

Over the months, the job felt less and less romantic. I think it was the endless slathering of mayonnaise. Mayonnaise and mustard clogged the tread on my shoes. It was smiles that needed to accompany sandwiches even at the end of a hard shift with demanding customers. Every day I came home smelling like bread and cheese. This felt like the kind of job that was okay for a season, but from which I imagined my liberator: college.

Who knows if Levi had ever entertained thoughts of something else in the days leading up to Jesus’ approach. Tax collecting could be a lucrative job if you kept some off the top for yourself. But for those who regularly had to pay the tolls, tax collectors were among the unclean who deal with Gentiles and Gentile money.

And yet, tax collectors were necessary to the system of taxing by which roads were paved and the government was run. We believe that in Levi’s case, he was there at the road border, collecting money from those passing from one area to the next.

I use my EZPass every time I am on Interstate 95. What a convenience to just zip through on the left and never have to feed the meter with coins, or even worse, slow down and extend my trip by exchanging money with a toll booth operator. I just want to get going.

Jesus has no such attitude today. He strolls up to the toll window. In The Message, it says Jesus was strolling along when he asked Levi to go with him. He goes up to the person in charge of the toll and strikes up conversation, casually without insult or anxiety. Levi had been sitting there at the border—a place in between here and there. He invites Levi out of the toll booth, out of the job that hems him in. Jesus must have said some powerfully inviting words and Levi must have needed to hear them.

He wasn’t doing too poorly for himself, Levi, who had a home big enough to accommodate Jesus and a crowd of coworkers reclining for dinner. But this job likely has left him lacking, left him yearning for a Liberator, yearning for the invitation to do something else with his time, with his life. Don’t we all yearn to do meaningful labor? Tax collecting may have been his profession, but only for a season.

Some of the revolutionary nature of this meal is lost on us. And yet, day-in and day-out we tend to eat with people who look like us, who come from similar backgrounds, similar jobs, the same race. If asked why I do not eat with blackjack table dealers, oil tycoons, and adult store owners I could reply that I do not know anybody who holds these professions.

Shame on me.

I think of Jesus, who strolled up to the toll booth in order to have a conversation—not from a place of condescension, throwing coins in Levi’s direction. He strolled up to supposed strangers. There was no one that he did not know.

All of us face the invitation moments where the rubber meets the road: the boundary tax-collecting place where we must shed some of our privilege, our stability, our pride in order to embrace the servanthood of our Savior and the greater good of our neighbor. This is what it means to be a servant—risking self-convenience in order to follow Jesus. 

There was one day mid-summer working at the sandwich shop when Christ invited me to come.  Instead of putting down my apron, I went about my duty placing the pieces of bread together and wrapping it just so in the paper. And I turned my back on Christ and on my coworker.

A couple, a middle-aged man and woman, came into the shop. A child came with them and sat in a table by the door. They approached the counter. My more experienced co-worker Steve and I were ready to make them dinner. They took one look at Steve and then looked at me: “We don’t want him making our sandwich. We don’t want him to touch our food.” I was dense at first and then mystified as they were indicating that because Steve was African-American, they did not want him to serve them. I was in disbelief and stood stock-still until steely-eyed Steve mumbled to me, “you make the sandwiches,” and he went in the back to the office.

The next moments were eternity: my fingers like lead, my 18-year-old head spinning. It was so difficult as they selected their toppings and as I wrapped their sandwiches in the special Lenny’s paper. There were no smiles.  I made the sandwiches with some haste. I wanted this family to be on its way without causing a scene. After all, Steve told me to serve them.

But Jesus was telling me something different. Instead of leaving the toll booth, I stood in place. I was scared and uncertain. I allowed hatred to tighten my apron strings and I ignored a spiritual voice of defiance. I collected the tax, the cost of the sandwich and it seemed to pay my silence.  I gave that couple the EZPass through their racism. I wanted them to leave, in part so I could exhale and exclaim, “Did that really happen? How could this be?” Steve was not as phased as I was; he was more accustomed to the face of this evil.

I should have been more prepared to risk the loss of my crisp white uniform by saying something: “No, I will not make your sandwich.” The security of my job as a sandwich artist was at stake, I suppose. I could not seem to wrap courage around the truth: there is no room for hate in God’s kingdom. All the while, I ached for the child, by the door—on the border of this transaction, the child of that couple.

There are times I have been like a child at the tax-paying color line: my own soul at stake as I learn again the free gift of grace and the trail to Levi’s open table. There are moments that we do not get back in which our consciousness is stirred. Once you have been stirred, you may sit for a while at the boundary of convenience, but there is no going back, not really. Levi cannot get back in the tollbooth—he’s outgrown it. New wine of Jesus’ liberation will not fit in old wineskins.

