The Icon Tree
by Madeline L'Engle
A native New Yorker, Ms. L’Engle is the author of such books as A Wrinkle in Time, A Circle of Quiet and The Summer of the Great-Grandmother. This article is excerpted from her new book the Irrational Season. Copyright © 1977 by Crosswicks, Ltd. A Crossroad Book. Used by permission of the Seabury Press, Inc. This article appeared in the Christian Century April 6, 1977, p. 321. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. . Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Easter: that day which follows the harrowing of hell of Great and Holy Saturday; Easter, which turns a terrible Friday into Good Friday. It is almost too brilliant for me to contemplate; it is like looking directly into the sun; I am burned and blinded by life.
Easter completes the circle of blessing, and the joy of the completion remains, despite all the attempts of the powers of darkness to turn it into cursing.
A graduate student wrote to ask if my Christianity affects my novels, and I replied that it is the other way around. My writing affects my Christianity. In a way one might say that my stories keep converting me back to Christianity, from which I am constantly tempted to stray because the circle of blessing seems frayed and close to breaking, and my faith is so frail and flawed that I fall away over and over again from my God. There are times when I feel that he has withdrawn from me, and I have often given him cause; but Easter is always the answer to “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me!”
Easter is the most brilliant of all blessings, and all through the Bible, in both Old and New Testaments, comes the message of blessing, and that it is the vocation of the People of God to bless as well as be blessed, and to turn away wrath with a soft answer -- a softness which is not flabby, but which has the power of meekness.
That is the point which is most important to me in the story of Balaam and his ass, and perhaps because I loved this story as a child, I responded to it with particular affection when I returned to it as an adult.
One of the best pieces of advice I had from Mary Ellen Chase, that superb teacher I was privileged to study with in college, was that anybody who was seriously considering writing as a profession must be completely familiar with the King James translation of the Bible, because the power of this great translation is the rock on which the English language stands.
So, as a young woman, I turned to the Bible for purely literary reasons. But I discovered that the Bibleis a great deal more alive than the church establishment seemed to be. It is a repository of joy and piety and history and humor and storytelling and great characters, and my writer’s mind was nourished. I stayed with the Book all through the years when I kept my back turned on the Establishment.
One of the first messages that struck me is that the Bible is not a moral tract. It may contain all that is necessary for salvation, but the glory of Easter is not a result of self-righteousness. Not long ago I gave a talk to a group of students studying for advanced degrees in education. During the question-and-answer period one of them asked me about the moral precepts in my stories, and the question alarmed me, because a novel should not be a moral tract, it should be a story. Moralism and moral values are by no means the same thing, but with the slurring of language the two have come pretty close. So I said, somewhat dubiously, because this was a secular lecture to a general audience and I was afraid of being misunderstood, that my point of view about life was going to show under the story, because that’s inevitable, but I never consciously write about moral precepts, and I do not like moralism, which is another form of do-it-yourselfism. And I tried to explain that people who think themselves capable of setting up rigid moral standards are playing dictator, like the occasional prideful people who attempt to get Winnie-the-Pooh taken out of the library because they think it’s immoral.
Other questions came in then, but I went on thinking about it, afraid that some of the students thought that I was advocating immorality. Finally I ventured to mention the Bible. The Bible is not a moral tract and it is not about moral people. Look at them! Ordinary human beings, full of flaws, sins, humanness, but found by God. God called Abraham, an old man past his productive years, to be the father of a nation. Jacob, whose behavior was shabby, to say the least, wrestled with an angel. And Rahab was a harlot and Jesus was gentle with a woman taken in adultery.
If a calling committee today were looking for someone to take over an important parish, they’d pass over such people as being completely unqualified. And Paul of Tarsus would certainly never have made it, with his particular list of credentials, such as helping at the stoning of Stephen. But God always calls unqualified people. In cold reality, no one is qualified; but God, whose ways are not our ways, seems to choose those least qualified, people who well may have come from slums and battlefields and insane asylums. If he had chosen great kings, successful and wealthy merchants, wise men with their knowledge of the stars, it would be easy to think that these people, of their own virtue and understanding, accomplished on their own the blessing which God asked them to complete.
And Jesus chose his disciples with the same recklessness as his father; he chose them not in the Sanhedrin, not in the high places of the wealthy; he found them as they were fishing, collecting taxes, going about the ordinary business of life.
The men and women called by God to do his work would never have passed a test in moral virtues. David’s getting Bathsheba by conniving to have her husband killed in battle was a totally immoral act. Nathan the Prophet made this quite clear to his king, and David repented. Everything that happened to the shepherd boy who became a king was a lesson, loud and clear, that the blessing is always God’s.
But at that lecture one of the students, still hung up on moralism, said, “But you’re looking for something in your books, you can’t deny that.” “Of course I’m looking for something. But I’m not looking for morals, I’m looking for truth.” Probably in searching for the truth of love I’ll discover something about morals, though I’m not sure. The older I get and the more I learn, the less qualified I become to make correct moral judgments; that may not stop me from having to make them -- an event must be assessed before it can be blessed -- but I have learned with hindsight that with all the goodwill in the world I may be wrong, and it is only by offering my judgments to God that they can be redeemed and blessed.
