The Red Couch: The Irrational Season Discussion

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To learn more about The Irrational Season, please read the introductory post. Be sure to peruse The Nightstand in that post, which has resources for those wanting to learn more about the topic and themes of this month’s selection.

I didn’t know when that first book by Madeleine L’Engle was placed in my hands at the age of 23 it would be the start of a lifelong obsession with a prolific literary sage of spiritual creativity.

The woman that handed me that book was to become my mentor and spiritual Mother. She gave me Walking On Water: Reflections on Faith & Art. To say those words were life-changing for me would not be an exaggeration in the least. Reading that glorious book led me next to Madeleine’s set of Crosswicks Journals, and with that, my love of spiritual memoir was born. 
 
I carried my dog-eared L’Engle titles with me on the touring buses of various musicals and backstage in countless theaters and dressing rooms. When I moved from state to state, her books were the first ones I packed into moving boxes. When I lived and worked in New York City, the Crosswicks Journals were tucked into my purse like a field guide from the past. 
 
This year, when it came time for the Red Couch team to help select the books for 2016, I hastily chimed in with my favorite L’Engle titles.  
At the top of the list was The Irrational Season.  Framing the book around the arc of the liturgical calendar year, Madeleine guides us through the seasons by sharing the moments of her daily life, along with her musings and questions that are rich with wisdom and reflection—all shared through lush and dense prose. I love the reminder that “there is no better way to search for the truth of history than to look in poetry and story.” (p. 30.)   
 
One of the joys of this particular Crosswicks volume is the spontaneous and frequent offerings of L’Engle’s poetry.
 
This is the irrational season
When love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason
There’d have been no room for the child. (p. 27)
 
As I read this book, I was struck by the timeless nature of L’Engle’s writing. The Irrational Season was first published in 1977, yet her words speak to both my own personal circumstances and the world at large, as if she penned them last week.
 
Madeleine seems to leave no subject unturned or off limits. In the span of one chapter, she schooled me in topics from suffering to the church—even theological questions based in science and higher Math as it relates to her faith. A few paragraphs later, she espoused the joy and agony of the writing process, then brought me back to my fundamental beliefs that my art and my faith are indelibly intertwined: “Art is for me the great integrater, and I understand Christianity as I understand art.” (p.21.)
 
I read paragraphs like the one below and feel such a kinship with her across time and space, realizing my own questions and musings have meaning:
 
“When I think of the incredible, incomprehensible sweep of creation above me, I have the strange reaction of feeling fully alive. Rather than feeling lost and unimportant and meaningless, set against galaxies which go beyond the reach of the furthest telescopes, I feel that my life has meaning. Perhaps I should feel insignificant, but instead I feel a soaring in my hearth that the God who could create all this—and out of nothing—can still count the hairs of my head.” (p.11.)
 
During Lent in 2015, I decided to read each chapter dedicated to a particular time in the liturgical calendar in that corresponding season.  {i.e. Lent in Lent, Easter, Advent, etc.}
 
Discovering L’Engle’s words afresh were pure gift for me in this year that has held numerous challenges, unexpected heartbreak, and a waiting season such as I have never experienced. 
 
It was Advent when I first sat down to write this post. Not only was I waiting for the “symbolic” moment to celebrate Christ’s birth, I’ve been sitting in a season of barrenness. Walking through months of infertility resulted in learning the news that I should never carry a child because of a rare blood disorder. Unreturned phone call after phone call to adoption agencies yielded little or no response. Multiple auditions at various theaters only resulted in rejection and continued unemployment.
Madeleine reminds me throughout this book of the unchangeable fact that God sometimes does his best work in me through these types of painful seasons.
 
 
“I am forced to accept that my best work has been born from pain; I am forced to see that my own continuing development involves pain. It is pain and weakness and constant failures which keep me from pride and help me to grow. The power of God is to be found in weakness, but it is God’s power.” (p. 34.)
 
An Irrational Season, indeed.
 
By the time you read these words, we will have moved into the season of Epiphany. Even the word itself glitters and shimmers with promise. I am grateful to be reminded by Madeleine that “a new year can begin only because the old year ends.” (p. 2.) No matter what fate has befallen me in the previous year, January always spreads out wide and open before me with no mistakes, and I believe that this time, this year, I can move closer, in all of it—the relationships, the artistry, the writing, the living—to deeper meaning and healing.  
 
Madeleine reminds me to take my focus off of perfection and striving, and rest as I nestle into the hands of my beloved, my community and ultimately, my Maker and Creator.
 