I went in the middle of a workday this past week somewhere I had been trying to go: the movie theater. I went to see Selma. I paid my toll. Do you know that I did not have to talk to one person in the process? It was one of those machines; I just plugged in my information and out popped a ticket.

On screen, there was the hate-filled system. I watched as the Alabama state troopers beat black protestors on a bridge on Bloody Sunday. Tears rolled down my face. What hope aligned as people of different backgrounds joined forces. Unless we are willing to bend and move alongside our brothers and sisters, there is no forward movement.

How I long to go back and speak up: “I will not make your sandwich.”

I repeat those words again and again as my confession, until they are my redemption. Christ heals. Without confessional voices and actions, large and small, stepping with Jesus, contradicting Pharisees, there are only empty promises of equality.

Here we are stepping into the “stiff wind” wilderness of Lent. At this border, we are called to step away from our convenience, the things that make our lives seemingly comfortable. We examine our covenant. We continue to choose what we may give up, the little things that can be our sacrifices to keep us on target. In a season of contemplative disciplines, how strange it might feel to relinquish our silence.

You have very likely heard in the news about a song that came out of an Oklahoma fraternity—a racist one. After seeing “Selma” and with reflection on my own journey, I thought of all the voices that didn’t cry out and of all the eyes that turned the other way year after year on that campus. I wonder what yet is uncovered, what continues to wound and exclude. I wonder how we give up more of our convenience in order to eat with Jesus.

There is no easy pass through evil, only the road to Jerusalem. There is Christ who wades through the suffering of our deepest hate. And in the wake of his sacrifice, there are no employees, only servants: servants who take step by step away from the booth of duty and towards the gift of healing. Children are looking on. They are lingering by the door, waiting by the door between where we have been and where we are going.

Some of our friends are making sandwiches in the grinding world of customer service. They are trying to scrape together a living wage. They often have to look in the face of discrimination and condescension. We pray for those trapped in below-wage work with no end in sight. We pray for those who day-in and day-out face discrimination as a means to an end, to put food on the table. It was an utter luxury that at the end of the summer I could pursue something else.

I no longer make sandwiches for a living. But by the grace of God, I do preside at Communion.

In worship, we slow down and engage in liturgy. The word liturgy comes from the Greek word meaning “public work” or “public servant.” We are reminded that we are public servants as we worship. We are public servants as we go out and serve. This service, this strolling alongside all those in need of healing is a part of our promise, our covenant as the church.  Jesus’ love is cast to even those who would hate. The tie that binds customer and coworker, binds us at the common meal and common table. There is no punch clock, only our capable hands designed to serve bread to everyone.

Claire Matheny ~ Under the Fig Tree

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” – John 1:43-51

Under a tree. An important setting in our Scripture. I began thinking about the different trees of my own life. One particular tree kept coming back to me. I was seven or eight years old. Some friends of my parents had invited me over to spend time with their twin granddaughters. At one point, they showed me their toys, which included a stuffed little bear. This is one I had seen advertised. I had plenty of toys, but not this one. Immediately, I wanted it. Later on, when no one was in the room, I took the little pink and yellow bear. I placed it among my things. They looked for it later on, but I kept my theft a secret and that bear close by.

Some days later, my mother was cleaning out my school bag and came across the little bear. I was panged as soon I saw it emerge in her hand. She asked me where I had gotten the bear. I felt the lie in my mouth. I said that it was someone’s from school. She instructed me to give it back the next day. Two treacheries: I had stolen the bear and now I lied to my mother about where I had gotten it. Now, I was stuck with the bear that had ceased to be a treasure; now it carried my shame. I knew that I must be rid of it.  For reasons only reasonable to seven-year-old me, I tucked the bear in my pocket while at school the next day and took the bear to recess. I went out on the playground and dropped the bear under some dirt and grass by a large tree.

I was relieved to be free of the evidence. However, several times throughout that year the bear seemed to make its way around the trees of the playground as different students found it and wondered out loud about its origins. I did not say a word, but it stung as I remembered my deceit, having condemned the poor bear to a cast-out life far from its rightful parents!

And so, sometimes even now (27 years later) in my dreams, the bear will re-emerge. It circulates on the playground of my subconscious. It serves as a reminder that deceit has a way of lingering. With the blessing of time, I have somehow befriended this bear—not because I am proud of what it represents. However, its presence in my dreams helps me to consider the ways in which I may be deceiving myself or even someone else.

Could it be that Nathanael had no such similar elementary errors, no sins of the heart, no deceptions or demerits to color his journey? No little bears floating around his playground? When Nathanael approaches Jesus the rabbi greets him:  here is one “in whom there is no deceit.” Here is, “a true Israelite, that is, one upstanding in faith.” Could it be that no misdeed lingers? No half-truths told to his mother or teacher?Nothing to smudge his record?

