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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.