‘In My Dead Moments’: George MacDonald’s Reflections on Life, Pain and God

Dead Moments

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 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 intuitionexperience 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]





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About Trevor Saxby

I'm a mentor, friend to many, with a PhD in church history. I love learning from the 'movers and shakers' of the past, as I want to be one today!

6 responses to “‘In My Dead Moments’: George MacDonald’s Reflections on Life, Pain and God”

  1. Sørina Higgins says :

    Thank you very much for this post. I appreciate how you drew together MacDonald and the Inklings and also MacDonald and his Victorian poet contemporaries. I love (and am a bit afraid of!) his fantasy works, but there is so much more to his body of writing than that: the sermons, the realist novels, etc.

    I’m interested that you brought up “Consolations” and “desertions.” Are these the same as the cycles of Consolation and Desolation that Ignatius wrote about?

    • sch0larly says :

      Thank you for your helpful observations, Sørina. You have read more widely in MacDonald’s corpus than I have. Which realist novel would you recommend to me as a starting point?

      You’re right about the Ignatian terms. In his notes for spiritual directors of those performing the “Exercises”, he stresses that *absence* of such highs and lows are a concerning indicator, suggesting something is missing in the person’s inner experience. Of course, the same experiences were happening in the mystic tradition long before Ignatius. In our day, when “desolations” are to be avoided at all costs or treated with medication or therapy, we miss out on so much in the spiritual department.

  2. John Vagabond says :

    You have, I confess, surprised me. George MacDonald was a favorite, years ago; the idea of Universalism has its attractions. The text of “Old Soul” reads like a Job-like meditation. Thanks for publishing.

    • sch0larly says :

      To have surprised you, John, indeed warms me on a cold day 🙂 I was, of course, not concerning myself with MacDonald’s struggle with – and eventual rejection of – the rigid determinism of his Calvinistic upbringing. My focus was the heart, the poetry, the human and mystical struggle towards the divine. Perhaps the two are, however, linked?

      • John Vagabond says :

        Sorry for the tardy response. I think you’re quite right – determinism is the enemy of poetry – having Calvin (or indeed Ignatius, John of the Cross, or whoever) round for lunch would have been a dreary, if somewhat surreal affair.

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