What could be cooler than having mentored Lewis Carrol? How about C.S. Lewis calling you his “master”? Being friends with Mark Twain and Walt Whitman? Being the major inspiration of J.R.R Tolkien? All of this is true of a little known Scottish mystic, poet and writer named George Macdonald (1824-1905).
Macdonald wrote dozens of novels and was a pioneer in the creation of modern fantasy literature. He was also a pastor who was kicked out of his own Church for controversial preaching. Macdonald was a brilliant spiritual writer and something even more rare — a sage. C.S. Lewis said of him, “I know hardly any other writer who seems to be closer, or more continually close, to the Spirit of Christ Himself.” Below are a few gems from the writings of this remarkable man:
1) “A man is in bondage to whatever he cannot part with that is less than himself.”
The question that jumps out here is: what things are ‘less than oneself’? God is not less, but more. Other people are not less, but equal. A cause or a principle might be more, but not less. Wealth, though, is less. Pleasure is less. Esteem, reputation, what others think– less. An emotion– less. An emotion that someone else has– less. Any part of yourself, or anything you value that is only a part of human happiness, one should be able to live without. It’s interesting to think that while this doesn’t mean not loving others, there is nevertheless no emotional state or state of affairs which is not “less than oneself”.
2) “To be trusted is a greater compliment than being loved.”
This is an important insight. There are many reasons why someone might love you– because of what you do for them, because of a hope they have in you, because some quality of yours delights them. That quality might be physical, or might be a random quirk of your personality. Trusting you, however, is dependent on only one thing: their perception that you are trustworthy. What greater virtue is there than being worthy of trust?
3) “Low-sunk life imagines itself weary of life, but it is death, not life, it is weary of.”
As Macdonald writes elsewhere, when a person thinks that they want less of life they are mistaken. They do not want less, but more.
4) “The fire of God, which is His essential being, His love, His creative power, is a fire unlike its earthly symbol in this, that it is only at a distance it burns–that the further from Him, it burns the worse.”
This is one of Macdonald’s most brilliant images. The Bible says that God is a “consuming fire” and Macdonald dwells on this image in several of his writings. For Macdonald the fire of God is a “purifying fire” which consumes impurities and whose essential nature is love. It is a love which does not just warm or comfort (though it does that) but more importantly, transforms.
Like a refiner’s fire the fire of God’s love removes impurities– it “makes us more lovely, more worthy of love, as it loves us”. Macdonald here says that love is not truly love by wishing the loved one simply to remain as they are. This modern, romantic conception of love is shallow and incomplete. Love wishes to see growth and increase in the beauty of what it loves. Love wishes to see the beloved become ever more what they essentially are, ever more freely and in strength. According to MacDonald, only God knows us fully as we really are, only God knows our true potential, which makes his/her love, in a sense, relentless. God does not love us into stagnation or self-indulgence, but into change and growth, which can often be painful.
Macdonald here points out that the “fire” of God’s love is of a unique character– it does not burn you the closer you get, but rather burns the further you away go. The closer you get to the fire of God the less it burns, and the more you discover it’s nature as love.
5) “It is by loving and not by being loved that one can come nearest to the soul of another.”
Macdonald was not only, or even principally, concerned about the love of God in distinction to the love of people. In fact these two were the same to him. Here he points out that the way to draw closer to another person is not to win their love, and not to try to manipulate them into loving you more, but rather to learn how to love them.
6) “Otherness is the essential ground of affection. The love that enlarges not its borders, that is not ever-spreading and including, and deepening, will contract, shrivel, decay and die.”
Difference is not a challenge to true love but its pre-condition. The more difference, the more potential for love. Macdonald points out here that a love which does not keep growing to include more and more difference, more types of people, more situations, more challenges, will tend to stagnate and then retreat.
7) “I repent me of the ignorance wherein I ever said that God made humans out of nothing: there is no nothing out of which to make anything; God is all in all, and Divinity made us out of Divinity.”
Macdonald is riffing here off of the traditional Theistic doctrine “creation ex nihilo” which affirms that God is not just a kind of super-being who crafts the universe but the creator of everything, the ultimate cause of all forms of existence. Macdonald here points out that when God created humans s/he did not make something out of nothing, but rather must formed them of the only resource there was to work with: God itself.
8) “The whole system of the universe works upon this law– the driving of things upward toward the center, an ongoing process that has no end.”
Macdonald believed that God willed the salvation and perfection of all creatures and would ultimately succeed in rescuing every soul to bring it to him/herself. The process of understanding and delighting in an infinite God would go on infinitely. It was not a question of attaining a static, boring “heaven” but a never ending process of deepening beauty and divine adventure.
9) “Each person for whom we can do anything is our neighbour. We must not choose our neighbours; we must take the neighbour that God sends.”
Macdonald here builds on the parable of the good samaritan (Luke). This one doesn’t need any commentary. In the era of the international refugee this quote takes on an urgent resonance.
10)”A healthy child’s heart holds within it the secret of creation.”
What is that secret? I will leave this last quote for you to ponder yourself. If you’ve never read Macdonald, try the “Collected Fairy Tales” to start, and happy reading.