L’Engle on the illusion of control

Here’s another excerpt from Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art that struck me as worth posting and talking about. It’s from the essay titled “The Journey Homeward”:

When the priests came out of the sanctuary, the cloud filled the temple of the Lord, and the priests could not bear to minister because of the cloud for the glory of the Creator of the Galaxies had filled the house of the Lord.

When did we last see that light in the sanctuary of one of our churches, no matter what denomination or affiliation? Perhaps it is there, but we may not recognize it because we are afraid of it. We have become so bound by the restrictions of the choices made over the past centuries that we cannot see it. We are afraid of that which we cannot control; so we continue to draw in the boundaries around us, to limit ourselves to what we can know and understand. Thus we lose our human calling, because we do not dare to be creators, co-creators with God.

Artists have always been drawn to the wild, wide elements they cannot control or understand — the sea, mountains, fire. To be an artist means to approach the light, and that means to let go our control, to allow our whole selves to be placed with absolute faith in that which is greater than we are. The novel we site down to write, and the one we end up writing may be very different, just as the Jesus we grasp and the Jesus who grasps us may also differ.

We live under the illusion that if we can acquire complete control, we can understand God, or we can write the great American novel. But the only way we can brush against the hem of the Lord, or hope to be part of the creative process, is to have the courage, the faith, to abandon control.

For the opposite of sin is faith, and never virtue, and we live in a world which believes that self-control can make us virtuous. But that’s not how it works. How many men and women we have encountered, of great personal virtue and moral rectitude, convinced of their own righteousness, who have also been totally insensitive to the needs of others, and sometimes downright cruel! (160-161)

I need to add some follow-up here: in other sections L’Engle emphasizes that the artist also needs to exercise his or her will appropriately, to not abuse the gifts she or he has received. And note that the abandoning control is in the context of our relationship to God — not simply a hedonistic liberation. Notice too, how the light we should see is in the sanctuary, it flows from the glory of God. Obviously, that should have special resonance for artists associated with a temple-building (and, hopefully going) people.

For more, see my previous post: L’Engle on icons of naming.

9 thoughts on “L’Engle on the illusion of control”

  1. This is one of my favorite passages from the book; in particular “For the opposite of sin is faith, and never virtue….”

    Th: maybe artists were one of the types of people Joel saw when he wrote “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions….”

  2. I like this, though I think it’s important not to believe that this is necessarily an experience that is unique to artists.

    What L’Engle is describing here, I think, is grappling with the stuff of Reality (with a capital R)–which is also something that other callings in life may, and perhaps all should, involve. I have long thought that talents represent areas where the veil between our mortal selves and our divine potential is thinner than elsewhere, so that it allows us to have a particular kind of experience that we could not have otherwise, as we struggle to bring the best of ourselves to the altar while at the same time grappling as Jacob did with the things of God. I don’t think it matters so much to God what the arena is where this kind of experience happens–science, art, farming, cooking, teaching–but rather that it DOES happen.

    One thing I can think of that makes this different for artists than for, say, scientists is that because art is supposedly an invented thing, we may have the illusion that art is and can be entirely under our control. We are thus perhaps particularly subject to the sin of Babel–of trying to rival heaven. Of course, it is also our calling (as L’Engle points out) to imitate heaven in a perhaps more obvious way than many other types of work. (This is the basic paradox for the Christian writer: that in imitating God, our work is by definition both praise and blasphemy.)

  3. .

    Luisa: I think this should prove a natural side effect of art from Saints.

    Jonathan: If reality is rated R, I want no part of it.

    But I will say that I think all tasks can be art and if art is creation then in all actions in all fields we have the potential to become more like our Father.

  4. Funny, I think I was just thinking about this faith as surrending of control business.

    Artists have always been drawn to the wild, wide elements they cannot control or understand — the sea, mountains, fire. To be an artist means to approach the light, and that means to let go our control, to allow our whole selves to be placed with absolute faith in that which is greater than we are. The novel we site down to write, and the one we end up writing may be very different, just as the Jesus we grasp and the Jesus who grasps us may also differ.

    … And this is why art as self-expression is art of a lesser light.

  5. “And this is why art as self-expression is art of a lesser light.”

    This is a realization I’ve fully come to recently. Maybe it’s passing the half-century mark, but I find I’m tired of angst and self-revelation. What I want to do is to tell an entertaining story, and better it be trashy than chock full of “meaning.”

    This is what I think McKee is getting at: don’t think that your “meaning” is so grand that you can dispense with story. The story is in control, not your deep thoughts, and you must always be prepared to move your ego out of the way and let it through.

  6. “Jonathan: If reality is rated R, I want no part of it.”

    Here’s a couple (non-sequential) panels from one of my DC Comics stories that sums up my feelings on the matter of ‘art’ vs. ‘reality’. (The white-haired gentleman is Alfred, Batman’s butler, btw.)

    — Lee

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