Or, could it be that the lens through which Jesus chooses to see Nathanael is the vision of what can be? His former life will not keep him from living into an upstanding character? For we know that Nathanael is a bit sarcastic. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” he seems to snort at Philip. Surely this man Nathanael, upstanding in his faith he may be, certainly has some room to grow? Room to gain belief that something miraculous can come out of a backwater town. Room to be healed under the lessons of a new Rabbi.

But Nathanael no doubt still feels the pockmarks of life’s deceptions. I posit that it is because he knows some source of shame—no matter its size—that he can truly hear Jesus’s next words. For Nathanael wants to know what gives Jesus the right to describe him as having no deceit, as an Israelite. How could this stranger know? How could he presume something so ludicrous—that I could be without deceit? Eugene Peterson’s “The Message” interprets this as Nathanael not “having a false bone in his body.” Really?

Here is the moment—don’t miss it—when Jesus gives him the “I saw you when” laser beam insight into his life. So what does it mean that Jesus saw Nathanael “under the fig tree”? Nathanael seems to know exactly.

Three possibilities:

1) It is believed that early rabbis often taught pupils under shady trees as an escape from the heat of the sun. It is possible that Jesus has seen the eager desire that Nathanael has demonstrated in faith by sitting with the teachers of Hebrew tradition learning the law, the fruit of the figs. Thereby, Jesus has seen the student Nathanael and now says “come and see” so he can commence his tutelage with Jesus out from under the tree and into the as yet unseen needs of the world.

2) In Hebrew writing, the fig tree was a sign of prosperity. In peaceful communities, the presence of the fig tree meant stability and wealth. The time and energy to cultivate and maintain the plant is a luxury. When prophets point to a time when each person may be under his own fig tree, it is a projection of hope. Perhaps Nathanael needs a vision of hope. If this Jesus can see him under a fig tree, with some anticipated vision of hope, then perhaps this roaming new teacher will usher in a new hope for the people of Israel. When Jesus identifies Nathanael as having been under the fig tree, this could be a signal to Nathanael that, by following this Jesus, he will be an usher of days of God’s reconciliation. And indeed, Jesus does tell Nathanael that he will see greater things than these—even greater than the symbol of the fig tree!

3) What is the setting of the fig tree for Nathanael? God only knows. Gospel writer John in his blessed ambiguity could lend us the belief of a broader mystery, in which case, the fig tree is any place where Nathanael is most vulnerable on his own journey. The words of expectation that Jesus places upon greeting Nathanael – “this one of no deceit” – are a blessing of forgiveness. Nathanael hears Jesus name the convicting location of the fig tree, perhaps a place of inner anguish where deceit has been lived out by a serpent’s cunning invitation.

So it was with me under the fig tree with my attempts to bury the bear. I point to this incident, not because I cannot forgive my seven-year-old self, but because it is the earliest point I can remember an intentional departure from the truth. Here was the original point of my own fall from the branches of some childhood innocence with the tasting of good and evil. And this flavor remains so much a part of my condition, that I still find myself at times at the base of the tree trying to shovel away my shame. And the slinking part of me wonders if I will be forever banished from life’s garden, cast out from the playground, and clutching at fig leaves as do Adam and Eve.

So, when I hear Jesus’ words of “come and see” I can hear all three potential meanings of Nathanael’s seeing under the fig tree and thereby can welcome them all.

1) For I too, have studied (under a tree, from an ivory tower perhaps, learning knowledge beside some biblical teachers and mentors) as a source of preparation and growth in faith. I, too, ponder the Rabbi Jesus’ teaching.

2) For I, too, have wondered about what God would have in store for my future, for the future of all. I have wondered how it is that peace and reconciliation can make its way in the midst of the turbulence we experience as a people today. And so, I love the thought of ever-creating God who sees me under the place of that hopefulness and who even prepares a brighter vision transcending what we humans can imagine.

3) For I, too, could get stuck under the fig tree of my own deception, shame, or selfishness. This could keep me from following Jesus. However, I am reminded that Jesus sees, catches me red-handed, and is still accepting. He sees Nathanael for who he truly can be—without deceit. It is this welcome that initiates the disciple’s belief: a man born of Joseph, from the unfortunate hometown of Nazareth, could be the Savior. Is the Messiah.

Are we willing to envision ourselves out from under the tree? God already has. Jesus has already prepared a way for us and we need not be ruled by what has come before. Jesus sees not only who we are but who we can be—worthy of glimpsing the great opening of the heavens just as he promises Nathanael about greater things. As for the tree, we know that he takes it on, whittled away as the cross. We are reminded, even at this juncture of Nathanael’s joy at starting the journey, that we still must contest the ongoing evils and shames of this world, within and without.

Following Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday, we reflect on the events of this past year and raise our questions about the directive of Christ to “come and see” beyond the shadow of the tree.

