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]
In AD635, two men were sent out on apostolic missions and, in the face of great dangers, broke through with the gospel in unreached lands. Aidan was a fiery Irishman, Alopen a refined Persian. Both were monks, both gifted communicators. Entirely independently, both were commissioned and sent to start churches: one at the North-West frontier of civilisation, the other in the far East. Aidan became the Apostle of northern England, Alopen the Apostle to China. Despite their extraordinary linked destiny, they never met or even knew of each other.
Britain at the turn of the 600s was a battleground of warring tribal kingdoms, most of them pagan. A Christian prince named Oswald was sent to the Celtic monastery on the Scottish island of Iona for his own safety. In 634 he felt ready to deliver his kingdom, Northumbria, in the north of England. He defeated the invaders and was crowned king.
One of his first acts was to ask Iona to send someone to convert his pagan subjects. An envoy was sent but returned saying that the Northumbrians were obstinate barbarians, beyond redemption! At this, an Irish monk named Aidan spoke up: it was foolish to expect pagans to accept the strict rules of a Celtic monastery – they must be met on their own level, with grace and humility. For this, Aidan himself was appointed for the apostolic mission to re-evangelise the north of England. It was AD 635.
He established his base on Lindisfarne, an island off the east coast, which became known as Holy Island. Why an island? Because road travel was dangerous because of robbers, and much of the business of life was done by sea. From here teams went out with the gospel, planting churches and establishing centres at Melrose, Jarrow and Whitby. By the time he died in 651, Northumbria was almost wholly evangelised.
Aidan succeeded by developing key relationships with those who helped to expand the work, and by wise and creative planning. He didn’t do all the work himself – at first, he couldn’t even speak the language but needed interpreters. He appointed and trusted many workers. Other noted Celtic saints, Hild (or Hilda), Chad and Cuthbert, built up important ministries under his covering.
But Aidan was a communicator. He could empathise. Any gifts he received from the wealthy, he gave to the poor. This included a fine stallion given to him by the king. The king was furious, but Aidan replied: “Is the son of a mare more important to you than a son of God?” The humbled king knelt and asked forgiveness.
Aidan’s primary witness was through the genuineness of his life. He refused personal gain, showed no partiality (rebuking kings when they needed it), and practised rigorous self-denial. If the king came to Lindisfarne, he had to eat the same food as the monks and beggars. Aidan’s approach was “Do as I do”, not “Do as I say”, and because his life was open to all, people gladly followed and the Church was built.
ALOPEN: APOSTLE OF THE EAST
In ancient times, China was better known in the West than you might suppose. For centuries a trade route called the Silk Road had linked China with Persia and the West. Arab and Persian merchants settled in China, and Chinese envoys reached ancient Rome. But by the 5th and 6th centuries, tribal wars had shut the Silk Road and made China a closed empire.
The arrival of the T’ang Dynasty (AD 618-877) changed all this. The Chinese army crushed the rebels and a golden age of Chinese culture began. The capital, Chang-an (modern Xi-an), was the largest walled city ever built, with two million inhabitants. The reopening of the Silk Road in 632 brought a new cosmopolitan flavour. The Emperor, T’ai Tsung (known today as Taizong), tolerated all religions and encouraged the discussion of foreign ideas.
The Church saw its opportunity and took it. In 635, the Assyrian archbishop Yeshuyab sent an apostolic team, led by a learned and wise monk named Alopen. They accompanied a traders’ camel train and arrived at Chang-an.
Alopen had done his homework. He knew the very formal Chinese culture and the need to avoid open war with the Buddhists. So for three years, he and Chinese converts worked on the first Christian book in the Chinese language: The Sutra of Jesus Messiah. A sutra was the way Buddhists presented their teachings, as a series of discourses. Alopen was playing them at their own game.
Much reads strangely to Western ears: Jesus is “the Heaven-Honoured One”, the “Master of the Victorious Law”, who has sent “the Pure Breeze” (the Holy Spirit) from “our Three-One”. But the Emperor was pleased with what he read and in 638 made a decree: Alopen’s religion was “wonderful, spontaneous, producing perception and establishing essentials for the salvation of creatures and the benefit of man“. The Emperor commanded that a Christian religious centre be built from public funds in the Western merchants’ quarter of the city.