EPIPHANY  
Unclench your fists
Hold our your hands.
Take mine.
Let us hold each other.
Thus is his Glory 
Manifest. (p. 39)
 
>>>>>>>>>>>>

Questions to Consider/For Reflection:

 **What aspects of this book resonated most deeply with you and why?
 
**One of the subjects Madeleine broached in this book is her writing process. If you are a writer, how did her words affect you?  Did they resonate? Did they help you figure out something specific and new about your writing process?

**Were you raised in a tradition where the liturgical calendar was used? Whether you answered yes or no, did this book help you understand the church calendar in a deeper way?

**So much of The Irrational Season is filled with stories of relationships in Madeleine’s life.  How do your own personal relationships draw you closer or farther from your walk with God?

REMINDER:

Our March book is Between The World And Me by Ta-Nahesi Coates. Come back Wednesday March 2 for the introduction to this important book. The discussion post will be up Wednesday March 23.  As a reminder, there will not be a formal book discussion in February but we do have something special up our sleeves. You won’t want to miss out! Details coming soon in the Red Couch Facebook group.

Disclosure: Amazon Affiliate links included in this post.  If you click through to Amazon, any purchase you make supports this site.

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Sarah Caldwell
Sarah Caldwell is the Chief Creative Curator at All Manner of Inspiration, where she gathers everyday inspiration and encourages artists of all makes and models. A musical theatre performer and book lover, Sarah aspires to shed a bright light on the Creative Process that draws others to see their dreams more clearly. When she’s not auditioning, performing, or blogging, Sarah is seeking out ‘the perfect pen’, reading an ever-growing stack of books, and spending time with her friends and family. She’s currently chasing the next inspirational spark and her sweet pup Daphne in the heart of Fort Worth, Texas with her husband Frank.
Sarah Caldwell
Sarah Caldwell

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  • Sarah, thank you for initiating the choice of this wonderful book!
    Maybe it was because I did most of my reading of The Irrational Season during Advent, but the theme of Incarnation stood out to me. For Madeleine, incarnation is not some weighty doctrine, but is visible in everyday life and, as a lover of words, she seemed almost giddy about the truth of Word becoming flesh. Somehow she managed to be quirky and orthodox at the same time.
    She shared wisdom about her writing process in so many of her books. Even in her fiction, many of her protagonists are creative types and she shares in detail the importance of practicing. Writing every day is likened to finger exercises for pianists, and she describes this so viscerally that I wish I played the piano! Her writing process had that same diligent attention to the fundamentals. Write every day. Read broadly. Keep your vocabulary alive — this she certainly did! Her writing is always a source of juicy words that you find nowhere else! Anamnesis! Pusillanimous! Eschaton!
    I find Madeleine’s references to family to be inspiring — and also sad. She experienced so much heartache in her growing up years, and yet she let none of it go to waste, and I am taught by this.
    A final thought about Madeleine’s writing process: she said that she had been a writer since she was five, and that she would always be a writer whether anyone published her work or not. This was a huge influence during the years in which the only writing I ever did was birthday scavenger hunts and baby book documentation.
    Again — thanks, Sarah!

    • Thanks so much Michele for your thoughtful insights into this read! I also LOVE Madeleine’s words about Incarnation. I find that seems to me to be a theme in her work–she also addresses Incarnation beautifully in some of her other books, including specifically, Bright Evening Star: Mystery of the Incarnation, The Rock That is Highter, and her book in conjunction with Luci Shaw – WinterSong. (A Christmas reader composed of selections from both her books and stand alone articles). I think quirky and orthodox is a PERFECT descriptor! 🙂 And Yes! I underlined some of those same words! (Anamnesis!). She was the first writer I ever encountered who used the word and the concept of Kairos—love. 🙂

      I understand her heartache in family issues, but I love that she presented both the good and the bad as well. She is a good teacher in writing what you know and what you live.

      If you want to read more about her writing process, there’s a great reader out there that includes a lot of her writing on writing from her other books in one place: Madeleine L’Engle Herself: Reflections On A Writing LIfe. I think its out of print, but you can find used copies at reasonable prices on Amazon. As a musical theatre performer, I love to apply her thoughts and concepts on writing to my creative process as an actor and singer.

