When my heart sinks | From an Old Soul

by Elouise

When your heart sinks, how do you think about yourself in relation to God? Things aren’t always as they seem. Here George MacDonald begins with an assumption and ends up somewhere else. I’ve included brief notes on three terms that might be unfamiliar, followed by brief observations about the content of each sonnet.

July 14, 15, 16

Help me, my Father, in whatever dismay,
Whatever terror in whatever shape,
To hold the faster by thy garment’s hem;
When my heart sinks, oh, lift it up, I pray;
Thy child should never fear though hell should gape,
Not blench* though all the ills that men affray*
Stood round him like the Roman round Jerusalem.

Too eager I must not be to understand.
How should the work the master goes about
Fit the vague sketch my compasses* have planned?
I am his house—for him to go in and out.
He builds me now—and if I cannot see
At any time what he is doing with me,
‘Tis that he makes the house for me too grand.

The house is not for me—it is for him.
His royal thoughts require many a stair,
Many a tower, many an outlook fair,
Of which I have no thought, and need no care.
Where I am most perplexed, it may be there
Thou mak’st a secret chamber, holy-dim,
Where thou wilt come to help my deepest prayer.

George MacDonald, Diary of an Old Soul
Augsburg Fortress Press, 1997

*MacDonald’s vocabulary is sometimes challenging. Here’s how I’m reading these words, after consulting the dictionary and history of usage for each.

  • Blench (verb) – shrink or flinch from something/someone
  • Affray (verb) – to frighten (here: “all the ills that frighten men”)
  • Compasses (noun?) – comprehension – (here: …the vague sketch I’ve made based on my comprehension)

Here’s what seems to be going on in each sonnet, followed by a few observations.

  • 1st sonnet: Even though I’m scared out of my wits, and know I shouldn’t be afraid, I need help! MacDonald compares his own situations of terror and dismay with the history of biblical Jerusalem and invading Romans. He wants God to lift up his sinking heart, and seems almost ashamed of his dismay.
  • 2nd sonnet: There’s no way I can understand what God is doing with me right now. Could God be making me into a much grander house than I can imagine? In any case, God is free to come and go as needed to finish building me.
  • 3rd sonnet: This isn’t a house for me! God is constructing God’s own dwelling place—a castle! With many stairs, towers and outlooks all around. God’s vast being requires this; I do not. Perhaps God is constructing somewhere in God’s house a secret, ‘holy-dim’ chamber where God will come to my aid.

With the third sonnet, MacDonald’s thinking comes to rest, at least for now. He already dwells, in some sense, within God’s castle. His perplexing circumstances may be the very place where God is already constructing a secret, “holy-dim” space, and will come “to help my deepest prayer.”

I’m drawn to the image of God constructing a grand castle with a secret place where God will come to my aid. I don’t need to climb or drag myself up cumbersome stairs to knock on God’s door high in a regal tower. Why not? Because God’s house-castle contains within it a “secret chamber” just for me. A place where God can meet with me.

In fact, God will and has already descended to my “secret chamber,” my pit of despair, and will do so as often as needed. Not to leave me there, but to invite me to come and sit at the feast God has prepared for me. In the presence of my enemies—some of whom are doubtless sitting around the table with me.

I wonder. Is MacDonald ready for this? Am I?

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 3 October 2015