From this base, with a core of just 21 Christians, the gospel spread out into the land. Four regional centres were built and by the time of the next Emperor, Kuo Tsung, there were churches in ten provinces. Alopen was made bishop (or in the quaint Chinese, “Spiritual Lord, Protector of the Empire”) and the Church was able to put down firm roots in China – which it would need when persecution was unleashed by Empress Wu in 690.
The New Testament says that the Church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets – Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone (Ephesians 2:19-20). By their labours, endurance, anointing and above all love, they become fathers to the churches, as Paul, Peter and the others did in the Early Church. It may still be debated whether there are apostles today of the calibre and stamp of Jesus’ Twelve, but the apostolic heart should be something we long to see outpoured more and more, if the Church is regain (and retain) her radicality.
I continue to trawl through historical Christian writings on the subject of friendship. Next up is a fascinating piece with an obscure origin. It claims to be a letter to John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, from his mother, Anthusa, entitled On Ideal Friendship. It would date to the final quarter of the 4th century.
What complicates matters is that Anthusa is nowhere referred to by any other Early Church writers as an ancient authority. Meanwhile, the bulk of the text of the letter can be found, almost verbatim, in various of Chrysostom’s own works, especially his Homilies. So we are probably looking at “John Chrysostom on Ideal Friendship”.
The letter is not long and most of it is eminently quotable. In this post I’ll look at the introduction and opening section. It speaks for itself.
The letter opens with a verse from the Apocrypha: “A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter,” [Ecclesiasticus 6:14a], and the comment: Though you were to name a thousand treasures, there is nothing comparable to a real friend. The first section is then devoted to the pleasure that true friendship brings.
A friend overflows when he sees his friend. He is united to him in a union that affords indescribable pleasure of the soul. If he merely thinks of him, he rises and is carried upwards in his mind. I speak of genuine friends, who are of one accord, of those who would choose to die for their friends, of those who love warmly.
A true friend is such that places and times are loved on his account. For, as shining objects shed a lustre upon the adjoining places, even so friends impart their own grace to the places they have been. And oftentimes, when standing in those places without our friends, we have wept and groaned, remembering the days when we were there together.
The writer notes that those who have known the beauty of such a depth of heart-friendship will instinctively understand this, but that such people are relatively few. “When (such friends) make a request of us, we are grateful to them, but when they are slow to ask, then we are sad. We have nothing which is not theirs. It would be better to live in darkness than to be without friends. And how can I say this? Because many who see the sun are in darkness.”
I speak of the spiritual friends who set nothing above friendship. Such was Paul, who would willingly have given his own soul, without having been asked, and would have willingly fallen into Hell for his brethren [Romans 9:3]. With so burning an affection is it proper to love. Take this as an example of friendship. Friends surpass fathers and sons, that is, friends according to Christ.
Of all the Church Fathers, Augustine of Hippo (354-430) pondered the most on human relationships in general, and heart-friendships in particular. What makes him so readable on this – and on so much else – is the sheer humanity and honesty with which he wrote. His autobiographical Confessions make no attempt to cover his colourful pre-conversion life, where “the madness of lust” made him live “a life in which I was seduced and seducing, deceived and deceiving”.
His conversion experience at age 33 took place in the company of a friend, Alypius, and for the rest of his life he lived in various forms of Christian community, surrounded by others, sharing his life with them. Some of these were particularly close to his heart. With hindsight, Augustine reassesses some earlier relationships which had seemed to be ‘the real thing’, but which proved not to be, as they were founded on two close but wrong ‘cousins’. Let us consider two of these: sex and infatuation (or co-dependency).
