Diary of an Old Soul (full title: A Book of Strife in the Form of the Diary of an Old Soul) by George MacDonald has been a core part of my spiritual development over a number of years. In MacDonald I found a kindred spirit who struggled in the depths of his being regarding his relationship with God but who at the same time refused to abandon hope and trusted in the God He could not always see or feel.
I feel that while MacDonald’s poetry is well over a hundred years old it speaks to the contemporary condition and philosophy (postmodernism) with astounding clarity and insight.
I’ve recently completed an annotated edition of his work and published it on Amazon in eBook form. It can be purchased here.
Below I have included excerpts from MacDonald’s Diary of an Old Soul. These excerpts are my favorite passages found throughout the work. I’ve noted which month and day each is from for your reference.
You’ll notice that most of them focus on suffering, depression, struggle, and so on. MacDonald’s entire work includes many hopeful and celebratory passages (and a few are reflected here) – but the ones that have spoken most deeply into my life are those of his struggles – knowing that someone else has journeyed this way before and survived.
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;
Truth seems a blind moon in a glaring morn,
Where nothing is but sick-heart vanity:
Oh, thou who knowest! save thy child forlorn.
Were there but some deep, holy spell, whereby
Always I should remember thee–some mode
Of feeling the pure heat-throb momently
Of the spirit-fire still uttering this I!–
Lord, see thou to it, take thou remembrance’ load:
Only when I bethink me can I cry;
Remember thou, and prick me with love’s goad.
When I no more can stir my soul to move,
And life is but the ashes of a fire;
When I can but remember that my heart
Once used to live and love, long and aspire,–
Oh, be thou then the first, the one thou art;
Be thou the calling, before all answering love,
And in me wake hope, fear, boundless desire.
Doubt swells and surges, with swelling doubt behind!
My soul in storm is but a tattered sail,
Streaming its ribbons on the torrent gale;
In calm, ’tis but a limp and flapping thing:
Oh! swell it with thy breath; make it a wing,–
To sweep through thee the ocean, with thee the wind
Nor rest until in thee its haven it shall find.
O Lord, I have been talking to the people;
Thought’s wheels have round me whirled a fiery zone,
And the recoil of my words’ airy ripple
My heart unheedful has puffed up and blown.
Therefore I cast myself before thee prone:
Lay cool hands on my burning brain, and press
From my weak heart the swelling emptiness.
I search my heart–I search, and find no faith.
Hidden He may be in its many folds–
I see him not revealed in all the world
Duty’s firm shape thins to a misty wraith.
No good seems likely. To and fro I am hurled.
I have no stay. Only obedience holds:–
I haste, I rise, I do the thing he saith.
Thou wouldst not have thy man crushed back to clay;
It must be, God, thou hast a strength to give
To him that fain would do what thou dost say;
Else how shall any soul repentant live,
Old griefs and new fears hurrying on dismay?
Let pain be what thou wilt, kind and degree,
Only in pain calm thou my heart with thee.
Two things at once, thou know’st I cannot think.
When busy with the work thou givest me,
I cannot consciously think then of thee.
Then why, when next thou lookest o’er the brink
Of my horizon, should my spirit shrink,
Reproached and fearful, nor to greet thee run?
Can I be two when I am only one.
Lord, I have fallen again–a human clod!
Selfish I was, and heedless to offend;
Stood on my rights. Thy own child would not send
Away his shreds of nothing for the whole God!
Wretched, to thee who savest, low I bend:
Give me the power to let my rag-rights go
In the great wind that from thy gulf doth blow.
I cannot see, my God, a reason why
From morn to night I go not gladsome free;
For, if thou art what my soul thinketh thee,
There is no burden but should lightly lie,
No duty but a joy at heart must be:
Love’s perfect will can be nor sore nor small,
For God is light–in him no darkness is at all.
There is a misty twilight of the soul,
A sickly eclipse, low brooding o’er a man,
When the poor brain is as an empty bowl,
And the thought-spirit, weariful and wan,
Turning from that which yet it loves the best,
Sinks moveless, with life-poverty opprest:–
Watch then, O Lord, thy feebly glimmering coal.
