Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art

Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art


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In this classic book, Madeleine L'Engle addresses the questions, What does it mean to be a Christian artist? and What is the relationship between faith and art? Through L'Engle's beautiful and insightful essay, readers will find themselves called to what the author views as the prime tasks of an artist: to listen, to remain aware, and to respond to creation through one's own art.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804189279
Publisher: The Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/11/2016
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 100,917
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Madeleine L'Engle was the author of more than forty-five books for all ages, among them the beloved A Wrinkle in Time, awarded the Newbery Medal; A Ring of Endless Light, a Newbery Honor Book; A Swiftly Tilting Planet, winner of the American Book Award; and the Austin family series of which Troubling a Star is the fifth book. L'Engle was named the 1998 recipient of the Margaret A. Edwards award, honoring her lifetime contribution in writing for teens.

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


Smith College, 1941

Read an Excerpt

Cosmos from Chaos

The apple trees in the orchard at Crosswicks are growing old. Last winter the beautiful green pie-apple tree died during the ice storms. This summer I notice that the leafing of some of the others is thin. A neighboring farmer friend tells me that these trees have been “winter killed.”

When the children were little we used to tie presents, presents and balloons, on the trees for summer birthdays. This year the willow by the north meadow was hung with balloons and a big basket of blooming ivy-geraniums as we prepared for a spring wedding. A lot of water has run under the stone bridge of the brook since the birthday trees. The pebbly shoreline of Dog Pond, where the children learned to swim, has been tarred for motorboat launching, so that the utter stillness of the lake is often broken. But there is still a pattern to the summers which I hope will never change, a lovely kaleidoscope of family and friends coming and going. Quite a few of the photographs taken at the time of this spring’s wedding show me in a typical position, standing at the stove, stirring something. In the summer I seem to spend my days between the stove and the typewriter, with time out for walking the dogs to the brook, bearing the big red clippers which help to clear the paths.

I sit on my favourite rock, looking over the brook, to take time away from busyness, time to be. I’ve long since stopped feeling guilty about taking being time; it’s something we all need for our spiritual health, and often we don’t take enough of it.

This spring I was given two posters which I find helpful in reminding me to take being time. (Both givers must have known I needed the message.) A few weeks before the wedding I ran impetuously out to the dark garage to turn on the outside light and rammed into a cardboard cat carrier--mere cardboard, mind you!--and broke the third metatarsal bone in my foot. I have frequently taken mammoth, crashing tumbles without breaking a bone. What a way to do it now! Humiliating, to say the least, and my children rub it in by emphasizing the cardboard.

“Can you stay off your feet for six weeks?” the doctor asked.

“No, I’m off day after tomorrow for a ten-day lecture tour all over Ohio. Then we have the wedding, and then I get my grandchildren for a week . . .” 

So off I went, leg in cast, via wheelchair and crutches and elegant pre-boarding on planes. The first poster was given me on my second stop, the Convent of the Transfiguration near Cincinnati, where I was conducting a retreat. The poster tells me: Listen to the silence. Stay open to the voice of the Spirit.

The second poster came a month later, when I was out of the cast but still on crutches, sent me by Luci Shaw, who is largely responsible for my struggling to write this book. It shows a covered bridge in the autumn, very much like the covered bridge we drive through en route to Crosswicks, and it echoes my need: Slow me down, Lord.

Good messages. When I am constantly running there is no time for being. When there is no time for being there is no time for listening. I will never understand the silent dying of the green pie-apple tree if I do not slow down and listen to what the Spirit is telling me, telling me of the death of trees, the death of planets, of people, and what all these deaths mean in the light of love of the Creator, who brought them all into being, who brought me into being, and you.

This questioning of the meaning of being, and dying and being, is behind the telling of stories around tribal fires at night; behind the drawing of animals on the walls of caves; the singing of melodies of love in spring, and of the death of green in autumn. It is part of the deepest longing of the human psyche, a recurrent ache in the hearts of all of God’s creatures.

So when the two messages, Listen to the silence. Stay open to the voice of the Spirit, and Slow me down, Lord, came, I was forced to listen, and even to smile as I heard myself saying emphatically to Luci, “No, I most certainly do not want to write about being a Christian artist,” for I realized that the very vehemence of my reaction meant that perhaps I should, in fact, stop and listen. The Holy Spirit does not hesitate to use any method at hand to make a point to us reluctant creatures.

Why is it that I, who have spent my life writing, struggling to be a better artist, and struggling also to be a better Christian, should feel rebellious when I am called a Christian artist? Why should I feel reluctant to think or write about Christian creativity?