In Books 3-6 of the Confessions we find a young woman, whom he does not name, who became the mother of his child. “I loved the idea of love”, he writes, “but I muddied the clear spring of friendship with the dirt of lustful desire.” The couple remained together for 13 years and the bond clearly went deep. When his commitment to his faith led to them parting, “my heart, which clung to her, was broken and wounded and dripping blood.” He adds that the woman never took another man. In a culture where the term “friend” was usually only applied to men, Augustine says a lot about this relationship by referring to his ex-partner as his “friend”.
So, sexual union is not the fulfilment of the heart’s desire for friendship. In our day, when sex is billed as everything and leaves hearts broken and empty when it turns out not to be so, such a voice needs to be heard. But what does it offer instead?
In Book 4 we read of a childhood friend in his native Tagaste (in modern Algeria). They were the same age and had played and gone to school together. The friendship with this lad continued into manhood. It was “sweeter to me than anything I had ever known. My soul could not be without him.” Augustine was devastated when his friend died of a fever. “Tears took the place of my friend in my heart’s love. I was in misery, for I felt that my soul and my friend’s had been one soul in two bodies.”
At this point, a 21st century reader may already be thinking “gay”, even as the archetypal male heart-bond of David and Jonathan in the Bible is interpreted as “gay” in some circles today [1 Samuel 20:17; 2 Samuel 1:26]. But we should remember that such a branding of all same-sex attraction is an invention of the 19th century; it was not thought about that way in previous times and we must avoid crude retro-projections of modern interpretations.
More useful to us is Augustine’s own judgement with the benefit of hindsight: “We depended too much on each other… He was not a friend in the true meaning of friendship.” Here, then, is the second ‘near miss’ on the road to deep heart-friendship: the persuasive but largely mythical idea of the “bosom buddy” who will meet all your emotional needs and where the relationship seems to require little real work.
We continue to look at what Augustine of Hippo (†430) expresses about human relationships, especially heart-friendship, in his autobiographical masterpiece, Confessions.
Broken-hearted at the death of his childhood friend, Augustine relocated to Carthage in 376 as a tutor in rhetoric. Here, with students who in some cases were not much younger than he, he found solace from his grief.
[It was a joy to him] to talk and jest together, to do kindness to each other; to read pleasant books together; to play the fool or be earnest together; to dissent at times without discontent, as a man might with his own self. These and other similar expressions, proceeding out of the hearts of those who love and are loved in return, [which are expressed] in the countenance, the tongue, the eyes, and a thousand pleasing gestures, were like fuel to melt our souls together, and out of many make us one.
Project this description forward sixteen centuries and you have today’s “soap opera” model of friendship. To anyone fed a diet of these programs, Augustine’s circle at Carthage was pretty high on the scale. Fun, arguments, horseplay, kindness – surely this is as good as it gets? And this is precisely where we see the alarming erosion of personal relationships today: people have to be guided by the media, and don’t even realise when they’re being sold short!
Augustine, however, was still not satisfied. Looking back later, he saw that his Carthage circle were chums, mates, buddies, but not friends of the heart. They were, if you like, the outer circle of relationships that everyone needs.
It was in Milan that things changed. He found a wise mentor in the bishop, Ambrose, and set his heart on becoming a Christian. He lodged with several young men, two of whom became lifelong friends: Alypius and Nebridius. Book 6 of the Confessions tells us more about them.
“Alypius was very fond of me because he saw me as good and learned, and I was very fond of him because of his natural tendency towards virtue which was remarkable in one so young.” The relationship went deeper because they opened up to each other their weaknesses, struggles and confusion. In later years Augustine called Alypius “the brother of my heart” and wrote to Jerome: Anyone who knows us both would say that he and I are distinct individuals but one in mind, in harmony and trusty friendship.
Nebridius, “a really good and pure young man, had come to Milan for no other reason than that he might live with me in a most ardent search after truth and wisdom.” Here too the relationship deepened through vulnerability and honesty: “Together we sighed and together we wavered.” Nebridius also watched over Augustine, reining in his intellectual curiosity and protecting him from heresies. “He set me before myself, forcing me to look into my own face.”
Here, then, is the inner circle of friendship – the relative few within our circle with whom we can drop our guard and let our true self be known. It is this that turns ‘chums’ into true heart-friends.
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.