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The Golden Key and the Shadowlands (George MacDonald)

From time to time I’ll bust out a little devotional meditation based on a line of thought started by a random story. This is one such line of thought, and I’m relatively sure it’s similar to the line of thought George MacDonald would have wanted to stir up:

I’ve been reading George MacDonald’s story, The Golden Key with my daughter the past two days. I’ve read it before, but it has been a couple of years. I had forgotten how moving the description of the land of shadows is:

After a while, they reached more open spaces, where the shadows were thinner; and came even to portions over which shadows only flitted, leaving them clear for such as might follow. Now a wonderful form, half bird-like half human, would float across on outspread sailing pinions. Anon an exquisite shadow group of gambolling children would be followed by the loveliest female form, and that again by the grand stride of a Titanic shape, each disappearing in the surrounding press of shadowy foliage. Sometimes a profile of unspeakable beauty or grandeur would appear for a moment and vanish. Sometimes they seemed lovers that passed linked arm in arm, sometimes father and son, sometimes brothers in loving contest, sometimes sisters entwined in gracefullest community of complex form. Sometimes wild horses would tear across, free, or bestrode by noble shadows of ruling men. But some of the things which pleased them most they never knew how to describe.

About the middle of the plain they sat down to rest in the heart of a heap of shadows. After sitting for a while, each, looking up, saw the other in tears: they were each longing after the country whence the shadows fell.

“We MUST find the country from which the shadows come,” said Mossy.

“We must, dear Mossy,” responded Tangle. “What if your golden key should be the key to it?”

Of course Plato’s Allegory of the Cave comes to mind, but so does a famous quote by C.S. Lewis from The Weight of Glory:

At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.

Every day, especially Sunday, we see shadows. And the beauty of a shadow is that it is cast by an object with real weight:

  • Colossians 2:16 ¶ Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.

And until that day we say with the singer,

  • Song of Solomon 4:6 Until the day break, and the shadows flee away, I will get me to the mountain of myrrh, and to the hill of frankincense. 7 Thou art all fair, my love; there is no spot in thee.

Now we get the foretastes of worship, then we will dwell in a shadowless land from which all of the glorious shadows come. We will have Christ – the substance, the body, the reality – in his fulness. He is the glory of the place, but also truly the key of entry:

  • Luke 11:52 Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.

The Whole Creation Is On Its Tiptoes (Rom. 8:19)

Here is a snippet from my studies from this week so far:

  • ESV Romans 8:19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.

The verse in question is Romans 8:19, and we have in view specifically the phrase ‘the creation waits with eager longing‘ or ‘earnest expectation.’

In George MacDonald’s book, The Hope of the Gospel (p. 218), he notes poet Henry Vaughan’s Latin rendition of Romans 8:19 can be translated, ‘For the things created, watching with head thrust out, await the revelation of the sons of God.’ In the poem that goes with this verse, Vaughan writes,

Sometimes I sit with Thee, and tarry
An hour or so, then vary.
Thy other creatures in this scene
Thee only aim, and mean ;
Some rise to seek Thee, and with heads
            Erect, peep from their beds ;
Others, whose birth is in the tomb,
And cannot quit the womb,
Sigh there, and groan for Thee,
Their liberty.

Friberg defines ἀποκαραδοκία, ‘watching with the head stretched forward alertly.’ Thayer defines it,’ to watch with head erect or outstretched, to direct attention to anything, to wait for in suspense.’

J.B. Phillips translates the verse in question, ‘The whole creation is on tiptoe to see the wonderful sight of the sons of God coming into their own.’

So, then, what are they stretching out their heads, craning their necks, and standing on tiptoes to see?

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare…There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal…it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors…(C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory).

They are standing on tiptoes to see men and women, boys and girls, conformed to the image of Christ, coming in glory.

The bullies of The Silver Chair got a glimpse like this as Eustace, Jill, and the resurrected King Caspian appeared in our world on their return from Narnia (near the very end of the book). The bullies saw the revelation of the children from Narnia:

Aslan turned to Jill and Eustace and breathed upon them and touched their foreheads with his tongue. Then he lay down amid the gap he had made in the wall and turned his golden back to England, and his lordly face towards his own lands…Most of the gang were there…But suddenly they stopped. Their faces changed, and all the meanness, conceit, cruelty, and sneakishness almost disappeared in one single expression of terror. For they saw the wall fallen down, and a lion as large as a young elephant lying in the gap, and three figures in glittering clothes with weapons in their hands rushing down upon them…

The hymn, Amazing Grace puts it like this: ‘When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun…

The Apostle John puts it this way:

  • 1 John 3:2 Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we will be like him, because we shall see him as he is.

