In this book for the curious, spiritual seeker, Madeleine L'Engle offers relevant lessons drawn from the life of Jacob from the Old Testament. Here, the son of Isaac becomes a spiritual companion to L'Engle, equipping her to deal with earthly and psychological struggles. Throughout her journey, L'Engle offers contemporary answers to questions that burden modern day readers and believers.
With her customary fearlessness and candor, she broaches such topics as the significance of angels, redemption, sexual identity, forgiveness, and the seemingly constant conflict between good and evil.
Madeleine L'Engle possesses the same ambidextrous skill of storytelling as other literary giants, including C. S. Lewis and George MacDonald. Her fictional stories appeal to generations of readers, and are equally embraced in both the secular and religious markets. But, it is her ability in her nonfiction to engage with the historical text of the Bible through a dynamic unpacking of protagonists, antagonists, and matters of faith that establishes the Genesis Trilogy as a highly treasured collection of spiritual writings. A Stone for a Pillow acts as a compass for those traveling through the tumultuous landscape of faith in our cynical and divisive modern culture.
About the Author
Ms. L'Engle was born in 1918 in New York City. She wrote her first book, The Small Rain, while touring with Eva Le Gallienne in Uncle Harry. She met Hugh Franklin, to whom she was married until his death in 1986, while they were rehearsing The Cherry Orchard, and they were married on tour during a run of The Joyous Season, starring Ethel Barrymore.
Ms. L'Engle retired from the stage after her marriage, and the Franklins moved to northwest Connecticut and opened a general store. After a decade in Connecticut, the family returned to New York.
After splitting her time between New York City and Connecticut and acting as the librarian and writer-in-residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Madeleine L’Engle died on September 7, 2007 at the age of 88.
Date of Birth:January 12, 1918
Date of Death:September 6, 2007
Place of Birth:New York, NY
Place of Death:Litchfield, CT
Education:Smith College, 1941
Read an Excerpt
Separation from the Stars
In the late afternoon, when the long December night had already darkened the skies, we opened Christmas cards, taking turns, reading the messages, enjoying this once-a-year being in touch with far-flung friends. There, incongruously lying among the Christmas greetings, was an official-looking envelope addressed to me, with Clerk of Court, New York County, in the upper left-hand corner. A call to jury duty. Manhattan does not give its prospective jurors much notice. My call was for the first week in January. To the notice inside had been added the words, Must Serve.
It wasn’t the first time that my call had read Must Serve. A few months earlier I had written from Minnesota to the Clerk of Court, New York County, explaining that I was not trying to avoid jury duty, that I had previously served on a panel under a fine woman judge, and that I was ready and willing to serve again. But I pointed out, as I had already done several times before, that I do a good bit of lecturing which takes me far from New York, and I gave the Clerk of Court several dates when I would be available, sighing internally because bureaucracy never called me on the weeks that I offered.
This time they did.
So I relaxed and enjoyed Christmas in the country, at Crosswicks, bitter cold outside, warmth of firelight and candlelight within, and laughter and conversation and the delectable smells of roasting and baking. One of the highlights came on Christmas Day itself, with the mercury falling far below zero, when my husband went out into the winter garden and picked Brussels sprouts, commenting as he brought them in triumphantly, “Mr. Birdseye never froze them like this,” and we had Brussels sprouts out of our own garden with Christmas dinner.
And then, before Twelfth-night, I was back in New York again, taking the subway downtown to the criminal court to which I had been assigned. I took plenty of work with me, because I had been told that lawyers do not like writers. But just as had happened on my previous jury duty, I got chosen as a juror on the second day. The case was an ugly one, involving assault in the second degree, which means possession of a dangerous weapon, with intent to cause injury or death.
Two men were sitting in the courtroom as defendants. They looked at the twelve of us who had been told to stay in our seats in the jury box--looked at us with cold eyes, with arrogance, even with contempt. Later, as we jurors got to know each other, we admitted that we were afraid of them. And yet, according to our judicial system, we had been put in the position of having to decide whether or not, according to the law, these men were guilty as charged.
I was fortunate to serve again under a highly intelligent woman judge, who warned us that we must set aside our emotions. What we felt about the defendants should not enter into our deliberations. We should not form any preconceived opinions. “And remember,” she told us, “these two men and their lawyers do not have to prove to you that they are innocent. They do not have to appear on the witness stand. The burden of proof is on the assistant district attorney. The American way is that these two men are innocent, unless it can be proved, beyond a reasonable doubt, that they are guilty. This is the American way.” She also pointed out that this assumption of innocence unless guilt can be proven is not the way of the rest of the world, of countries behind the Iron Curtain or in much of South America, where the assumption is that you are guilty unless, somehow or other, by persuasion or bribe, you can prove your innocence.
