I have long valued the writings of Victorian clergyman and author George MacDonald (1824-1905). I’m not alone! C S Lewis openly acknowledged: I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master; indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him. J R R Tolkien cited him as an influence. W H Auden valued him highly and wrote an Afterword to Macdonald’s fantasy novel ‘The Golden Key’.
MacDonald was friend and mentor to the young Lewis Carroll, who tried out sample chapters of Alice on MacDonald’s children. It was largely on the strength of their enthusiastic response that Carroll submitted his manuscript for publication, and the rest is history!
It is chiefly MacDonald’s fantasy novels and fairy tales that are still read today. As Lewis and Tolkien were to do after him, he found that by removing moral and spiritual truths from their usual context and relocating them in a different world altogether, they can be brought to life and shine with fresh revelation. “I write, not for children,” he wrote, “but for the child-like, whether they be of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.” This essay by Robert Trexler explores further MacDonald’s use of myth. See also Catherine Barnett’s perceptive piece, ‘Tolkien, MacDonald and the Cauldron of Story’.
But it is a very different work that I want to flag up here. At an uncertain date, following the deaths of two of his adult children, MacDonald produced A Book of Strife, in the Form of the Diary of an Old Soul. It is available for download in various places, like here and here. So personal is it that he published it privately for his circle of friends, printed only on right-hand pages, so that the reader could make comments or notes on the other. It was made public only after his death.
MacDonald muses and wrestles with God in imagined conversations, set in 7-line stanzas, one for each day of the year. Stripped of easy answers by deep pain, he reflects upon God, crises of faith, the human condition, sickness, suffering and loss. The whole collection is intensely personal and rooted in the here and now, all myth laid aside.
Can anything go wrong with me?, I ask,
And the same moment, at a sudden pain,
Stand trembling. Up from the great river’s brim
Comes a cold breath; the farther bank is dim;
The heaven is black with clouds and coming rain;
High-soaring faith is grown a heavy task,
And all is wrong with weary heart and brain. [September 12]
This stands in the tradition of Christian mystical verse, and it is clear that MacDonald was a poet (esteemed, indeed, by Tennyson, Longfellow and Walt Whitman). The mystics sought to raise the profile of intuition, experience and desire in the process of faith. ‘Consolations’ and ‘desertions’ were their bread and butter. For MacDonald, trust and hope are never far away, however, and end up strengthened.
When I no more can stir my soul to move,
And life is but the ashes of a fire;
When I can but remember that my heart
Once used to live and love, long and aspire;
Oh be Thou then the first, the one Thou art.
Be Thou the calling, before all answering love,
And in me wake hope, fear and boundless desire. [January 10]
Antony of Egypt was a true pioneer, whose influence is still felt today. What makes him so remarkable is that he did what he did long before it made sense to do such things, but by doing it he blazed a trail for posterity.
Evangelical Protestant historians explain the migration to the desert by thousands of monks, nuns and hermits as a reaction against the political “Christendom” created by Constantine I and his successors in the 4th century. Yet Antony had already made his statement a generation earlier, at a time when the Early Church was still supposed to be in its bloom.
Born in Egypt about AD 251, his parents died when he was young, leaving him a small fortune. One day he heard a Christian quote Jesus’ words: If you would be perfect, go sell all you have, give to the poor, and come follow Me (Matthew 19:21). They cut him like a knife. He sold his estate and became the disciple of a godly priest.
Yet his heart grew restless. He didn’t belong to the world he saw around him. He felt a strong pull to the desert beyond the Nile. Here hot and cold, flood and drought engaged men in a daily, physical battle for life itself. To Antony, this mirrored the human soul in its battle between flesh and spirit, love for God and love of self. Here too was a pioneering adventure, where only the real would make it.
So Antony went to live alone in the desert. Friends sent food every few days; all else depended on his survival skills. His experiences were later dictated to a follower – and what reading they make! He fought boredom and guilt, sexual temptations and hunger for possessions. He gives graphic accounts of battles with demons, but also of sweet times of communion with Jesus. He also learned the importance of manual work for focusing the mind; he wove reed baskets and sold them in town.
His reputation spread and men came to the desert to be near him. Reluctantly, in AD 305, he left his solitude and spent six years drawing these disciples into a community of hermits. In time, some 5,000 were under his authority. They lived alone or in pairs in the week, then came together on Sundays for worship, fellowship and mutual support. He taught them the foundational principles that he had based his own life on: love, patience, celibacy, gentleness and humility. Hate all peace that comes from the flesh, he taught. Gain your brother, and you have gained God. Offend your brother, and you sin against Christ.
Antony was well aware of the prophetic power of his act of renunciation of ‘normality’. A time is coming when men will go mad, he is recorded as saying, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, “You are mad, you are not like us.”
A monastery built in the vicinity of Antony’s original community still exists and is a popular tourist destination. But Antony himself found celebrity unpalatable and withdrew deeper into the desert, where he lived to be over 100. He appeared only twice: to strengthen persecuted brethren in Alexandria, and to counter a dangerous heresy. His burial place was kept secret, since he feared men’s idolatry. Today, Antony is acknowledged as the founding ‘Desert Father’ (though Paul of Thebes was the first hermit); the man who broke the mould and let passion for Jesus create a new, living ‘wineskin’ (Matthew 9:17) for the Holy Spirit’s life.