Thou? Far away? | From an Old Soul
Thou? Far away? Is that possible? George MacDonald takes a second and third look at God’s presence and absence. My comments follow.
Thou far! That word the holy truth doth blur.
Doth the great ocean from the small fish run
When it sleeps fast in its low weedy bower?
Is the sun far from any smallest flower,
That lives by its dear presence every hour?
Are they not one in oneness without stir—
The flower the flower because the sun the sun?
“Dear presence every hour”! What of the night,
When crumpled daisies shut gold sadness in,
And some do hang the head for lack of light,
Sick almost unto death with absence-blight?
Thy memory then, warm-lingering in the ground,
Mourned dewy in the air, keeps their hearts sound,
Till fresh with day their lapsed life begin.
George MacDonald, Diary of an Old Soul
Augsburg Fortress 1994
In the opening line of the first sonnet, MacDonald questions his choice of words in the preceding sonnet: “How do I live when thou art far away?” In that sonnet he referred to God as “far away,” though in reality, without the Lord thinking MacDonald, he would have no existence. Nor would we.
Now he acknowledges that language about God being far away doesn’t quite reflect reality. So he turns, as he often does, to the natural world for insight.
First he imagines God as a great ocean in which little fish sleep soundly below the surface, in the seaweed.Then he imagines God as the sun whose rays come near each tiny flower, warming it, giving it life in any moment of the day.
Neither the little fish nor the flower is tied up in knots about whether God is near or far! Nor do they necessarily die in the night. Instead, they simply are what they are. Dependent upon the ocean, and on the warm rays of the sun. In fact, they couldn’t be what they are without this relation to sun and sea.
It seems, however, that this line of reasoning doesn’t fully respond to MacDonald’s anxiety about the nearness of his Lord.
MacDonald begins the next sonnet with a quote: “Dear presence every hour”! Is this a hymn? A poem? I don’t know. Many hymns refer to needing God’s presence every hour.
MacDonald seems to be asking how this could be so—especially during the night. For him, night itself is often symbolic of difficult or disturbing things that happen in our lives.
Again, he turns to nature. What happens when the sun goes down? Daisies droop and look like they’re moving toward death. They close their petals and hang their heads because there isn’t enough light.
MacDonald suggests they seem “sick almost unto death” with a malady he calls “absence-blight.” Their golden centers disappear. Surely God has abandoned this daisy (read: ‘human being’). The daisy might die during the night!
But look! The memory of this life-giving presence lingers in the ground and gives off warmth at night. Enough heat to create dew in the air, perhaps tears of mourning.
Fog and dew rising from the warm earth keep daisies alive at night. When they awake the next day, they remind us that we too can count on God’s presence every hour. Whether we ‘see’ it or not.
© Elouise Renich Fraser, 14 November 2015