      Do you have favorite passages of Irrational Season? Thanks so much for reading and discussing L’Engle’s work – so glad you enjoyed it! 🙂

      • Favorite passages — so many! I have dog-eared the pages to death. I think my favorite chapter was Lion and Lamb because I’m just coming out of a season of teaching the Beatitudes. Her randomness was distracting at times, but when she says things like, “It is only when the lion has me in his jaws that I am shaken into the courage to be meek,” she has my undivided attention!
        My favorite thing about Madeleine’s writing is her acknowledgement that this life of believingly following Christ is no walk in the park: “The world is difficult enough with God: without Him it is a hideous joke.” In spite of her realism, she still manages to speak from a place of optimism. (Something I need to work on.)

        • I really liked the Lion & Lamb chapter as well. I love that sentence you shared–it makes me want to go back to that passage and read it again! 🙂 This volume of the Crosswicks really did feel more ‘rambling’ than her others – would love to hear what you think of ‘A Circle of Quiet’ or ‘Two Part Invention’. So glad you enjoyed the book!!

          • The book that I need to go back to is The Summer of the Great Grandmother. Six months ago my mother had to leave our home (after five years with us) and go into a care facility. I can’t quite bring myself to read it yet, but it’s on my mental list that Madeleine’s words might be helpful with this transition.

  • So… I’m having a bit of trouble getting into this book…!! I do love L’Engle’s words and I am inspired by her but for whatever reason this sits on the coffee table. I’ll read a page or two here and there, but it’s slow going. And, maybe that’s ok. Maybe this isn’t meant to be read in a month.

    I wasn’t raised liturgical but did go to an Anglican church in college. I love parts of the tradition but hold them loosely – sometimes Lent looks like adding; sometimes it looks like giving something up; sometimes it looks like recognizing it but realizing that it’s not possible to tangibly do something… Same with Advent, etc. I take each season year-by-year and tweak for where our family is in the moment.

    Thanks so much for these thoughtful words – and the inspiration to keep going. I do love what I read and you’ve reminded me that it’s ok to slow down and savor a book.

    • Annie – thank you for these thoughts and your kind words. I FULLY understand not getting into this book of L’Engle’s right away–I almost wrote in this post that I continually abandoned this volume of the Crosswicks journals multiple times, before picking it back up during Lent last year, and finding myself drawn into the rhythm of the liturgical calendar/feel/structure of the book. I also was not raised in a liturgical tradition at all (hello Southern Baptists and earnest evangelicalism), so I too have come late to full appreciation of the liturgical calendar. I feel like a lot of women these days, who are coming back to and embracing the liturgical seasons as a personal and contemplative way to meet with God in a more tangible way. I think reading small portions of this book at one time might be the perfect way to read it. I find there is so much to think about in the dense prose, that I focus on the concepts and ideas she presents much more in that way.

      I love your words about Lent, and I wholeheartedly agree. I love that you look at each individual season as it is, and meet it with what is in your life at that time. Interesting that you mention Lent–the passage that drew me back into the book was the beginning of the Chapter she wrote during Lent. (Chapter 5, The Lion & the Lamb). I resonated with her thoughts:

      “I used to make up lists as Lent approached, lists of small things to give up. But then it occurred to me that if what I was giving up was something bad, it should be given up once and for all, and just for 40 days and 40 nights. There is a value to giving up something which is in itself good, as an offering of love. But now I feel that I want to do something positive, rather than something negative, for these wintry weeks…” (p.56)

      Maybe reading parts of the book in their particular liturgical season might help you connect a bit more readily? Whether or not that works for you, I think savoring a good read is the BEST kind of reading. Blessings, Annie! 🙂

  • It’s hard to pick one thing to discuss because, like you said, L’engle discusses so many topics in this book. Sometimes it felt all over the place but there were so many good nuggets of depth in it that it was worth it. “Whispers” was my favorite chapter – both in her discussion about the Spirit’s role in creation and in her description of loving individuals and not causes. That was really challenging as a writer who writes about causes and challenges people to get involved. It reminded me that one person’s story is what matters and loving one person well is enough. I did love the liturgical aspects as I am not a member of the liturgical church but it is something I am discovering in my own spiritual life this year. It feels like it is just everywhere I turn and I loved the way that we see a life oriented wholly around the life of Christ.

