because it is thy will | From an Old Soul
Why do you think MacDonald called his collection of sonnets A Book of Strife in the form of the Diary of an Old Soul? Thanks to the reader who asked the question! My response is below.
First, we have a sonnet for today. Note that all sonnets in this post are from George MacDonald’s Diary of an Old Soul, Augsburg Fortress Press 1997.
I cannot tell why this day I am ill;
But I am well because it is thy will—
Which is to make me pure and right like thee.
Not yet I need escape—‘tis bearable
Because thou knowest. And when harder things
Shall rise and gather, and overshadow me,
I shall have comfort in thy strengthening.
Why am I ill today? I don’t know. But when I’m well, it’s because You’re re-creating me. So far I’m doing OK. I can take it because You know my situation. When things get really tough, I’ll count on Your comfort and strength to get me through.
No sign here of struggle, doubt, fear or dismay. For that reason alone, this sonnet stands out from many others. In addition, MacDonald writes in simple, straightforward language. This makes me think the illness was severe. In any case, I don’t hear an internal struggle or convoluted attempts to find the right words or images.
In 1858 MacDonald lost his father and his youngest brother within a two-week period. Later, in 1878 and 1879 he lost the first two of his children to die before he did. The Diary emerges in large part from his grief about these losses. Though the collection wasn’t written for wide distribution, it was published privately in 1880 as A Book of Strife in the form of the Diary of an Old Soul. MacDonald made copies available to friends who heard about it and requested copies.
On the Dedication page MacDonald tells us his intent for the book. The left-hand pages were blank. Here’s what he intends.
Sweet friends, receive my offering. You will find
Against each worded page a white page set:–
This is the mirror of each friendly mind
Reflecting that. In this book we are met.
Make it, dear hearts, of worth to you indeed:–
Let your white page be ground, my print be seed,
Growing to golden ears, that faith and hope shall feed.
YOUR Old Soul
Immediately following, his January 1 sonnet states what he, as “thy old soul,” now wants from God.
Lord, what I once had done with youthful might,
Had I been from the first true to the truth,
Grant me, now old, to do—with better sight.
And humbler heart, if not the brain of youth;
So wilt thou, in thy gentleness and truth,
Lead back thy old soul, by the path of pain,
Round to his best—young eyes and heart and brain.
Finally, our question: Why does MacDonald title this A Book of Strife in the form of the Diary of an Old Soul?
In his Diary, MacDonald strives with his Lord, and his Lord strives with him using both “gentleness and truth.” Even when delivered gently, truth isn’t pain-free. MacDonald wants to be led back “by the path of pain.” He isn’t asking for an easy pass.
And so MacDonald makes painfully visible his ongoing struggle (striving, strife) with his Lord. It’s a fight from beginning to end. MacDonald faces up to his fears, anxieties, sense of failure, grief, anger, self-righteousness and ignorance. Also his temptation to jump ship, bolt, just give up. And yet….
The Lord strives to keep or bring MacDonald home to the home/castle still under construction. The castle belongs to the Lord and includes living space for MacDonald. This Lord is determined NOT to lose this beloved son. Thus, when a fight is called for, it’s at least as fierce a fight as any other titled lord would wage.
Do you strive with the Lord? With yourself? With your fears, anxieties, losses and all the rest? If so, maybe this Diary is your book of strife, ready for your notes on the left-hand page.
© Elouise Renich Fraser, 14 October 2015