I went back and listened to a 2007 online interview I heard given by theologian James Cone. He was speaking about the connection of the cross of Christ with those have been oppressed in our nation’s history.  He describes the original sin of the United States as slavery. I have always thought of slavery as a great evil that plagues our nation, but to hear Cone describe it as America’s original sin was liberating. It provided a sense of slavery’s deep seeded shame for this country. However, his description also offered a vision of hopefulness that echoes even from Eden. Just as there is hope for each of us in our own place of shame, so there is a saving hope for we the people. God sees us under the oppressive hand of the country’s own shame. Jesus sees us at the fig tree of Ferguson…a tree under which we have been learning hard lessons. In the company of King, we can believe in our own worthiness (beyond shame) in the midst of our heartbreaking legacies. We are God’s Beloved Community.

Jesus sees us, truly sees us, as we can be. In the midst of violence, disparity, despair, discrimination and death, we see that something good -the seeds of our own healing – can come out of Nazareth. They can come out of Missouri and point us to a great way of being out from under the tree—a muddled, sometimes murderous place, where the hope of salvation is not a mere fantasy. We the children of God are capable of being redeemed. We have room to grow.

The bear circulates even now for each of us, a reminder of our fallen condition. The bear circulates on the playground as a saving sign reminding us that we are capable of being who Jesus believes we can be: disciples who emerge from the fig tree and help to share the good news of healing wherever the Rabbi leads.

Claire Matheny ~ Review: A Circle of Quiet

I am a part of a church book club that meets each month. A member nominates a book for the next gathering. This ensures that most of us read something we would never have picked on our own. And let’s be honest, with many of us torn between children and work, we barely get time to read. Our meeting gives us an excuse to skimp on laundry or stay up late for the worthy goal of discussion. We are pretty amenable; we read new and old books, fiction and nonfiction, a mix of spiritual and secular.

Book Group Discussion: “A Circle of Quiet” by Madeleine L’Engle

I couldn’t remember if Madeleine L’Engle had died.  I did not wish to know before I finished her 1972 journaling memoir, “A Circle of Quiet.” I knew it would change her words for me somehow to know that she is no longer a cohabitant on the planet.

I recall a special moment when I was in second or third grade. Madeleine L’Engle came to speak to us at school in our comfortable library. I remember sitting on my patch of deep blue carpet as Ms. L’Engle – though I think she might insist I call her Madeleine – read animatedly.

She speaks just as animatedly on these pages. Most times my fellow book readers and I forgave the dusty 40 years between us. However, given how much “Madison Avenue” and loveless sex distressed her, we could only imagine the horror with which she would encounter our current “overshare society,” devaluing much of the physical and spiritual mystery she champions.

I believe there was a part of each of us that longed to be seated at Crosswicks, the Connecticut home she owned with her husband, Hugh, and the setting of much of the journal. We wanted to plop down at that Bohemian house in the small town. We agreed that it would be nice to go where the apple pie may be burned, but where there is always laughter and understanding. Hers was that proverbial place where everyone knows your name and cannot help but know all your business. In order to keep her sanity, she takes refuge in solitude. She leads us out of doors where the chaotic swirl of a busy house is balanced by the calm of a hidden pond.

It was the interspersed passages about faith that made us take the most notice. It was amusing to think of her doubting the institution of the church, even as she led her local parish’s feeble choir. It was comforting to hear her criticism of Christians and still count herself among them. It was beautiful to hear her wax on about children’s literature, sensing the deep respect she has for the early years. She does not want evil to be so masked from children that when they are forced to face the downsides of life that they are ill-equipped to cope. She unwraps her own faith to show its vulnerability. This is the same faith that counts doubting and the ability to lay bare one’s weakness among its greatest strengths.

I enjoyed the journey she carved out for my reading group. And yet, I have no immediate desire to pick up her subsequent nonfiction. Perhaps I need to spend more reflective moments around my own pond before I will have the patience and curiosity to sit with L’Engle again. Early on in “A Circle of Quiet,” she describes the busiest years of life as the “tired thirties,” when the demands of child-rearing and vocation-launching consume each hour. It is clear as she writes that she is no longer in the mad dash of that decade.

I realize that every moment spent sitting with L’Engle’s imagination is one in which I am not sitting with my toddler reveling in hers. I am convinced that I do L’Engle the most honor by countering my reading with pure moments knee-deep in the mess of my daughter’s childhood. Perhaps I would do her even more honor by also dusting off my journal. Or, even better…by sharing here.

Upon finishing “A Circle of Quiet,” I did look to see that Madeleine has gone on to greater glory. I mourn her death even as it gives me hope. Over 40 years since she wrote this volume and still, she speaks. I am thankful for my second time on a square patch, pausing, soaking in her animation.