It’s more than just that I feel the presumption of someone like me--wife, grandmother, storyteller--attempting such a task. I wouldn’t even consider it had I not already struggled with it in talks which Mel Lorentzen, Bea Batson, and others in the English department at Wheaton College have pulled out of me. It was some of these faltering lectures which caused Luci and Harold Shaw to ask me to expand my thoughts into a book. And then came Ayia Napa.

Probably it was Ayia Napa that clinched it. When Dr. Marion van Horne asked me to come to Ayia Napa, in Cyprus, for two weeks, how could I resist? I love to travel. My brief trip several years ago to Greece and the Greek islands made me love the incredible blue and gold air of this land where Apollo drove his chariot across the sky, where John brought the mother of Jesus, where Pythagorus walked on the beach, and where Paul preached a message of love even more brilliant than the sun. 

Who could resist a trip to Cyprus? To teach at a conference on literature and literacy for delegates from twenty-two underdeveloped and developing countries all over the world, delegates whose only common denominator was Christianity--every denomination and brand and variety of Christianity. And what was I being asked to lecture about? The Christian artist.

Christian art? Art is art; painting is painting; music is music; a story is a story. If it’s bad art, it’s bad religion, no matter how pious the subject. If it’s good art . . . and there the questions start coming, questions which it would be simpler to evade.

 In college I read some aesthetics: Plato, Aristotle; a great chronological jump to Lamb, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Pater, Ruskin. Plato spoke of the necessity for divine madness in the poet. It is a frightening thing to open oneself to this strange and dark side of the divine; it means letting go of our sane self-control, that control which gives us the illusion of safety. But safety is only an illusion, and letting it go is part of listening to the silence, and to the Spirit.

Plato also wrote--and I lettered this in firm italic letters and posted it on my dorm-room door--All learning which is acquired under compulsion has no hold upon the mind.

I’m not sure he was right there. During my school and college years I learned a good bit under at least moderate compulsion. I’d never have taken math or science had they been optional (but I enjoyed the poster on my dormitory door!).

What I remember from Ruskin is the phrase the cursed animosity of inanimate objects, which I mutter under my breath when I get in a tangle of wire coat hangers. I also wonder if there is any such thing as an inanimate object.

From Coleridge comes the phrase the willing suspension of disbelief, that ability to believe which is born firmly in all children, and which too often withers as we are taught that the world of faerie and imagination is not true.

Aristotle reinforces Coleridge when he writes, That which is impossible and probable is better than that which is possible and improbable.

Not long after I was out of college I read Leo Tolstoy’s What Is Art? I approached it with reverence and hope. Surely this great writer would provide me with the definitive definition, would show me all the answers. He didn’t, and I was naive to expect him to. Generally what is more important than getting watertight answers is learning to ask the right questions.

What do they have in common, all these people I read in college and thereafter? All men, and all dead. Their distance from us in chronology seems to give them overwhelming authority. But they were not dead when they wrote, and they were as human as the rest of us. They caught colds in damp weather and had occasional pimples in adolescence. I like to think that they enjoyed making love, spending an evening with friends, tramping through the woods with the dogs. The fact that they were men simply speaks for their day when women may have been powers behind the throne, but they were kept behind it.

Whatever possessed these writers to sit down and write their views on the creative process? Maybe they were prodded, as I have been, and maybe at least a few of them hesitated at the presumption of it.

All right. So it’s an impossible task. But thinking about it may open new questions, new insights. And as I listen to the silence, I learn that my feelings about art and my feelings about the Creator of the Universe are inseparable. To try to talk about art and about Christianity is for me one and the same thing, and it means attempting to share the meaning of my life, what gives it, for me, its tragedy and its glory. It is what makes me respond to the death of an apple tree, the birth of a puppy, northern lights shaking the sky, by writing stories.

Recently I picked up a New Yorker on a plane trip and saw a cartoon of two men at a bar, one a great muscular hulk of a man, and the other half his size, scrawny and ineffectual looking. And the small man is saying, “. . . but I repeat, this is only my very, very, humble, humble opinion.” Just so, I offer my very, very, humble, humble opinion on the vast topic of the Christian and art.

I go to the dictionary, and it isn’t much help. Both Webster’s Collegiate and the Concise Oxford report that a Christian is a person believing in the religion of Christ. As for art, in both these dictionaries it is limited to skill, as “skill, especially human skill as opposed to nature; skill applied to imitation and design, as in painting, etc.; a thing in which skill may be exercised; those in which mind and imagination are chiefly concerned.”