Slow am I as always to recognize what is right in front of me. Of course: all I’m fumbling on about moralism has already been said for me by Paul. Moralism belongs to the old law and the old covenant. Jesus Christ in his life, death and resurrection overturned the laws of moralism. Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us. That’s not very acceptable language, but it does help to put my fragments together.
It is difficult to bless and not to curse when one’s control of a situation is taken away. I witness daily the cursing which is the result of impotence. My threshold of anger is much lower than it used to be. Small annoyances provoke much too strong a reaction of irritation. I may not curse, but blessings do not come to my lips as often as I would like.
The doors of many of the neighborhood shops around our apartment are no longer open to welcome the customer. One has to be buzzed in, because there have been so many shopkeepers shot or stabbed that it has become necessary to live in this sadly realistic climate of suspicion, which increases my own feelings of impotence. When my husband, Hugh, is late coming home from theater or television studio I pace about nervously, fearful that he may have been mugged. And the very muggers themselves are reacting irrationally to an impotence and frustration far greater than mine, so it is no wonder that they respond with a curse.
But our television commercials, our political speeches, our “how-to” and “do-it-yourself” books would seem to offer us a world in which if we only eat a low-carbohydrate and low-cholesterol diet, or buy a new combination washing machine and outdoor barbecue, we will be in charge of our lives.
We aren’t, and most of us know we aren’t, and that isn’t easy to accept. If we have so little control over the world in which we live, can our lives, and the lives of those we love, have- any meaning?
Easter affirms meaning, even though it’s not possible for finite brokenness to define the meaning of infinite wholeness. The acceptance of this not-knowing is nothing new; rather, technocracy has refused to accept what the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing understood and expressed for us so beautifully.
It is only when I am not afraid to recognize my own brokenness, to say, “Turn us again, Lord God of hosts, cause thy face to shine and we shall be whole” -- that the broken bones may begin to heal, and to rejoice. Without this phos hilaron, this joyous light, we fight against our impotence, in our spiritual lives, our intellectual lives, a large portion of our physical lives.
But in the small events of daily living we are given the grace to condition our responses to frustrations. It’s something like driving a car. If you’re driving along a highway and a car comes at you from a side road, and you have to think what you ought to do, you’re not likely to avoid an accident. In an emergency you don’t have time to stop and think. You act before thought, on your conditioned reflexes.
So it is with all of life. If our usual response to an annoying situation is a curse, we’re likely to meet emergencies with a curse. In the little events of daily living we have the opportunity to condition our reflexes, which are built up out of ordinary things. And we learn to bless first of all by being blessed. My reflexes of blessing have been conditioned by my parents, my husband, my children, my friends.
Blessing is an attitude toward all of life, transcending and moving beyond words. When family and friends gather around the table to break bread together, this is a blessing. When we harden our hearts against anyone, this is a cursing. Sometimes a person, or a group of people, do or say something so terrible that we can neither bless nor curse. They are anathema. We put them outside the city walls, not out of revenge, not out of hate, but because they have gone beyond anything we fragile human beings can cope with. So we say, Here, God, I’m sorry. This is more than I can handle. Please take care of it. Your ways are not our ways. You know what to do. Please.
But sometimes I am confronted with a situation which demands a response of either blessing or cursing, and from me. I cannot refuse to meet the emergency by turning aside. And I have cause to remember Balaam, who was ordered by King Balak to go and curse the children of Israel. Rather reluctantly he saddled his ass and went to do the king’s bidding, and his ass stopped in the middle of the road, because she saw something Balaam didn’t see; she saw the angel of the Lord standing in the path, and she refused to allow Balaam to go on. And in the end Balaam heeded the ass, and he blessed the children of Israel, blessed instead of cursed;
Blessing is no easier for me than it was for Balaam, and there was a Friday after Easter, two years ago, when I was put to the test.
When we open our house in the country in the spring we know that it will still be winter on our hill; Crosswicks is a good three weeks behind New York, where the Cathedral Close is bursting with blossom, and the cement islands which run down the middle of Broadway are astonishing with the glory of magnolia blooms. At Crosswicks the forsythia will show no bud, though if I bring it indoors it will take only a day or so before it bursts into gold. The house, even with the furnace running, will not be quite warm enough, and we’ll huddle around the fire and rush upstairs to bed to plunge beneath the covers. Things which were part of the burden when we lived in Crosswicks year round are fun when it’s only on a weekend basis.
I look forward with intense anticipation to the first weekend in the country. Each year the city gets more difficult. Each year the world seems in a worse mess than it was the year before. Our own country is still in trouble, and this trouble is reflected in the city and on the Cathedral Close. I need to get away and find perspective.
On that particular Friday after Easter it had been a bad week in the world, a bad week in the country, a bad week on the Close. I looked forward to the peace and quiet of the first weekend the way, as a small child, I had anticipated Christmas. When we got up to Crosswicks it was still light, one of those rare blue-and-gold afternoons when the sky shimmers with radiance. Hugh said to me, “I bet you’re going right to the brook.”