When I was called for jury duty, I knew that I would be taking two long subway rides each day, and riding the subway in Manhattan is nothing one does for pleasure. So I picked up a small book from one of my piles of Books to Be Read Immediately. Why did I pick this book at this particular time? I don’t know. But I have found that often I will happen on a book just at the time when I most need to hear what it has to say.
This book couldn’t have been more apt. It was Revelation and Truth, by Nicholas Berdyaev. I didn’t do much reading the first day because I was sent from court to court, but once I was on a jury and had long periods of time in the jury room, I opened the book, surrounded by my fellow jurors who were reading, chatting, doing needlework or crossword puzzles. There couldn’t have been a better place than a criminal court in which to read Berdyaev’s words telling me that one of the gravest problems in the Western world today is that we have taken a forensic view of God.
Forensic: to do with crime. I first came across the word in an English murder mystery. Forensic medicine is medicine having to do with crime. The coroner needs to find out if the victim has been shot, stabbed, or poisoned. Was the crime accidental, self-inflicted, murder? Criminal medicine.
And there I was, in a criminal court, being warned by a Russian theologian that God is not like a judge sentencing a criminal. Yet far too often we view God as an angry judge who assumes that we are guilty unless we can placate divine ire and establish our innocence. This concept seemed especially ironic after the judge’s warning that this is not the American way of justice.
How did the Western world fall into such a gloomy and unscriptural misapprehension? Only a few weeks earlier I had participated in a teenage TV show on the topic of religion. When the master of ceremonies asked the group of twenty or so bright high school students on the panel what they thought God looks like, I was horrified to hear them describe a furious old Zeus-figure with a lightning bolt in his hand. A forensic god.
Would this angry god, out to zotz us, have cared enough about us to come to us as Jesus of Nazareth, as a human, vulnerable baby? Or was it anger and not love at all that was behind the Incarnation, as a forensic view would imply? Did Jesus have to come and get crucified, because only if he died in agony could this bad-tempered father forgive his other children?
We got into a good discussion, then. The teenagers did not really like their cartoon god. They were ready and willing to hear another point of view. We talked about astrophysics and particle physics and the interdependence of all of Creation. But I suspect there may have been in their minds a lingering shadow of God as a cold and unforgiving judge--not a judge who believes in the American way, but one who assumes our guilt.
But no, Berdyaev states emphatically, no, that is not God, not the God of Scripture who over and over again shows love for us imperfect creatures, who does not demand that we be good or virtuous before we can be loved. When we stray from God, it is not God’s pleasure to punish us. It is God’s pleasure to welcome us back, and then throw a party in celebration of our homecoming.
In Hosea, God says,
“All my compassion is aroused.
I will not carry out my fierce anger,
I will not destroy Ephraim again,
for I am God, not man:
I am the Holy One in your midst,
and have no wish to destroy.”
The nature of God does not fluctuate. The One who made us is still the Creator, the Rejoicer, the Celebrator, who looks at what has been made, and calls it good.
After the guard summoned us from the jury room to the court room, I sat in the jury box and looked at those two men who were there because they were destroyers rather than creators. They had used sharp knives, destructively; their intention had been to injure, or kill. I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to be at the same celebration with them. They both had long hair, one head dark and greasy, the other brown and lank. They looked as though they had strayed out of the sixties, hippies who had grown chronologically, but not in any other way. It was difficult to abide by the judge’s warning and not form any opinion of them until all the evidence was in.
That evening I was tired, mentally as well as physically. I bathed, then sat in my quiet corner to read Evening Prayer. For the Old Testament lesson I was reading the extraordinary story of Jacob’s ladder of angels ascending and descending, linking earth and heaven, the Creation and the Creator, in glorious interdependence. The story of Jacob is not a story that can be interpreted forensically. It is not a tale of crime and corresponding punishment. Jacob is anything but a moral or virtuous character. He is a liar and a cheat. Heavenly visions do not transform his conniving nature. The story of Jacob is unfair. He didn’t get his just desserts. But do not turn to Scripture if you are looking for fairness!
When Jacob saw the ladder of angels he was fleeing Esau’s legitimate outrage. He was afraid of his brother, and of God; that is, his father’s and his grandfather’s God. He had not yet made the decision to accept their God as his own.