  • Deborah Beddoe

    I just happened upon your post today and am so delighted to see you chose The Irrational Season. (I pulled it off my shelf and remembered I had stopped at chapter 5 last January, saving the rest for Lent! So thanks to you, this year I will remember to finish the book in the season!)
    I’m so grateful to have picked up Madeleine L’Engle’s nonfiction when I did.( Just a few years back when I turned 40.) I savor them and read them slowly because I feel like she understands me: a writer, a mother, a wife. Also, I grew up conservative Baptist, so the high church elements of L’Engle’s works are new and refreshing to me.
    A few favorite portions from the first four chapters (and all her nonfiction) are the bits she throws in about her daily habits. But the last part of chapter four is probably my favorite.
    I have the same edition as in the picture, so it’s p. 54-55, about the difficulties in marriage and how long marriage does not mean easy marriage. The part I love and wrote many pages in my journal about begins “No long-term marriage is made easily, and there have been times when I’ve been so angry or so hurt that I thought my love would never recover.” And ends with this life-giving statement: “The best I can ask for is that this love, which has been built on countless failures, will continue to grow. I can say no more than that this is mystery, and gift, and that somehow or other, through grace, our failures can be redeemed and blessed.” Wow.
    My husband and I have been married 24 years, 15 of which were hard, hard labor and the sort of dysfunction that only the family of an addict can know. Our children are now half grown and grown and we can’t go back and fix the nasty patches of their childhood, but we are seeing God’s grace mend hearts and redeem the failures in amazing ways.
    Thank you again for posting about this book. Full of glee that chapter 5 literally begins: Lent. Timing!!

    • Also coming from a “baptistic” tradition, and utterly dumbfounded that I didn’t get anything about the liturgical calendar until I started reading more broadly . . . maybe in my thirties when my kids were small. So glad to have learned from writers like Madeleine, because it has enhanced our families’ celebration of holidays. It’s fantastic that her writing is helpful on that level, and also where we live life in the gritty every-day of patching up mangled relationships and trying to live above our own brokenness.

    • Yes! I loved the chapter on marriage as well – I highlighted so many passages. I didn’t elaborate on it in my post, but I picked ‘Irrational Season’ back up during Lent last year, and that chapter really resonated with me! I’m so glad you found it at the perfect time too – Happy Reading!

  • I feel a little like a bull in a china shop with this one… I’m just not going to make it through the Irrational Season. ( For one thing, it is an inter-library loan and due tomorrow though I’m only 2/3 through. ) But more than that, M.L’Engle’s ramblings through theology are driving me crazy. I have not read any other of her works in this series. I would likely love to read her if she stuck with her area of expertise–writing advice. But because she handles so loosely and subjectively matters of revealed Truth, I just can’t get through it. She admits to being more intuitive than intellectual; I am quite the opposite, a student of theology, a conservative evangelical, a lover of truth as revealed in God’s Word… Our views are at odds in so many particulars which are of so much importance to me–the substitutionary atonement and universalism for starters–that it is hard for me to trust her impressions and wisdom in other areas. Her casual and flippant misrepresentation of these crucial doctrines is distressing to me.
    Not sure exactly why I am contributing this comment here….except perhaps to acknowledge my struggle and wonder aloud if there are others who haven’t made it through…I do hope to join in next time.

    Thank you for challenging us all to read even though it may rub us the wrong way. Trying to do so has shown me more clearly who I am and where my passions lie, and my glaring inability to separate people from what they believe… I need to grow in this area for sure (which is why I’m here with all my clumsy awkward words!). So I do hope to join in the next discussion…

    Thanks also, Michele Morin for bringing in that bit from the NYTimes about her marriage (in the intro post). The (likely) reality of her husband’s unfaithfulness helps me to make sense of her words in the chapter on marriage. They speak of a relationship that is not as ideal as it would seem, glossing over the glaring deficiencies. How much of the rest of her memoir is also told from the vantage point of rose-colored glasses?

    • Dawn, I’m so glad you gave this a try, even though it ultimately wasn’t your favorite. (It wasn’t mine either.) To your last point, I’ve heard there’s more truth in L’Engle’s fiction than her memoir, which is quite a complex thing to grapple with.

      • Thanks for your extension of grace, Leigh ( :
        “Our communities are joyful and creative for me only when I can accept my own imperfections, when I can rush out with my sins of omission and commission and hang them on the cross as I hang out the laundry.”
        This resonates with me. I’m thankful for this community!

