Madeleine L’Engle, the celebrated author of A Wrinkle in Time (winner of the 1963 Newbery Award for Children’s Literature) knew the darkness of loss, particularly in relationships, only too well. When her son Bion died in 1999, here was a story Madeleine couldn’t script the way she wanted it to be. Here was a painful chapter for which there was no resolution. No matter how she spun it, this would never be well.
Madeleine’s lifelong friend, the poet Luci Shaw, described it to me this way: “Her son Bion had this love/hate relationship with his mother. He was a very difficult person. One of the reasons I was able to be close to Madeleine was that Bion liked me and thought that I was a good influence on his mother.” Luci recalled, “Madeleine and I were together with Bion at the point of his death, right at the moment of his death. We were in the hospice room with him, and I think I was the last person to actually lift a glass of water with a straw in it for him to take a sip. And we listened to his breathing just diminish and diminish. And she said, ‘You know, a mother shouldn’t see her son die.’”
In the aftermath, Luci says, “There was a huge amount of mourning, I think particularly because a lot of issues between them hadn’t been resolved. And it seemed like she realized it was never going to be resolved because there’s no longer an opportunity for interaction.”
Madeleine’s granddaughter Charlotte Jones Voiklis concurs: “The grief over Bion’s death was her undoing. Absolutely. She was so sad and didn’t take joy in the same things in the same way. The grief contributed to cognitive decline, which also makes things harder. He died of end-stage alcoholism. His liver failed. And it’s a really ugly death. We were all in denial about it. Not just her.” Charlotte described how, once the family had a diagnosis, they could make a way forward with some relief. Everyone except Madeleine.
“I don’t think it was anything she was able to accept,” Charlotte told me. “He was always Rob Austin from her fictional Austin Family Chronicles; this golden, precocious boy with adorable language play. I don’t think there was a way for her to talk and write about that. And I think she really bumped up against privacy: How do you respect his privacy? How do you do this without exploiting your child?”
In one of the rare, high-profile public interviews Madeleine did after her son died (for PBS in 2000), she read aloud from her journal, “Bion’s death has ripped the fabric of the universe.” She then told her interviewer, Bob Abernethy, “In times when we are not particularly suffering we do not have enough time for God. We are too busy with other things. And then the intense suffering comes, and we can’t be busy with other things. And then God comes into the equation. ‘Help.’ And we should never be afraid of crying out ‘Help’ . . . When there is no suffering, nothing happens.”1
I’m reminded of Mother Teresa’s painful letters in her posthumous collection Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the “Saint of Calcutta.” The collection was almost never published—not merely because she had requested that her writings remain private, but because they chart her fifty-year journey with a devastating sense of God’s absence, of continual darkness. It began almost as soon as Mother Teresa established the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta in the mid-1940s, after which she would write to her archbishop, “Pray for me—for within me everything is icy cold.—It is only that blind faith that carries me through for in reality to me all is darkness.”2 A decade into this burden she experienced a strange turning point: “For the first time in this 11 years—I have come to love the darkness.—For I believe now that it is a part, a very, very small part of Jesus’ darkness and pain on earth.”3 For Mother Teresa, the pain never lifted. The journey would last, without reprieve, until her death half a century later.
Madeleine wrote, “As Gregory of Nyssa points out, when Moses first talked with God, he talked in the light, but as he grew in spiritual stature, he talked with God in the darkness. But what darkness!”4 Luci Shaw told me, “We have times of stagnation and we have a further leap of faith. It’s not just a steady growth in God.” Charlotte agreed: “I’ve been thinking about the way we talk about our lives as a journey, and that death is maybe the end. Except where you are at the end maybe says more than you want it to about what your journey has been about unless you end on an up note. It’s depressing, the oppressive expectations of things getting better: you will get wiser, you will get kinder, you will get calmer as you go down the one road that you are on—as if it’s one road in one direction all the time.”
For Charlotte, “I think it’s liberating, too, not to try to shake that narrative off. Like, ‘Oh, I’ve learned so much toward my journey toward adulthood; and now I am a wise old woman, and people come to me for advice, and I dispense advice, and nothing new happens to me.’ To realize that getting older doesn’t mean things stop happening to you, yet continuing to remain open to those as intense experiences—it’s not easy for us to allow for that in our idols.”
We never stop growing and changing, facing down our fears, confronting new ones. Even when our own hearts grow dark, we need the loving presence of friends and companions to draw us back to the light.
Excerpted from A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeleine L’Engle, Author of A Wrinkle in Time by Sarah Arthur. Copyright © 2018 by Sarah Arthur. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com.
1 Madeleine L’Engle, interviewed by Bob Abernethy in a PBS episode of Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, Nov. 17, 2000, accessed May 5, 2018. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/2012/02/10/november-17–2000-madeleine-lengle/3639/.
2 Mother Teresa, Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the “Saint of Calcutta” ed. Brian Kolodiejchuk (New York: Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc., 2007), 163.
3 Mother Teresa, Come Be My Light, 214.
4 Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Art and Faith (Colorado Springs, CO: A Shaw Book published by WaterBrook Press, 1980, 1998, 2001), 189.