The creation is on its tiptoes to see this revelation, this manifestation. It is coming. The creation is ‘groaning’ for it. Every earthquake is as a labor pain. Every tornado brings us closer to glory. Are you groaning? Are you standing on your tiptoes with the inanimate creation?

  • Isaiah 55:12 “For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
  • Psalm 97:1 The LORD reigns, let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad! 2 Clouds and thick darkness are all around him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne. 3 Fire goes before him and burns up his adversaries all around. 4 His lightnings light up the world; the earth sees and trembles. 5 The mountains melt like wax before the LORD, before the Lord of all the earth. 6 The heavens proclaim his righteousness, and all the peoples see his glory.
  • Psalm 98:7 Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who dwell in it! 8 Let the rivers clap their hands; let the hills sing for joy together 9 before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.

The hills will sing. Are you singing? The clouds gather in his presence. Do you have his presence? The rivers will clap their hands. Do you clap yours? Get on your tiptoes. You won’t believe what you are going to see.

What do a Poet and a Boat have in Common? They can both Carry you over the Sea

But as she spoke, the tiny face wore the smile of a great, grand woman. She was only having her own beautiful fun out of Diamond, and true woman’s fun never hurts.

But look there!” she resumed. “Do you see a boat with one man in it– a green and white boat?”

“Yes; quite well.”

“That’s a poet.”

“I thought you said it was a bo-at.” [think bo-it]

“Stupid pet! Don’t you know what a poet is?”

“Why, a thing to sail on the water in.”

“Well, perhaps you’re not so far wrong. Some poets do carry people over the sea. But I have no business to talk so much. The man is a poet.”

“The boat is a boat,” said Diamond.

“Can’t you spell?” asked North Wind.

“Not very well.”

“So I see. A poet is not a bo-at, as you call it. A poet is a man who is glad of something, and tries to make other people glad of it too.”

“Ah! now I know. Like the man in the sweety-shop.”

“Not very. But I see it is no use. I wasn’t sent to tell you, and so I can’t tell you. I must be off. Only first just look at the man.”

-from George MacDonald, At the Back of the North Wind, chapter 5.

Spiritual Slumps and the Presence of Christ

This is a recent readings post (so to speak). I am presently finishing up Personal Declension and the Revival of Religion in the Soul by Octavius Winslow. This is a meditation I put down in writing after reading chapter 1. For more on the allegorical and illustrative use of Song of Solomon, see HERE.

Why is it that we go through spiritual peaks and valleys? Why is it that we may be disciplined readers of the Bible, that we may have discipline in prayer, that we may observe the means of grace week by week and yet still at times feel that our souls are declining? Perhaps, like me, you have found that there are times when it feels that you are spiritually dry, spiritually dull. There may be no gross sin in your life, nothing out of the ordinary (though I hate to put it that way), and yet your soul slumps. How can this be explained?

Octavius Winslow put it like this:

This incipient state of declension may not involve any lowering of the standard of holiness; and yet there shall be no ascending of the heart, no reaching forth of the mind towards a practical conformity to that standard…there shall be no panting after conformity to Christ, no breathing after holiness…when there is more knowledge of the truth than experience of its power, – more light in the understanding than grace in the affections…The state of secret departure from God may exist in connexion with an outward and rigid observance of the means of grace; and yet there shall be no spiritual use of or enjoyment in, the means. And this, it may be, is the great lullaby of his soul. Rocked to sleep by a mere formal religion, the believer is beguiled into the delusion that his heart is right,k and his soul prosperous in the sight of God (pp. 15-16).

That’s the state we’re talking about – a dry, powerless state which is religious nonetheless. What is the answer to such a position? Winslow finds it only in the presence of Christ, mediated by the Holy Spirit. And Song of Solomon illustrates such a condition and its cure. First, from Song of Solomon 5:2-6:

  • Song of Solomon 5:2 I slept, but my heart was awake. A sound! My beloved is knocking. “Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my perfect one, for my head is wet with dew, my locks with the drops of the night.” 3 I had put off my garment; how could I put it on? I had bathed my feet; how could I soil them? 4 My beloved put his hand to the latch, and my heart was thrilled within me. 5 I arose to open to my beloved, and my hands dripped with myrrh, my fingers with liquid myrrh, on the handles of the bolt. 6 I opened to my beloved, but my beloved had turned and gone. My soul failed me when he spoke. I sought him, but found him not; I called him, but he gave no answer.