Skill may be learned, and if art is merely a skill, then it can be acquired by anybody, and being a painter would merely be the equivalent of being a good dentist’s technician or a practiced butcher.

It is an honourable thing to be a dentist’s technician or a butcher, but neither would claim to be a creator.

Leonard Bernstein tells me more than the dictionary when he says that for him music is cosmos in chaos. That has the ring of truth in my ears and sparks my creative imagination. And it is true not only of music; all art is cosmos, cosmos found within chaos. At least all Christian art (by which I mean all true art, and I’ll go deeper into this later) is cosmos in chaos. There’s some modern art, in all disciplines, which is not; some artists look at the world around them and see chaos, and instead of discovering cosmos, they reproduce chaos, on canvas, in music, in words. As far as I can see, the reproduction of chaos is neither art, nor is it Christian.

e. e. cummings lauds the beauty of cosmos as he sings,

i who have died am alive again today,

and this is the sun’s birthday, this is the birth

day of life and love and wings; and of the gay

great happening illimitably earth.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

now the ears of my ears are awake and

now the eyes of my eyes are opened

And the psalmist sings, “O taste and see how gracious the Lord is: blessed is the man who trusteth in him” and “The heavens declare the glory of God: and the firmament showeth his handiwork. . . .” 

And I rejoice. But I have no idea what “denomination” or “brand” of faith cummings professed, if any, and the psalmist who wrote those lines died long before the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. So perhaps the reason I shuddered at the idea of writing something about “Christian art” is that to paint a picture or to write a story or to compose a song is an incarnational activity. The artist is a servant who is willing to be a birth-giver. In a very real sense the artist (male or female) should be like Mary, who, when the angel told her that she was to bear the Messiah, was obedient to the command.

Obedience is an unpopular word nowadays, but the artist must be obedient to the work, whether it be a symphony, a painting, or a story for a small child. I believe that each work of art, whether it is a work of great genius or something very small, comes to the artist and says, “Here I am. Enflesh me. Give birth to me.” And the artist either says, “My soul doth magnify the Lord,” and willingly becomes the bearer of the work, or refuses; but the obedient response is not necessarily a conscious one, and not everyone has the humble, courageous obedience of Mary.

As for Mary, she was little more than a child when the angel came to her; she had not lost her child’s creative acceptance of the realities moving on the other side of the everyday world. We lose our ability to see angels as we grow older, and that is a tragic loss.

God, through the angel Gabriel, called on Mary to do what, in the world’s eyes, is impossible, and instead of saying, “I can’t,” she replied immediately. “Be it unto me according to thy word.”

God is always calling on us to do the impossible. It helps me to remember that anything Jesus did during his life here on earth is something we should be able to do, too.

When spring-fed Dog Pond warms up enough for swimming, which usually isn’t until June, I often go there in the late afternoon. Sometimes I will sit on a sun-warmed rock to dry, and think of Peter walking across the water to meet Jesus. As long as he didn’t remember that we human beings have forgotten how to walk on water, he was able to do it.


