Penguins and Golden Calves, Madeleine L’Engle (1996) #BloggingTheSpirit

An icon should give us glimpses of our God who is both immanent and transcendent, knowable and unknowable. If an icon becomes more important to us than what it reveals of God, then it becomes a golden calfโ€ฆ.


pengguinsPenguins and Golden Calves: Icons and Idols in Antarctica and Other Unexpected Places describes Lโ€™Engleโ€™s trip to Antarctica when she was 74 years old and the encounters she had with the small, crested Rock Hopper Penguins. She uses the image of the golden calf and her experience with the penguins to illustrate the difference between idols and icons. Like the Israelites, who turned the golden calf into idol worship instead of the worship of God, the penguins became to her an icon that opened her up to experience of God; an icon is the window to that connection.

Madeleine L’Engle, who died in 2007, was a well-known believer in Christ, who often ran afoul of ‘establishment’ Christianity by continuing to question and to seek that which made her uncomfortable in her faith. But her nonfiction has always struck a chord in me, as I am attracted to believers of all kinds who struggle to make sense of their tradition and especially, like L’Engle, see a bigger picture. Books like this mirror my own questions and struggles with spirituality, religion and belief.

It is not flippant for me to say that a penguin is an icon for me, because the penguin invited me to look through its odd little self and on to a God who demands of us that we be vulnerable…Whatever is an open door to God is, for me, an icon.

Because L’Engle uses penguins (penguins?!) as an icon to God, I was intrigued from the beginning and it articulated for me why I find it so easy to connect to God in nature and not in a building. I am never so connected to the experience, love and beauty of the Creator than when I am walking the bluffs overlooking the ocean, hiking the trails of the nearby mountains or when watching a lizard slither across a huge rock in the desert.

There are parts of liturgical services that in the words and rituals, I do see beauty and sincerity. I love getting caught up in words, in turns of phrase, of ideas written just so. And in a moment of public prayer or thanksgiving, I am often caught up in a sea of emotions. But once I leave the building, they are gone. And once I glimpse a hummingbird flitting over a flower or a flock of birds in v-formation it is only then that I can sincerely praise God.

I think we have totally complicated God and what it means to worship. The first thing God did, according to the Bible, was to create the world. Pagans stopped there, while the rest went on to create golden calves, complicated and alienating ways of worship, erecting walls of concrete to hold services, and sadly, making theologies with a total disregard for the Creatorโ€™s creation. How ironic!

So, even if we understand that praying through icons is not idolatry, why do we mortals need icons? Icons are not adequate, nor are sunset and moonrise and star-filled skies, though they are icons of God’s creation. Perhaps we need icons because of the very inadequacy of our ability to understand God….


My Edition
Title: Penguins and Golden Calves
Author: Madeleine L’Engle
Publisher: WaterBrook Press
Device: Hardcover
Year: 2003
Pages: 271
Plot summary


16 thoughts on “Penguins and Golden Calves, Madeleine L’Engle (1996) #BloggingTheSpirit

  1. I’m not at all religious, but I love L’Engle’s work and would be interested to hear about her experience with faith. It’s been a long time since I read her fiction, but I have a vague memory of parts that inspired a sense of wonder at the natural world so it seems like this might add to the experience of reading her fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve read a lot of her nonfiction. I missed, somehow, a Wrinkle in Time when I was a kid…not sure why, but I read it as an adult and it just didn’t interest me.

      Her nonfiction is based on a long life as a journal-keeper, so it is personal, yet places her in the larger world. I just found this:

      A Circle of Quiet and Two-Part Invention are my favorites, along with Walking on Water, which is about faith and creativity.

      I love that as a religious Christian, she believed in science and the arts… ๐Ÿ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Laurie, an interesting post, on an interesting woman, although this is the first time I have heard of her. I am currently deconstructing my Christian faith and coming to a fresh and refreshing way of understanding Nature as where God dwells, rather than something He has made but from which He is separate and apart.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I really get this. There are times when I am hiking or riding my bike along the river that I see something in the natural world that touches me to where the separation between Maker and Makee is blurred. I love when that happens!

      Btw, Madeleine L’Engle is probably best known as being the author of the children’s book, A Wrinkle in Time.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I am non believer but I find theological debates fascinating.

    On one hand I can see how someone would more likely find God in the natural world.

    On the other hand I really thrive on ideas so I can see how one could find theology, and perhaps symbols in the form of icons important.

    Going to Antartica at 74 is impressive ๐Ÿ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think “God” and connection and theology can come in so many, many forms. I do not believe a person has to be religious or spiritual or a “believer” to have ethics and morals. Living up to your potential, sharing your gifts and abilities counts. I, too, think ideas or intense conversations with others trying to get to the truth of something or an insight that changes everything are other ways we make connections to, whatever you want to call it!


  4. Hi Laurie. I enjoyed reading the posts and comments for this event! I meant to participate, I was going to share a song, but since it wasn’t part of public domain I wasn’t sure of exactly what I could and could not post. Maybe next time.
    For me, I see God most clearly in acts of kindness and compassion like feeding the hungry or giving to the poor. We may have complicated the worship of God with our rules but, I believe, coming back to this center leads us to the heart of what really matters.
    I glad you hosted this event. I know I enjoyed it. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi BJ, even though this was a small group, the offerings were just what I’d hoped. I liked reading people’s comments and getting a little peek into another part of their lives! So, I am going to keep this going at least through the end of the year, then I’ll reevaluate it.

      A song sounds great and would really add more dimension. I wish I could help you out with the public domain issue, but I don’t know how songs work.

      “For me, I see God most clearly in acts of kindness and compassion like feeding the hungry or giving to the poor.”

      Yes! We really need this now, don’t we? Once again I find myself revisiting some of the ways I miss the boat on this, especially through an obsession with things like social media, which is draining me, leaving little time for acts outside myself. And hey, if you can’t get the song worked out, you could always “just” write a post expanding on this quote!

      Thank you for your comment and I hope to ‘see’ you next month ๐Ÿ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I think we’re meant to find the divine in everyday life, but it can be hard to keep up that consciousness throughout the daily grind. Sacred spaces and rituals can help us to focus our thoughts and feelings, giving us strength to meet the world outside, as long as they don’t become an end in themselves, or a form of escape. We’re always tempted to turn icons into idols – and as L’Engle says, even icons are not enough. Thanks for bringing up this interesting topic!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It can be a slippery slope that our love or respect for a person, a point of view, food…anything really that gives us guidance, pleasure or information can turn into having given our soul away or at least prevents us from seeing the larger picture I am guilty of that in some things, I admit.

      The insight I received from L’Engle’s experience with the penguins reinforced for me that my connection to God/Source/The Big Cheese can come through something very simple and ready at hand rather than through an elaborate ritual. Both can be important, but the sense that connection is available so easily is what I resonate with.

      Liked by 1 person

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