When thou art far away | From an Old Soul

by Elouise

When are you most alive? That’s the puzzle George MacDonald is chewing on in today’s sonnet. His answer is unexpected. My comments follow.

July 18

How do I live when thou art far away?
When I am sunk, and lost, and dead in sleep,
Or in some dream with no sense in its play?
When weary-dull, or drowned in study deep?
O Lord, I live so utterly on thee,
I live when I forget thee utterly—
Not that thou thinkest of, but thinkest me.

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

MacDonald’s opening question suggests that when his Lord is far away, he might not be truly alive. In the preceding sonnet, he talked about being ill, about harder times ahead, and how much he’ll be comforted by his Lord’s “strengthenings.”

But now a question comes into his mind. If his Lord is far away, does that mean his ability to live (or be comforted) has vanished? Has the One on whom he most depends abandoned him? Forgotten him? Stopped caring about what’s happening to him?

Without his Lord, MacDonald suggests his identity as a ‘real’ person would be in danger, if not his very life. He thinks about times when it might seem his Lord is far away. Times when he isn’t necessarily thinking about his Lord.

For example, maybe he’s ‘dead’ in sleep, or caught up in a dream that doesn’t make sense. Or maybe he’s trying to study, but can’t stay awake because he’s exhausted or the subject is deadly dull. Or perhaps it’s riveting, and he gets so lost in study that he loses track of time, or where he is, or what he’s supposed to do next. Is he still truly alive, truly living?

It may seem not. Nonetheless, MacDonald seems to conclude it doesn’t matter whether he’s consciously thinking of his Lord.

In fact, he seems to say yes, I’m aware that my aliveness depends entirely on You, not on me. That means I’m alive even when “I forget thee utterly.” As when I’m sound asleep.

In fact, it’s good to take You for granted! Why? Because that’s the only way I really live in either case–awake or asleep.

Does this mean MacDonald is free to “forget” God? I don’t think so. He seems, rather,  to say he can and must take his Lord for granted. From a practical point of view, he can’t avoid this.

In the end, even when he isn’t thinking of his Lord, his Lord is thinking him. Not thinking of him but thinking him. Without this, MacDonald has no existence at all–whether he’s awake, asleep, or in some dream that doesn’t make sense.

MacDonald doesn’t live because he moves and breathes, or even because his Lord created him to move and breathe. Instead, he lives only because his Lord thinks him every second of every day and every night. Were he not a constant “thinking” in his Lord’s mind, MacDonald would not exist at all.

To exist is radical grace. It’s a gift born of God’s eternally creative thinking, not a jump-start to get things going so that we can or must take it from there.

This means I exist because God thinks me. Not because I’m a good girl or a wise woman, or a bad girl and an unwise woman. No, God thinks me; therefore I am.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 28 October 2015