Excerpted from "Walking on Water"
by .
Copyright © 2016 Madeleine L'Engle.
Excerpted by permission of The Crown Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I discovered this book at a time in my life when I was struggling with both my creativity and my faith. The author offers fresh and unusual perspectives on both issues - combined and seperately. After reading this book, I believe that creativity is an expression of the spirit within us and that the act of creating is an act of faith. Not only did this book change my approach to and my view of any creative work, it also renewed my faith in miracles.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book entered my life at a time when I needed to decide if I should be a writer or quit talking about it. I met here a woman who understands what art really is and what it takes to be an artist. Madeleine L'Engle is a Christian, and she has written books children love, but she refuses to classify herself as a Christian writer of children's books, for the same reason that she would not classify Picasso as an atheist painter of adult images. Madeleine L'Engle believes that all the wonderful art we encounter, be it visual, aural or any other form, is inspired by God, and that God can speak to us all through great art, no matter what the artist may have believed about God when creating the work. For me, her statement that 'the story is truth' was particularly important. But after reading the book, I think she would equally say 'the music is truth' or 'the picture is truth' when it has emerged from the soul of the artist. This is not a theological book, but it has certainly enlightened my personal theology, as well as the way I experience art of all kinds. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand what art is, and even more, I recommend it to any artist who is struggling through an unproductive dark night of self-doubt.
lilyfathersjoy on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Madeleine L'Engle's faith and beliefs differ from mine. I was brought up, however, to not automatically reject ideas because they came from different viewpoints from mine. Besides, L'Engle's thoughtful consideration of concepts reveal her to be a seeker, not someone with all the answers. This book is useful for anyone who struggles for self-expression, no matter what the medium, no matter what they believe or don't believe. I have returned to this book again and again.
PCGator on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Thought-provoking book. From the author of "A Wrinkle in Time", reflections on what it means to be a Christian artist. Not in the sense that "Christian art" is being made, but instead, how is faith involved when an artist who happens to be a Christian creates a work of art? When Bach composes a fugue, or when Michelangelo sculpts a masterpiece? Or, for a more contemporary example, think of U2, a band where at least some of the members considered not persuing a secular career lest it be contrary to their Christian faith. How would their lives and music have been different? Would Bono have had the impact, or been able to accomplish all that he has?In addition to some great thoughts to contemplate, this book is a little gold mine of wonderful quotes on the arts."The author and the reader know each other; they meet on the bridge of words.""Every work of art is the discovery of a new planet; and it may well be a hostile one."
bjdoureaux More than 1 year ago
What does it mean to be a Christian artist? What is the relationship between faith and art? These are the questions that bestselling author Madeleine L'Engle sets out to answer in Walking on Water. Through stories from her own life, and quotes from philosophers, theologians, and other writers, she addresses the concept of Christian art. I read through this book with lots of both encouragement and disappointment. I found that while I strongly agreed with L'Engle in terms of theology, there were many points where I questioned her thoughts on how faith relates to art. What you will quickly realize is L'Engle doesn't like the label "Christian art." Her claim is that God can work through even an atheist artist to convey a message. While I believe this is true (God can use whomever He chooses), I don't think it's a good reason to shun the label. L'Engle also uses the argument that all good art is Christian art (or at the very least religious) in the sense that we create it. But I disagree with this argument as well, because what constitutes "good" art is subjective at best. If art is Christian based on how it makes a person feel, or what they "get out of it", then what does that say about Christianity in and of itself? I would have closed the book at several points early on had L'Engle not shared her own views of Christian theology. She discusses justification by faith, unmerited grace, the fact that we bring nothing to our salvation, and much more. There is no doubt that L'Engle is a Christian, and yet, the way she connects faith to art, at times, seems to be more new-age, or mystical. She skates around the issue of defining Christian art with stories and examples, but I believe her truest statement on the subject comes halfway though the book. When asked by a student how she should go about becoming a Christian writer, L'Engle told her: "... if she is truly and deeply a Christian, what she writes is going to be Christian, whether she mentions Jesus or not. And if she is not, in the most profound sense, Christian, then what she writes is not going to be Christian, no matter how many times she invokes the name of the Lord." This is what I believe she is trying to say through the entire book, but it somehow gets muddled in the details. I received a complimentary copy of this book from Blogging for Books in return for an honest review.
SheilaDeeth More than 1 year ago
Madeleine L’Engle portrays Christian artists in the modern world almost as if we live in exile, like the Jews in Babylon. We learn to appreciate the art of the world around us and to care for its artists, whether or not they are believers. We learn to see the underlying hand of God in creation, and in the creations of his creatures. We accept that “bad art is bad religion” because it does not draw us closer to anything true, and that good art might be good religion even when not ostensibly religiously inspired. The author leads readers on a guided tour of aesthetics (from Plato to Tolstoy and beyond), faith (which accepts that which cannot be understood because … and which, therefore, lies very close to story), icons (which express more than can be told), truth (and wisdom), and even the use of the word “he” rather than “he/she.” It’s all told in a gently conversational style, filled with threads of story and prayer, and reminder of a “God who told stories” in the New Testament. We see glimpses of glory as children. Then we grow out of them. L’Engle reminds us that “We are all more than we know,” that fiction is the vehicle of truth, that we need intuition and symbols just as much as we need intellect, and that names are more important than the labels and boxes we place around everything—names give creativity, freedom and identity... and story. Best of all, from my point of view, the author reminds readers that faith invites questions and should never fear them or else it's not quite faith. So I will write my questions in stories of “What if” and rejoice in having read this book. Disclosure: I received a copy from Blogging for Books. I offer my honest review.
tammy2lock More than 1 year ago
I wish I could take a highlighter to the entire book.  As an artist I think this is an essential read.  Be challenged to re-awaken the child-like creativity in your soul.
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Linda_V More than 1 year ago
Walking on Water is a great book for those who are creative and who may be struggling with be productive. The author reminds us of our creative talents and how we have been gifted with the ability to write, draw, or paint. It awakens the reason many of us put pen to paper or paint to canvas.