A Story of the Soul: On George MacDonald’s Lilith

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The soul is a dangerous place, it is the most dangerous place, and in the perspective of eternity, it is the only dangerous place. As Our Lord said, “There is nothing from without a man that entering into him, can defile him. But the things which come from a man, those are they that defile a man” (Mark 7:15). Nevertheless, it is this very place, whence defiling things come, that must be ventured into, cleaned, and restored with the help of divine grace. In Lilith, the Scottish author George MacDonald describes this adventure by means of mysterious analogies. Like the protagonist, we are challenged to understand our failures, learn to avoid them, and submit ourselves to the process that God already has in place for reforming us.

A caveat should be made before going further: MacDonald, for all his true insight into the soul and its landscape, failed in accepting the full implications of free will. He seems to have believed in universal salvation, including that of Satan himself, and it might be argued that this idea obtrudes into this book. However, understood correctly, it is a book about the individual soul instead of about the universe, and here MacDonald’s thesis is absolutely unshakable: the living man or woman, who is reading Lilith at that moment, always has the opportunity to repent, and is constantly being offered this opportunity by a merciful God through the very hardships and difficulties that this life is made of.

The story begins outside of the soul, or rather, outside of the barest recognition that the soul even exists. The young man living outside of his soul is Mr. Vane, who has recently inherited a large estate. It is not long, however, before he discovers that he has inherited a whole hidden world, a world which he can visit through a large mirror in his attic. It is a world of phantoms and quarreling skeletons. It is inhabited by cruel and stupid giants, cruel and clever townsfolk, and by a band of brave and loving children with a sinister impediment: they cannot grow up unless they become wicked. Even more mysteriously, all but a few of this world’s river courses and lake beds are completely devoid of water.

Despite its scars, it is a world of terrible beauty and awful wonder. Creatures of unmatched horror and malice abound, but thanks to unknown influences and uncanny guardians, Mr. Vane himself walks among them unscathed. One of these guardians, a raspy-voiced raven, pulls worms out of the ground and transforms them into butterflies instead of eating them. Although one woman is responsible for marring this world, there is another woman who heals it with both her tears and her claws.

This is a world worth getting to know, both because it is so interesting in its own right, and also because it reveals something of the wonder that the human soul is. Like any good allegory, it is magical, whole, and obscure. Magical, in that it is compelling as a story, not simply a motivation to morality. Whole, in that it is a world that is independent from our own, with characters that form an integral part of it and who are not simply there to stand for abstract vices or virtues. Obscure, because it requires contemplation and does not offer easy one-to-one correspondences. This is not because clarity is undesirable, but because, as human beings living on the earth, we are not capable of clear sight yet; our mode of understanding during our mortal life is, as St. Paul says, “through a glass darkly.” The most important things in life are all obscure and all worth contemplating: human love and the mysteries of our Faith.

With these considerations in mind, one can begin to appreciate the relation of the world of Lilith to the world of the soul. A chronicle of the protagonist’s repeated failures and missteps, it is also a record of the innumerable chances Mr. Vane receives to recover. It is a world of infinitely high stakes, where disasters are only mended by great suffering and sorrowful learning. For most of the story, Vane continues to do the wrong thing with the best of intentions only to bring about mortal consequences for those he loves most. Still, somehow, a mysterious providence continues to take these faults, mend them, and teach through them. Mr. Vane begins to understand that it is his own disobedience and impatience that is responsible for the evil that exists in this world, and that only obedience and patience can bring about peace.

This is the great lesson of the book for readers, the age-old advice of saints and spiritual writers, that the real business of holiness is letting God do the work while we endure our faults and imperfections with patience and humility. As the raven says “Why Mr. Vane, but for the weeping in it, your world would never be worth saving.” It is contrition for our sins and choosing to allow Love to heal our wounds that is the adventure of the soul.

This might seem a mere platitude in a culture where the soul is not taken seriously and love means whatever one wants it to, but for those who can see the darkness in their own hearts and the headway already made by the enemy in their souls, this knowledge of the constant option for love is necessary for hope in the struggle. This is one of the beauties of Lilith, that it reveals how wild and dangerous our souls really are, and at the same time sounds out the chivalric call to make the adventure of subduing them.

Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “Lady Lilith” painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti in 1866-68.

Paul Joseph Prezzia

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Paul Joseph Prezzia is a citizen of Pittsburgh and a graduate of St. Gregory's Academy, class of 2002. He received his M.A. in History from the University of Notre Dame in 2012, and now writes in exile from Scranton.

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