Winslow uses this as an illustration:

‘I sleep, but my heart waketh.’ Here was the existence of the Divine life in the soul, and yet that life was on the decline. She knew that she had fallen into a careless and slumbering state, that the work of grace in her soul was decaying, that the spirit of slumber had come over her; but the awful feature was, she was content to be so. She heard her Beloved knock: but, so enamoured was she with her state of drowsiness, she gave no heed to it – she opened not to him…A believer may fall into a drowsy sate of soul, not so profound as to be entirely lost to the voice of his Beloved speaking by conscience, by the word, and by providences: and yet so far may his grace have decayed, so cold may his love have grown, and so hardening may have been this declension, he shall be content that this should be his state (pp. 21-22).

The Shulamite had had the presence of her beloved before. She had experienced his love, his intimate presence, yet this presence was not static. This time sleep overcame her. Behold, he stood at the door and knocked. She heard his voice. But she was too drowsy to open the door that he might come in and commune with her.

This was a familiar occurrence for the Shulamite. Consider the first verse of Song of Solomon 3, and Winslow’s comment on it:

‘By night on my bed I sought him whom my soul loveth; I sought him, but I found him not.’ And the reason why she found him not, was her slothful posture, and her drowsy spirit in seeking him! Guard against a slothful seeking of Jesus…Seek him as that which can supply the absence of all other good, without whom nothing is good (p. 25).

How often I have lay in my bed, realizing that I had not sought Christ as I ought in the day that had passed. And so, when you find yourself in such a position, will you seek communion now as your eyes get heavy, as you prepare to fall asleep?

Spiritual slumps, backsliding, lethargy of the soul, call it what you will, is often the result of a loss of, as Winslow calls it, the ‘sensible presence’ of Christ. This is why Jesus tells the lukewarm church in Revelation 3:20 that he stands at the door and knocks. This was not an evangelistic statement per se. It was a statement of possibility to those who had already been evangelized. A deeper fellowship awaited them, it was there for the seeking. This is why the Apostle prayed for the Ephesians,

  • ‘that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God’ (3:17-19).

How could the Apostle pray that those who were already believers, who were already in Christ, and Christ in them, would have a future experience of Christ dwelling in the heart which they had not yet known. He was praying for a ‘sensible presence,’ for a deeper communion, for the most intimate of fellowship. That’s the answer to spiritual slumps – only the presence of Christ through the mediation of the Spirit.

George MacDonald put it this way:

Sometimes I wake, and, lo! I have forgot
And drifted out upon an ebbing sea!
My soul that was at rest now resteth not,
For I am with myself and not with thee (Diary of an Old Soul, 1.3).

Heed the words of Isaiah:

  • Isaiah 55:6 “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near;

And remember the words of Spurgeon:

There is a point in grace as much above the ordinary Christian as the ordinary Christian is above the worldling. (from Spurgeon’s sermon on Jeremiah 5:24, The Former and the Latter Rain).

Why was it better for his disciples that Jesus go away? (John 16:7) Because the Spirit now bears witness of Jesus – not only of his words, but of his presence. And that presence can lift up to heights we know little or nothing of. This is what explains the slumps – this presence, by the Spirit – this point in grace so far above the experience of the ordinary Christian (because the ordinary Christian doesn’t care to seek it).

This does not mean signs and wonders. It doesn’t mean chills and goosebumps necessarily. It means a spiritual presence of a real Christ with his people. And we don’t seek it nearly enough. What joy there could be if we did.

  • Acts 3:19 Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, 20 that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus…

Recent Reading: The Day Boy and the Night Girl, by George MacDonald

The Day Boy and the Night Girl: The Romance of Photogen and Nycteris

This is the sixth story by George MacDonald my daughter and I have read together this year. And to think it all started with stumbling upon two used copies of the Curdie books in a good will. It was perhaps the best 50 cents I have ever spent.

