I saw Madeleine L’Engle speak at my seminary. She was one of my heroes. I love her writing, both for children and for adults, and I think Walking on Water is the best expression of the intersection between faith and art that I have ever read. She is in my canon with C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Henri Nouwen, and Frederich Buechner.
Her address challenged many of us. She talked about Jesus the Peacemaker and how we need to be Peacemakers with him. She challenged us to use our knowledge to help people to see this Jesus. I remember that some of her statements likely ruffled feathers and maybe even crossed some people’s lines of how they understood orthodoxy.
Afterward, the seminary held a reception for her. I was in my late twenties, struggling through my peculiar mixture of giftedness and brokenness. I had loved her writing since fourth grade, when I read A Wrinkle in Time and she ripped open my longing for other worlds and magical beings that aren’t magical but supernatural. We all had punch and cake and we got to mill about, chatting with one another over what she had said to us, while Ms. L’Engle sat right in the middle and talked to people. I walked toward her, grappling with my insecurities, knowing I would look stupid if I tried to say anything and feel stupid and regretful if I didn’t.
She wasn’t really talking to anyone else when I approached, just greeting people as they paid their respects. I sidled over and looked out of the corner of my eye but couldn’t make myself go up to her. Then a woman came over whom Ms. L’engle greeted as an old friend.
“I brought the pictures of the quilts,” the woman declared.
“Oh, good,” my hero responded, sounding excited.
Her friend proceeded to turn through a photo album, very slowly, describing each quilt in what sounded to me to be exhaustive detail. I stood there for perhaps ten minutes, willing this woman to go away, praying for her to stop talking about her stinking quilts so that I could muster my courage and give Madeleine L’Engle my regards, my homage, some expression of how much her writing had inspired me and how her life continued to challenge me. But they went on talking about quilts: trivial, superfluous, immaterial compared with the matters of which Ms. L’Engle had just spoken, and about which I was studying in seminary. We were learning about God’s Word and how to impact the World, and I wanted to talk to my hero about these things. I wanted to tell her that I, too, longed to be a writer, which was probably the most terrifying thing of all. Certainly, aspiring writers and sycophants must have said this to her constantly, and it sounded both clichéd and absurd (I hadn’t published anything); nevertheless, I felt it would somehow force me to push forward and validate my claim if I could speak these words aloud to her. To Madeleine L’Engle!
But she kept talking about quilts. The longer I stood there, the more ridiculous and pathetic I felt, until finally I left, mentally scourging myself with every step. But I didn’t solely blame myself. I reviled this other, overly talkative woman, hogging my chance to meet Madeleine with her bloody quilts. Who cares about quilts?
Madeleine L’Engle cared about quilts.
This woman whom I beatified, though I didn’t know anything about her beyond her writing, enjoyed seeing these pictures of quilts. I didn’t miss my one opportunity to speak to her because of quilts; I missed it because I felt insecure, which caused me too much discomfort, so I hid behind anger and directed that anger at quilts.
I later wrote her a letter of admiration that I never sent. Then, several years back, I read about her death.
I wish I had spoken to her, but really, I couldn’t. I couldn’t speak to her because, with all I was learning about hermeneutics and narrative criticism and Greek syntax, and in spite of her challenge to be a Peacemaker, I had not yet found my own peace and I failed to apply “love your neighbor as yourself.” I failed to respect that my neighbor might have different interests than mine. I missed that, legitimately, she might be a different person than I had projected; she might be a different person than me.