“Would you mind?”
“Go ahead, but don’t stay too long.”
So I called my dog, Timothy, from sniffing the rock garden and set off across the big field and over the stone wall. Easter was late that year, and the trees were beginning to put forth tiny gold shoots which in another couple of weeks would be green leaves. Some of the budding maples were pale pink, and the beech trees were almost lavender. I could feel myself unwinding from the tensions of the past weeks. I felt surrounded by blessing.
I have several favorite places where I love to sit and think. Probably the most favorite is a large rock above the brook. Directly in front of the rock is an old maple tree. When the trees are fully leafed it is always shaded, and on the hottest day it is cool there. I knew that now the brook would be rushing, filled with clear, icy water from melting snow.
The summer before, I had gone with my daughter, Josephine, and her husband, Alan, and their two little girls to a fair at Regina Landis Monastery in Bethlehem, Connecticut. I have a good friend among the sisters there, and that afternoon she gave me a small, laminated icon of a medieval Mother and Child, and a little cross. I had put these on the trunk of the big maple, and in the late afternoon it was my habit to go to my thinking rock and say my prayers and then, with the icon tree as my focus, to try to move beyond the words of prayer to the prayer of the heart.
So that spring afternoon I headed straight for the rock and the icon tree. But as I started down the tiny path through the trees which leads to the rock, I felt that something was wrong. I quickened my steps and when I had climbed up on the rock I saw. Someone had shot the icon at close range. It was split in four parts. There was a bullet hole through the face of the holy child. The cross had been pulled from its ring; only the broken ring still clung to the nail. I felt an incredible wave of hate flood over me. I was literally nauseated. What had been done had been done deliberately; it was not an accident; it was a purposeful blasphemy, an act of cursing.
I was beyond any response of either blessing or cursing. But I knew that I couldn’t go home until I had been washed clean of the hate. The very trees around the rock seemed to draw back in horror and apology because they had not been able to stop the intruder.
Feeling sick and cold, I called Timothy and walked and walked. My dog knew that something had upset me. He kept close as we walked, instead of tearing off in great loops. We kept walking until I had come to the point where I could simply turn over to God whoever had shot the icon and the cross. This person was beyond my puny human ability to understand. I could not add to the curse by cursing. But I did not know how to bless. I went back to the house and told Hugh what had happened. The next day I carried tools and took the remains of the icon off the tree and gave them to the brook. I took away the small nail with the broken loop. Then I sat on the rock and looked at the gouge in the tree’s wood. What I describe in the sonnet below did not happen that day, but it did happen, and redeemed the act of hate, and made the tree far more of an icon for me than it was before:
As I sit at the shot-at
Balak sent Balaam to curse the children of Israel, and the ass saw an angel of God and sat down under Balaam and refused to move, and the curse was turned to a blessing.
I don’t understand and I don’t need to understand.
Bless the Lord, 0 my soul, I cry with the psalmist whose songs after all these thousands of years still sing so poignantly for us. 0 bless his Holy Name, and may he bless each one of us and teach us to bless one another.
I affirm my faith in the promise of Easter, of the resurrection, not only of the Lord Jesus Christ but of us all; the resurrection not as a panacea or placebo for those who cannot cope without medication, or as the soporific of the masses (Simone Weil said that revolution, and not religion, is the soporific of the masses), but as the reality which lights the day. The experience with the icon tree was a symbole of resurrection for me, an affirmation which helps me to respond with a blessing where otherwise I might curse.
There are too many books which affirm resurrection now and can’t quite believe in resurrection after death. Resurrection now is indeed important for resurrection then, but resurrection now means little if after death there is nothing but ashes to ashes and dust to dust. The God who redeemed the icon tree for me will not create creatures able to ask questions only to be snuffed out before they can answer them. There is no pragmatic reason why any of my questions should be answered, why this little life should not be all; but the joyful God of love who shouted the galaxies into existence is not going to abandon any iota of his creation. So the icon tree is for me a symbole of God’s concern, forever and always and unto ages of ages, for all of us, every single one of us, no matter what we think or believe or deny.
So let there be no question: I believe in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth as Jesus the Christ, and the resurrection of the body of all creatures great and small, not the literal resurrection of this tired body, this broken self, but the body as it was meant to be, the fragmented self made new; so that at the end of time all Creation will be One. Well: maybe I don’t exactly believe it, but I know it, and knowing is what matters.
The strange turning of what seemed to be a horrendous No to a glorious Yes is always the message of Easter. The destroyed icon and the wounded tree are a poignant symbol of the risen Christ. The gouge in the tree is beginning to heal, but I will always know that it is there, and it is living witness that love is stronger than hate. Already things have happened which have put this knowledge to the test, and sometimes I have been where I could not go to the rock and see the tangible assurance of the tree’s tall strong trunk. But I can turn in my mind’s eye and see it, can image the whole chain of events from the cruel destruction of death to the brilliance of new life.
I need to hold on to that bright promise.