I cannot think; in me is but a void;
I have felt much, and want to feel no more;
My soul is hungry for some poorer fare–
Some earthly nectar, gold not unalloyed:–
The little child that’s happy to the core,
Will leave his mother’s lap, run down the stair,
Play with the servants–is his mother annoyed?
Be with me, Lord. Keep me beyond all prayers:
For more than all my prayers my need of thee,
And thou beyond all need, all unknown cares;
What the heart’s dear imagination dares,
Thou dost transcend in measureless majesty
All prayers in one–my God, be unto me
Thy own eternal self, absolutely.
Be by me, Lord, this day. Thou know’st I mean–
Lord, make me mind thee. I herewith forestall
My own forgetfulness, when I stoop to glean
The corn of earth–which yet thy hand lets fall.
Be for me then against myself. Oh lean
Over me then when I invert my cup;
Take me, if by the hair, and lift me up.
Easier it were, but poorer were the love.
Lord, I would have me love thee from the deeps–
Of troubled thought, of pain, of weariness.
Through seething wastes below, billows above,
My soul should rise in eager, hungering leaps;
Through thorny thicks, through sands unstable press–
Out of my dream to him who slumbers not nor sleeps.
Lest I be humbled at the last, and told
That my great labor was but for my peace
That not for love or truth had I been bold,
But merely for a prisoned heart’s release;
Careful, I humble me now before thy feet:
Whate’er I be, I cry, and will not cease–
Let me not perish, though favor be not meet.
God, help me, dull of heart, to trust in thee.
Thou art the father of me–not any mood
Can part me from the One, the verily Good.
When fog and failure o’er my being brood.
When life looks but a glimmering marshy clod,
No fire out flashing from the living God–
Then, then, to rest in faith were worthy victory!
I look for thee, and do not see thee come.–
If I could see thee, ’twere a commoner thing,
And shallower comfort would thy coming bring.
Earth, sea, and air lie round me moveless dumb,
Never a tremble, an expectant hum,
To tell the Lord of Hearts is drawing near:
Lo! in the looking eyes, the looked for Lord is here.
Even when their foolish words they turned on him,
He did not his disciples send away;
He knew their hearts were foolish, eyes were dim,
And therefore by his side needs must they stay.
Thou will not, Lord, send me away from thee.
When I am foolish, make thy cock crow grim;
If that is not enough, turn, Lord, and look on me.
Haste to me, Lord, when this fool-heart of mine
Begins to gnaw itself with selfish craving;
Or, like a foul thing scarcely worth the saving,
Swoln up with wrath, desireth vengeance fine.
Haste, Lord, to help, when reason favors wrong;
Haste when thy soul, the high-born thing divine,
Is torn by passion’s raving, maniac throng.
Afresh I seek thee. Lead me–once more I pray–
Even should it be against my will, thy way.
Let me not feel thee foreign any hour,
Or shrink from thee as an estranged power.
Through doubt, through faith, through bliss, through stark dismay,
Through sunshine, wind, or snow, or fog, or shower,
Draw me to thee who art my only day.
Lord, thou hast carried me through this evening’s duty;
I am released, weary, and well content.
O soul, put on the evening dress of beauty,
Thy sunset-flush, of gold and purple blent!–
Alas, the moment I turn to my heart,
Feeling runs out of doors, or stands apart!
But such as I am, Lord, take me as thou art.
O Christ, my life, possess me utterly.
Take me and make a little Christ of me.
If I am anything but thy father’s son,
‘Tis something not yet from the darkness won.
Oh, give me light to live with open eyes.
Oh, give me life to hope above all skies.
Give me thy spirit to haunt the Father with my cries.
My prayers, my God, flow from what I am not;
I think thy answers make me what I am.
Like weary waves thought follows upon thought,
But the still depth beneath is all thine own,
And there thou mov’st in paths to us unknown.
