“Yestereve, Death came. . .”
This week I’ve been thinking about death, including my own. My mother and one of my three sisters, Diane, died in February. Mom died in 1999 from complications following a stroke. Diane died in 2006 after living with ALS for ten years. Both were polio survivors of a 1949 polio epidemic. Their death anniversaries are within a few days of each other.
When George MacDonald wrote the two sonnet-prayers below, he had death on his mind. His coming death–whenever that might be. He had already lost four of his eleven children to death. My comments are at the end.
January 27 and 28
Yestereve, Death came, and knocked at my thin door.
I from my window looked: the thing I saw,
The shape uncouth, I had not seen before.
I was disturbed—with fear, in sooth, not awe;
Whereof ashamed, I instantly did rouse
My will to seek thee–only to fear the more:
Alas! I could not find thee in the house.
I was like Peter when he began to sink.
To thee a new prayer therefore I have got—
That, when Death comes in earnest to my door,
Thou wouldst thyself go, when the latch doth clink,
And lead Death to my room, up to my cot;
Then hold thy child’s hand, hold and leave him not,
Till Death has done with him for evermore.
George MacDonald, Diary of an Old Soul,
© 1994 Augsburg Fortress Press
The first stanza has a slightly nightmarish quality. MacDonald addresses God. He describes what happened the night before, how he responded, and how distressed he became when he couldn’t find God in his house. Perhaps his ‘house’ refers to himself? In any case, MacDonald names his greatest fear: that God won’t be present at his death. Perhaps God abandoned him or forgot him? Or decided not to come? He doesn’t say.
In the second sonnet he’s thinking about Jesus’ disciple Peter and his bold decision to walk on water—before beginning to sink. MacDonald decides to pray a new prayer, and wants to be certain God hears it. His voice is now direct, bold and concrete. He knows exactly what he wants God to do! In fact, it seems that in the act of praying his new prayer he finds his voice, his identity and his courage to name and face the enemy.
I’m struck by how conversational MacDonald’s prayers are. They’re sometimes childlike, despite his great learning and vast vocabulary. Almost effortlessly, he weaves formal and informal prayer into his daily thought-life. Finally, I love his ‘new prayer.’ I can imagine praying it, or something like it, for myself. I was going to say “praying it someday,” but that might be foolish. Like MacDonald, I know death is coming but I don’t know when.
© Elouise Renich Fraser, 9 February 2015