But God stood above the ladder of angels, and said:
“I am the Lord God of Abraham, your father, and the God of Isaac: the land that you are lying on, to you I will give it, and to your seed. And your seed shall be as the dust of the earth. . . . And behold, I am with you, and will keep you in all the places where you go, and will bring you again to this land, for I will not leave you, until I have done that which I have said.”
And Jacob woke out of his sleep, and he said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I knew it not.” And he was afraid, and said, “How dreadful is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
For Jacob the house of God was not a building, not an enclosure, but an open place with earth for the floor, heaven for the roof. It would be several generations before the ark of God was built. For the early people of El Shaddai, the All Mighty One, any place where God spoke to them became the house of God.
So Jacob took the desert stone he had used for a pillow, and upon which he had dreamed the angelic dream, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it. Oil--precious, sacramental. Today we can buy oils of all kinds, bath oil, olive oil, virgin oil, saturated and unsaturated oil. But to Jacob and his tribe, any oil was precious enough to make a significant sacrifice to El Shaddai and that sense of oil as sacramental and significant is retained today in my church as the healing oils are blessed each year.
Jacob called the place where he had set up the pillow-altar Beth‑el--the house of God. Seekers and followers have sensed the Presence ever since, in circumstances that were often far from comfortable, as Luci Shaw suggests in her poem “Disciple” based on Luke 9:57–58:
Foxes lope home at dusk, each
to his sure burrow. Every bird
flies the twilight
to her down-lined nest.
Yet come with me to learn
a stern new comfort: the earth’s
bed, me on guard at your side,
and, like pilgrim Jacob,
a stone for a pillow.
A stone for a pillow. It sounds odd to us, until we remember that very few people on this planet go to bed at night on soft pillows. In Japan the headrest is often made of wood. In some countries it is simply the ground. I’ve tried a stone, not in bed, but late on a hot afternoon, when I call the dogs, and walk across the fields to the woods. Placed under the neck in just the right way, a stone can help me relax after a morning of typing--though I wouldn’t want it for a whole night. But for a time to rest, to think, to let go and be, a warm, rounded stone can be a good pillow, reminding me that I am indeed in the house of God, that wherever I call upon my maker is always God’s house.
When I was writing And It Was Good, reflections on the first chapters of Genesis, I found it helpful, when talking about the Creator, to use el (the first name by which the ancient Hebrew called God), rather than the personal pronoun, she/he, him/her. I still find it helpful when thinking about the Maker of All Things. The personal pronoun was not a problem when it referred to the entirety of the human being, but we are presently living in a genitally-oriented culture, and I do not find it comfortable to limit God to the current sexual connotations and restrictions of the personal pronoun. Calling God She is just as sexist and limiting as calling God He.
It is fascinating that the conflict over God’s sexuality comes at a time when pornography and sexual license are rampant. Even small cities have their massage parlors and “adult” bookstores. This emphasis on the male and female genitals seems to be everywhere, even in our vision of the Creator.
Of course God is mother, nurturer, generator, as well as father, ruler, lawmaker. But when we pound away with a sledgehammer at God’s sexuality (Ouch! but that is the image that comes to mind) we are seeing a God even more anthropomorphic than the God of the patriarchs.
In a universe which is becoming more and more varied as we discover more of the glories of the macrocosm and the infinite variety of the microcosm (are stars confined by gender? or quarks?), this preoccupation with God’s sex seems amazingly primitive. But then, I suspect that we are still a pretty primitive people.
For all our mechanical and electronic sophistication, our thinking about ourselves and our maker is often unimaginative, egocentric, and childish. We need to do a great deal of growing up in order to reach out and adore a God who loves all of us with unqualified love.
But all those thousands of years ago when our forbears lived in the desert of an underpopulated and largely unexplored planet, the God of Jacob was definitely a masculine God, the Father God of the Patriarchs. So, when I am within Jacob’s frame of reference, I’ll return, for his story, to the masculine pronoun. But when I am lying on the rock in the late afternoon I am not in Jacob’s time, or indeed not in any chronologic time at all, but in kairos, God’s time, which touches on eternity.
Table of Contents
Foreword Rachel Held Evans vii
1 Separation from the Stars 1
2 The Butterfly Effect 21
3 Let the Floods Clap their Hands 40
4 What are You Looking For? 60
5 Rooted in Cosmos 76
6 Angel Unaware 91
7 Bless the Bastard 104
8 A Sense of Wonder 129
9 Breaking the Taboo 143
10 Let the Baboons Clap their Hands 162
11 Redeeming the Symbols 183
12 Echthroi and Angels 216
Reader's Guide Lindsay Lackey 251