Out of strange strife thy peace is strangely wrought;
If the lion in us pray–thou answerest the lamb.
So bound in selfishness am I, so chained,
I know it must be glorious to be free
But know not what, full-fraught, the word doth mean.
By loss on loss I have severely gained
Wisdom enough my slavery to see;
But liberty, pure, absolute, serene,
No freëst-visioned slave has ever seen.
When I am very weary with hard thought,
And yet the question burns and is not quenched,
My heart grows cool when to remembrance wrought
That thou who know’st the light-born answer sought
Know’st too the dark where the doubt lies entrenched–
Know’st with what seemings I am sore perplexed,
And that with thee I wait, nor needs my soul be vexed.
How many helps thou giv’st to those would learn!
To some sore pain, to others a sinking heart;
To some a weariness worse than any smart;
To some a haunting, fearing, blind concern;
Madness to some; to some the shaking dart
Of hideous death still following as they turn;
To some a hunger that will not depart.
To some thou giv’st a deep unrest–a scorn
Of all they are or see upon the earth;
A gaze, at dusky night and clearing morn,
As on a land of emptiness and dearth;
To some a bitter sorrow; to some the sting
Of love misprized–of sick abandoning;
To some a frozen heart, oh, worse than anything!
Love in the prime not yet I understand–
Scarce know the love that loveth at first hand:
Help me my selfishness to scatter and scout;
Blow on me till my love loves burningly;
Then the great love will burn the mean self out,
And I, in glorious simplicity,
Living by love, shall love unspeakably.
Not thine, my Lord, the darkness all is mine–
Save that, as mine, my darkness too is thine:
All things are thine to save or to destroy–
Destroy my darkness, rise my perfect joy;
Love primal, the live coal of every night,
Flame out, scare the ill things with radiant fright,
And fill my tent with laughing morn’s delight.
Master, thou workest with such common things–
Low souls, weak hearts, I mean–and hast to use,
Therefore, such common means and rescuings,
That hard we find it, as we sit and muse,
To think thou workest in us verily:
Bad sea-boats we, and manned with wretched crews–
That doubt the captain, watch the storm-spray flee.
Well mayst thou then work on indocile hearts
By small successes, disappointments small;
By nature, weather, failure, or sore fall;
By shame, anxiety, bitterness, and smarts;
By loneliness, by weary loss of zest:–
The rags, the husks, the swine, the hunger-quest,
Drive home the wanderer to the father’s breast.
Help me, my Father, in whatever dismay,
Whatever terror in whatever shape,
To hold the faster by thy garment’s hem;
When my heart sinks, oh, lift it up, I pray;
Thy child should never fear though hell should gape,
Not blench though all the ills that men affray
Stood round him like the Roman round Jerusalem.
Too eager I must not be to understand.
How should the work the master goes about
Fit the vague sketch my compasses have planned?
I am his house–for him to go in and out.
He builds me now–and if I cannot see
At any time what he is doing with me,
‘Tis that he makes the house for me too grand.
I cannot tell why this day I am ill;
But I am well because it is thy will–
Which is to make me pure and right like thee.
Not yet I need escape–’tis bearable
Because thou knowest. And when harder things
Shall rise and gather, and overshadow me,
I shall have comfort in thy strengthenings.
More life I need ere I myself can be.
Sometimes, when the eternal tide ebbs low,
A moment weary of my life I grow–
Weary of my existence’ self, I mean,
Not of its plodding, not its wind and snow
Then to thy knee trusting I turn, and lean:
Thou will’st I live, and I do will with thee.
Sometimes it seems pure natural to trust,
And trust right largely, grandly, infinitely,
Daring the splendor of the giver’s part;
At other times, the whole earth is but dust,
The sky is dust, yea, dust the human heart;
Then art thou nowhere, there is no room for thee
In the great dust-heap of eternity.
Therefore, O Lord, when all things common seem,
When all is dust, and self the center clod,
When grandeur is a hopeless, foolish dream,
And anxious care more reasonable than God,–
Out of the ashes I will call to thee–
In spite of dead distrust call earnestly:–
Oh thou who livest, call, then answer dying me.