The Day Boy and the Night Girl is the story of a boy and a girl who are, for some reason or another, which MacDonald doesn’t disclose, groomed by a witch named Watho to only see day and night respectively. The boy, aptly named Photogen, is only allowed to be out and about during the day. He is trained to go to bed before the sun sets and is never allowed to see darkness. Conversely, the girl, also aptly named, Nycteris, is taught the routine of sleeping during the day so that she might never see light. He is the Day Boy, she is the Night Girl.

I don’t want to give the story away, that’s not my purpose, so let me say by way of summary that these two cross paths. How could a brave, valiant, handsome young man not cross paths with a dark haired damsel? How can something so trivial as day and night keep them apart? Or something so trivial as a witch?

As for my impressions, which is what I like to state on the blog, Nycteris is quite the engaging character. Watho the witch is on a mad, raving quest for knowledge. She lavishes her wisdom upon Photogen, but the night girl is quite neglected. Yet despite this Nycteris comes to grip with her situation much more easily than Photogen, and certainly easier than Watho. It’s hard to say more without giving away the story.

There seems to be some subtle things going on in the story. I haven’t taken the time to look at other reviews and analysis, but I have a couple of hunches. I already implied that MacDonald seems to take a jab at those who think intelligence, really wisdom, comes simply from book learning. The wisdom of Nycteris comes in her ability to deal with her situation.

There also seems to be a bit of a dig at some sort of dualism. How can you think of day and night in a fairy story without dualism coming into play? Day and night are strictly separated. Though the day boy and the night girl live in the very same castle, yet they live in different worlds. It is only as they come together, trust one another, rely upon one another, help one another that they are able to deal with their common foe (though they deal with her by accident, incidentally). The Day Boy grows to love the night more than the day, for his lover is of the night. The Night Girl grows to love the day for the same reason. Dualism is overcome. Unity is achieved. Day and night not only coexist, but they fall in love, and a happy blending (and a happy ending) occur.

George MacDonald was asking, ‘Why can’t we all just get along?’ before it was cool – and a lot more imaginatively

The main thing I want to record however is this: I took the time a couple of days ago to post some quotes by C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton. Those quotes now come into play. Both pertained to fairy stories, though in far different contexts, and used the phrase, ‘mental health.’ Lewis’ quotation is apropos. He remarked of Edmund Spenser, poet, author of The Faerie Queen, that to read him ‘is to grow in mental health’ (see the link for the reference).

I don’t know if Lewis would have said that about MacDonald, but I certainly would. In fact I am grateful to have come across that Lewis quote for precisely this reason: it gives me a way to describe what my experience with George MacDonald (and others) has been like. I am not claiming that MacDonald is the greatest writer in history (he’s not) or the greatest author I’ve ever read (ditto). But his writing does something to my mood and imagination that I hardly get elsewhere (though I do get it elsewhere).

He has this effect on my six year old daughter as well. One of my favorite experiences in reading with her was her stick-horse riding simulation of the battle scene in The Princess and Curdie as we read that book. I will never forget that moment. She was lost in the story. This time she drew detailed, and very good, pictures of Photogen and Nycteris without any aid of pictures she had seen. It was purely out of her imagination. It’s the first time she had done this. And I think it is due to the forceful imaginativeness of MacDonald as a story teller.

MacDonald is a story teller par excellance. His words roll around in your imagination and do things. Good things.

It has surprised me that I have enjoyed MacDonald’s shorter fairy stories more than than the long ones. The Day Boy and the Night Girl falls among the former. It is quite short. But it is packed with imagination – as much imagination per square inch as anything I’ve encountered. It may not be the prototypical fairy story in some ways, but it has all the necessary elements. The witch’s character isn’t expounded enough, but he makes up for it in other areas – above all, he invites good reading.

I enjoyed this book more than the Curdie books (and I did enjoy them quite a bit), but it’s not quite up there with The Light Princess. But it’s close. I also enjoyed The Giant’s Heart tremendously, but I think this one might be a bit better. Who cares? The story is great, my mental health was temporarily improved (who knows how long that will last?), and who wouldn’t love a story that provokes him to use the phrase, ‘happy blending?’

With MacDonald it’s also hard not to draw Christian applications from a book. Let me give just two. What can separate us from our true love? – Day or Night? A wicked witch?

  • Romans 8:38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

And who can construct dualisms that can separate those knit together in love?

  •  Galatians 3:28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Even those as different as night and day can have unity, as they mutually depend on one another, and take their eyes off themselves and put them on another.