A Light So Lovely book review

“We’re supposed to be such witnesses of Christ’s love that other people will want to know what makes us glow.”

In A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeleine L’Engle, author Sarah Arthur shares these words spoken by Madeleine L’Engle at the 1996 Festival of Faith and Writing.

light so lovely

The message is a timely one for me. Not only have I been studying the difference between happiness and joy in a “Franciscan Way of Life” course I’m taking, the topic has recently come up in conversations with my children.

Arthur’s depth of research into Madeleine L’Engle’s life reveals a woman who always attempted to practice charity and empathy towards others. About an acquaintance who worshipped alongside her every day but hated all people of an Asian descent, Madeleine wrote “Surely within me there is an equal blindness, something that I do not recognize in myself, that I justify without even realizing it. All right, brother. Let us be forgiven together, then.”

“All right, brother, we say to the angry relative at Thanksgiving. All right, sister, we say to the person on social media whose politics sound like a foreign language. All right, we say to our idols when they disappoint us. Let us be forgiven together, then. We will only make a way forward when we recognize that we too are flawed and wounded sojourners, that where we are now on the journey is not the end game,” Sarah Arthur extrapolates.

Up until the reading of this beautifully-written biography, I’ve managed to pointedly ignore any hint of criticism of my idol, Madeleine L’Engle, preferring instead to keep the Christian mother and author atop the carefully crafted pedestal I’d established for her in my mind. Somehow, Arthur has managed to delve into that criticism in a way that does not cause disappointment, but instead reveals the complexity of a woman who, despite her failings, still managed to convey a strength and faith we should all strive for.

“Madeleine showed up to serve the work of writing; she disciplined herself to sit down and be present. And she showed up as a struggling believer; she disciplined herself to continue praying, continue reading the Bible, continue practicing hospitality, continue worshiping in community. She perhaps never wrested every chapter of her life into a tidy resolution in which ‘all shall be well,’ but she put her trust in the One whose love does not fail.”

Novelist Leif Enger called Madeleine “an apologist for joy,” Sarah Arthur informs the reader. A Light So Lovely aptly conveys that aspect of her.

Kindness Matters

I spent a lot of time around chickens as a youngster. My family lived on the outskirts of a small Iowa town and raised chickens for the eggs and meat. They were friendly fowl for the most part, except when we chased them around the yard for butchering or attempted to confiscate warm eggs from beneath the broody hens.

Not a big fan of my mother’s oatmeal, I’d sit on the front step of the chicken coop, holding my bowl full of the dreaded stuff, and flicking spoons of sticky oats behind my back. The sudden squawking and frantic beating of wings as the chickens scrambled for the treasured milk-sopped grain should have revealed my subterfuge, but Mom never said a word.

I’d play with fluffy yellow chicks when they escaped the confines of the pen, cupping them in my hands and letting them peck at the buttons of my shirts. I named my favorites, once befriending a chicken who let us hold and pet her. When our parents were gone to the grocery store, we’d let “Chickey” loose in the house, where she’d run straight to the living room chair and make herself at home.

Because of their close proximity, I also carry a vivid memory from a summer when the usual mild feather-pecking of my father’s flock heightened to cannibalistic proportions. I watched in horrified fascination as the laying hens circled their designated prey; one of their own. Whether one hen was more aggressive than the others wasn’t discernable, because chickens imitate each other. Soon all of them were pulling feathers and pecking until they drew blood, ultimately pecking their peer to death.

chickenDad read books about the disorder, asked questions at the feed store, and frantically tried every tactic suggested to get them to stop, to no avail. He lost several chickens before butchering the entire flock.

When I look back on the bullying I endured in elementary school, I think of those chickens. For whatever reason, I became the target of the class tyrant. Because her taunts were aimed at me, others soon joined in. She was relentless, always finding something wrong with me; my hair, my clothes, my entire existence.

When my nine siblings and I would gather at my mother’s house many years later, our reminiscing sometimes included stories of being bullied and our subsequent lack of self-esteem. My mother’s countenance would dramatically alter when our chatter veered off in that direction. With a pained look on her face, she’d insist that we were better people for having experienced the poverty that likely led to the bullying.

“You’re more empathetic, more sensitive, because of it,” she’d say. “Being poor didn’t hurt you. You all have good work ethics and know the value of a dollar.”

Being poor might not have hurt us, but the incessant bullying certainly did. You cannot be pushed, tripped, kicked, spit on, and informed daily that you are worthless, without some ill effects, no matter how wonderful your family is or how many teachers told you differently.

“Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” I was taught, but the words did hurt. At some point, I began to believe the repeated taunts; I was ugly. I smelled bad. My clothes were even uglier. I was stupid. I morphed from a happy first-grader who loved learning, to a sixth grader who navigated the school hallway with books clutched tightly to my chest. I’d scurry to my destination, shoulders hunched, head down, avoiding eye contact. I couldn’t do anything about the clothing, but by golly, I wouldn’t be stupid. I retreated into a world of books and writing. By the time I escaped the bowels of hell parochial school had become, I’d lost any semblance of self-esteem. I was fortunate to escape the bullying when I transferred to a public junior high, where the friendship of one popular girl meant an acceptance I’d never experienced in elementary school.

Yes, we are the sum of our experiences, and it could be said I was driven to prove myself as worthy because of my grade-school experience. I excelled in school; acting in plays, participating in speech contests, writing for the newspaper, and joining several clubs. I even ended up as senior class secretary. I went on to graduate from college, no mean feat for an attendee of the inaugural 1965 Head Start government program designed to offer the preschool experience to low income children.

But the fact remains that to this day, some fifty years later, a chance meeting with one of those childhood bullies can transport me right back to that awful feeling of worthlessness. I consciously steel my shoulders to prevent them from slumping, and it takes every ounce of courage to meet the eyes that once looked upon me with disdain.

As a parent, I understand the reason my mother hadn’t wanted to be reminded of the bullying that most of her children endured. There wasn’t much she could do about it, except suffer with them. Even as a child, I soon realized that. The one time I arrived home in tears, knees and palms skinned because I’d fallen as I ran from a group of boys throwing snowballs at me, her eyes betrayed her own pain as she feebly tried to convince me that boys only picked on girls they liked. I didn’t come home crying again. I couldn’t bear to see my mother’s hurt, just as she couldn’t bear to be reminded that her children had once suffered at the hands of others.

I don’t have the answer to bullying. I only know that, having experienced it, I want my corner of the world to be filled with kindness. And maybe it’s that simple; beginning in our own homes, teaching our children kindness and compassion while emulating it ourselves. Kindness might be one of the most powerful and underrated agent of social change there is.

How can one person make a difference? By keeping in mind that every human being faces their own private battle. Showing compassion and love for even the most unpleasant and disagreeable among us. Speaking up when we observe an act of meanness. Remembering that words hurt and being careful with our own. It isn’t always easy. Sometimes our kindness is rebuffed. Our intentions misread. Avoiding gossip and mean-spiritedness can be difficult in a workplace or environment that thrives upon such banter. When the desire for approval from our peers supersedes our good intentions, it can feel like a risk, but it’s one worth taking. The future of our world depends on it.

Don’t be a chicken. Always choose kindness.

 

Galatians 5:22 “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,”