Make Space to Let the Children Lead Us
I think that most Episcopalians in the Diocese of New York are aware of the long association of the writer Madeleine L’Engle with our diocesan Cathedral of St. John the Divine. For some forty years, she was the librarian of the cathedral library in Diocesan House, and after her death in 2007, the library was designated a National Literary Landmark, and there is a plaque on the wall of the building to declare it. Now, she is buried in the columbarium in the Chapel of Saint Ansgar in the cathedral, and when I am wandering or pacing in the church, thinking about the things I have to think about, I will often go into the columbarium and lay my hand on the stone behind which she and her husband rest, and marvel at the mind and spirit which touched so many young minds and spirits.
I didn’t grow up with Madeleine’s books. No one told me about her. But my wife Margaret knew. A Wrinkle in Time, and The Arm of the Starfish, and so many others of her books, were favorites of Margaret’s when she was growing up, being as they were, both written for children and at the same time so profoundly intelligent. Through imaginative stories, Madeleine introduced children, whether they were aware of it or not, both to the deep currents of the Christian faith and to the miracles and wonders of science. When Margaret and I had our own daughters, Margaret introduced them to these wonderful books on which she had been raised and watched as their minds and imaginations were so brilliantly opened, which is the power of really good books.
On the morning that Madeleine died, Don Lundquist, who was on the cathedral staff at that time, sent an email to all those of us who worked at 1047 Amsterdam Avenue, on the cathedral staff or bishop’s staff, to inform us of her passing, and attached a photograph of Madeleine, from long ago, working at her desk in the cathedral library. By then, my daughter Meghan had become the buyer of children’s books at BookPeople, an independent bookstore in Austin, Texas, so I forwarded the message and picture on to her. Within thirty minutes, Meghan had enlarged and printed the picture, and gathered all of Madeleine’s books from the shelves, and erected a commemorative display–really, a shrine—in the bookstore. You could do no less.
The ideas and stories to which we introduce our children—both our own children, if we have them, and the children in our congregations—will shape them and move them and teach them what to care about and what not to care about. If those ideas and stories are smart and sacred and funny and moving and troubling and challenging, our children will become smart and sacred and funny and moving and troubling and challenging, too. They will grow up to become interesting people we will want to know. And then they will teach their children too, and this is how the world goes on and remains more and more a place worth the trouble.
I think that the longer we live the harder it is to remember what our minds were like when we were children, or how we thought about the things we thought about. We will certainly remember things we did and things which were done to us or for us. But any remembrance of the desires and hopes and fears and confusions of our own childhoods will necessarily be now so encumbered by our growing up, that it may be impossible for us to see again, even in glimpses, through our own younger eyes and with our own younger spirits. And this is a terrible loss. I look through old drawers and find the shells and rocks and bones and pinecones and feathers, and also the bottle caps and random nuts and bolts and discarded shards of colored glass, that I picked up and carried home in my pockets when I was little and wonder now what talismans these things had been for me. I take up children’s books I read sixty years ago and try to read them again, but the thread that tied me to these stories has been broken.
So, thanks be to God for those few, like Madeleine L’Engle, who never forgot, and who could write to and for children in their very best selves. And who shows us, when we re-read her books, the magic and mystery and wonder, and the possibility of the impossible, and “the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen,” that make up the fabric of children’s spirituality. C.S. Lewis could write about the other, amazing world behind the back of the closet—which children always suspected was there anyway—and take them there, to the land of Narnia and Aslan the Lion, and talk to them of God in language they already instinctively knew and then bring them back different and better. The Harry Potter books unfold a world in which magic is real and anything can happen at any time, and the world is both wonderful and tragic, very good but sometimes evil, and that is part of childhood too, and it is how children come to the stories of the Bible.
I think that it is precisely this capacity for amazement, and longing for adventure, and desire to see the never-before-seen and yearning to do the never-before-done, and also the broken-heartedness and the fears, and the wide, shining eyes of laughter and sorrow, which are already present in every kid—these are their spiritual riches. And I think it is our call and responsibility as Christian educators to make a space in the thicket of the world and let them lead us there, where the Holy Spirit may come and be among us to gather all that up and slowly reveal to all the little ones the Christ they already incredibly, wonderfully intuit. And walk alongside them forever.