    • I echo Leigh’s thoughts here – I LOVE that you weighed in, despite not liking the book. I think that’s what makes a good book club discussion! 🙂 I think if you liked Madeleine’s writing style, I agree with Leigh’s suggestion: you might really enjoy her fiction. If you want to read her thoughts on writing, there’s a little (out of print, but readily available on Amazon) reader put together of her thoughts on writing– Madeleine L’Engle Herself: Reflections On A Writing Life, which I thoroughly enjoy referencing. (Its a reader of snippets of her books, and also articles and talks given throughout her career.) Here’s a link if that helps: http://www.amazon.com/Madeleine-LEngle-Herself-Reflections-Writing/dp/087788157X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1454348550&sr=8-1&keywords=madeleine+l%27engle+herself I agree that Michelle’s point has validity here–I think most memoir is usually written from the person’s own vantage point, but with the perspective given in the article, it makes you think about how we view our own lives, doesn’t it? If you like memoir, I think Madeleine has some other books that might appeal to you – like her other Crosswicks journals, or perhaps her Genesis Trilogy? (Though I don’t know if you’ll line up theologically with her, there’s some interesting concepts and thoughts discussed.) Thanks so much for chatting here! Because I love Madeleine’s writing so much, I think its so good for me to hear other opinions and viewpoints on her books! Blessings to you!

      • Thanks very much for the recommendations, Sarah. It is a very intriguing thing to consider how our perceptions of ourselves (as in a memoir) line up with reality… I’ve come across some very old journals of my own lately. They give me pause to consider these things. Thank you for your thoughts here! It’s great to learn in community.

  • I grew up knowing NOTHING about the liturgical year except perhaps being taught it was unbiblical. ha. But as an adult, I’ve put that notion aside, and instead have been drawn to the seasons of faith because of the structure they provide in allowing me to change my focus every few months to another aspect of spirituality.

    So I enjoyed how this book revolved around the liturgical year. Although at times it felt a little rambly for me (but it is a memoir, after all), Madeleine’s beautiful pose and poetry along with her authenticity would always draw me back in.

    One of the passages I loved was her connecting to EVERY age she’s been, not just the current one.

    “For, after all, I am not an isolated fifty-seven years old; I am every other age I have been, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven…all the way up to and occasionally beyond my present chronology. …But I am not in the ordinary sense, remembering what it was like to be fourteen; it is not something in the past; it is present; I am fourteen.”

    It’s how I feel, too, but I never could articulate it in that way.

    Her practice of believing impossible things is so endearing; it made me want to hug her. “Like the White Queen, I find it a good discipline to practice believing as many as seven impossible things every morning before breakfast. How dull the world would be if we limited ourselves to the possible. The only God who seems to me to be worth believing in its impossible for mortal man to understand, and therefore he teaches us through this impossible.”

    I appreciated how she shared who she learned from, so we could learn too: “I said, ‘I think God wants us to be whole, too. But maybe sometimes the only way he can make us whole is to teach us things we can learn only by being not whole.’”

    Because I’m a word-lover from way back, this passage speaks volumes to me: “In any dictatorship, writers are among the first to be imprisoned, and vocabulary is quickly diminished and language deteriorates. Writers, if their vocabulary is not leashed, are quick to see injustice, and rouse the people to do something about it. We need words with which to think; kill words and we won’t be able to think and we’ll be easier to manipulate.”

    Thanks for bringing The Irrational Season to my attention! I’ve loved Madeleine’s fiction for years, but this was my first foray into her non-fiction.

    • Such great thoughts, Lisa! I really enjoyed the passage on believing impossible things, too.

    • Lisa, I’m with you on the liturgical year being a “new” discovery in mid-life. Micha Boyett’s book, Found, was a also a good primer. I find myself praying differently and more meaningfully as I lean on words or structures of prayer (like scaffolding!) that have been there for centuries.

      • I looked up Micha’s book. Just got the sample sent to my Kindle. Thanks for the heads-up on it, Michele!

    • Thanks for sharing your favorite quotes here, Lisa! (These are some of my faves as well). I’m with you – I didn’t grow up in the liturgical church at all, so Madeleine’s thoughts in this book resonate deep with me. I do agree – I feel like this is the Crosswicks journal book that rambles the most. I think you’d really enjoy one of the other volumes of her Crosswalks journals – in particular, A Circle of Quiet. I also really loved Two Part Invention: The Story of A Marriage – mostly about her relationship with Hugh Franklin, of course.

      • I’ll have to look into A Circle of Quiet….I’m planning to attend a silent retreat this very weekend so that book title appeals to me.
        And Hugh Franklin…Dr Tyler! Way back in the day I used to watch All My Children. 🙂

        • Two Part Invention is my favorite of the Crosswicks journals. She does such a great job of jumping from the past (her years pre-Hugh, their courtship, etc.) to the present (his illness, death, her own aging process). Some books are worth going back to again and again.

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