Thou hungerest not, thou thirstest not enough.
Thou art a temporizing thing, mean heart.
Down-drawn, thou pick’st up straws and wretched stuff,
Stooping as if the world’s floor were the chart
Of the long way thy lazy feet must tread.
Thou dreamest of the crown hung o’er thy head–
But that is safe–thou gatherest hairs and fluff!
If thou wouldst have me speak, Lord, give me speech.
So many cries are uttered now-a-days,
That scarce a song, however clear and true,
Will thread the jostling tumult safe, and reach
The ears of men buz-filled with poor denays:
Barb thou my words with light, make my song new,
And men will hear, or when I sing or preach.
Can anything go wrong with me? I ask–
And the same moment, at a sudden pain,
Stand trembling. Up from the great river’s brim
Comes a cold breath; the farther bank is dim;
The heaven is black with clouds and coming rain;
High soaring faith is grown a heavy task,
And all is wrong with weary heart and brain.
Things go not wrong when sudden I fall prone,
But when I snatch my upheld hand from thine,
And, proud or careless, think to walk alone.
Then things go wrong, when I, poor, silly sheep,
To shelves and pits from the good pasture creep;
Not when the shepherd leaves the ninety and nine,
And to the mountains goes, after the foolish one.
Why is it that so often I return
From social converse with a spirit worn,
A lack, a disappointment–even a sting
Of shame, as for some low, unworthy thing?–
Because I have not, careful, first of all,
Set my door open wide, back to the wall,
Ere I at others’ doors did knock and call.
Thou workest perfectly. And if it seem
Some things are not so well, ’tis but because
They are too loving-deep, too lofty-wise,
For me, poor child, to understand their laws:
My highest wisdom half is but a dream;
My love runs helpless like a falling stream:
Thy good embraces ill, and lo! its illness dies!
From sleep I wake, and wake to think of thee.
But wherefore not with sudden glorious glee?
Why burst not gracious on me heaven and earth
In all the splendor of a new-day-birth?
Why hangs a cloud betwixt my lord and me?
The moment that my eyes the morning greet,
My soul should panting rush to clasp thy father-feet.
Is it because it is not thou I see,
But only my poor, blotted fancy of thee?
Oh! never till thyself reveal thy face,
Shall I be flooded with life’s vital grace.
Oh make my mirror-heart thy shining-place,
And then my soul, awaking with the morn,
Shall be a waking joy, eternally new-born.
With every morn my life afresh must break
The crust of self, gathered about me fresh;
That thy wind-spirit may rush in and shake
The darkness out of me, and rend the mesh
The spider-devils spin out of the flesh–
Eager to net the soul before it wake,
That it may slumberous lie, and listen to the snake.
My God, it troubles me I am not better.
More help, I pray, still more. Thy perfect debtor
I shall be when thy perfect child I am grown.
My Father, help me–am I not thine own?
Lo, other lords have had dominion o’er me,
But now thy will alone I set before me:
Thy own heart’s life–Lord, thou wilt not abhor me!
I AM a little weary of my life–
Not thy life, blessed Father! Or the blood
Too slowly laves the coral shores of thought,
Or I am weary of weariness and strife.
Open my soul-gates to thy living flood;
I ask not larger heart-throbs, vigor-fraught,
I pray thy presence, with strong patience rife.
This weariness of mine, may it not come
From something that doth need no setting right?
Shall fruit be blamed if it hang wearily
A day before it perfected drop plumb
To the sad earth from off its nursing tree?
Ripeness must always come with loss of might.
The weary evening fall before the resting night.
Go, my beloved children, live your life.
Wounded, faint, bleeding, never yield the strife.
Stunned, fallen-awake, arise, and fight again.
Before you victory stands, with shining train
Of hopes not credible until they are.
Beyond morass and mountain swells the star
Of perfect love–the home of longing heart and brain