Imagine your spiritual experience as a fantastical world.
I find this to be a cathartic and highly entertaining excercise. I can imagine my hand-clasped, grit-teethed struggles over sin or loneliness as a tumultuous landscape of sharp-jawed mountains and valleys pocked by caves. Or my days of solace and hope as strange silent gardens, like those in fairy tales, with voices in the air and wondrous fruit on elvish sized trees. My hopes, my desire, become flitting birds and butterflies of outlandish blues. Virtues, mine and God’s, well, I’ve always imagined them as tall, lithe companions with a light on their faces that doesn’t fade at dusk. As to my vices and those of the sullied world, they are a troupe of brutes and fiends with leering eyes and misshapen bodies, who all know my name far too well.
If you could take that sort of imagined world, add a smidgen of creative genius, an author with a soul “closer to the spirit of Christ than any other encountered,” and weave a story about a young man plunged into an epic journey through that soulish land, you’d have something approximating the brilliant spiritual fantasy of George MacDonald’s Lilith.
The tale itself is simple; a wealthy, leisured young man inherits an old estate and in its library discovers a presence he didn’t expect. A form, alternating between a huge raven, and a tall, raggedy-coated old man seems to haunt his house. In following this specter one day, the young man forays up to the attic and stumbles into another world. There, he meets Adam and Eve, who become his guides on a journey to his own salvation. In his quest, he encounters Mara, the Lady of Sorrow, Adam’s daughter, and eats the bread of her house. He takes refuge with the Children, a band of innocent, fairy-like little ones who never seem to grow up. And then, he finds Lilith, the dangerously lovely and utterly evil first wife of Adam. The incredible quest of the book is to explore how the most evil being in the world can be brought to repentance. The journey is the quest for redemption, but it leads, every step of it, through the mercy of pain.
Lilith is typical of George MacDonald’s unique spiritual fantasy in that the author takes the stuff of our spirits, the journeys toward salvation, the mercy of God that each of us will encounter in this life, and fleshes it out in faces and forms of fantastic imagination that somehow manage to bring God and all his goodness close as breath. Lilith (and Phantastes, it’s informal prequel) are not books to be easily explained, or lightly read, but they are stories that will shape the way you perceive God. In a way that no sermon ever could, they will present God’s mercy as a story, a song, they will show you how pain can be woven into the happiest of endings.
I don’t find this book easy to explain. (I’ve rather avoided writing this review because of it.) It’s a bewildering world, but the story, the light, and the grace are clear. C.S. Lewis himself, literary critic and verbose commentator, merely said after reading Phantastes that it had “baptized his imagination.” I suspect he couldn’t find more words. It’s enough though. When you enter a MacDonald world, you recognize mercy and goodness, love and grace as the powerful, beautiful things they are. Lilith is a world of a book- you taste it and touch it and find yourself face-to-face with some strange creature that you suddenly recognize as yourself. I find my soul sight clarified after reading MacDonald. In keeping with Lewis, I won”t say much more.
So go. Experience this world of a soul and story, look for yourself within it, look for mercy and pain and innocence to suddenly take form and speak to you through the characters of the books. And when you’ve read it, come tell me what you think. Maybe you’ll have more words than I did.
(And if you have read it, please, speak!)