Unless the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it.
Unless the Lord keep the city, he watcheth in vain that keepeth it.
It is vain for you to rise before light, rise ye after you have sitten, you that eat the bread of sorrow.
When he shall give sleep to his beloved… ∼ Psalm 127
Friend! Brother! Come in, come in! Why do you stand out there in the cold? Why do you sit there at your computer because you are afraid there is nothing else to do? Why do you stand around moping that professional football is over, why do you sit listlessly clicking through the millions of channels on your TV, why do you keep checking your phone in vain hopes of hearing about something truly important? Come in, sit down; come in to your own house, bring your family, gather round the fireplace or squeeze in on the worn-down couch with cocoa or cider! Yes, it is your fireplace or couch, despite how foreign it seems. Rest, take up The Maiden’s Bequest by George MacDonald, read, doze off, read again. And if you object that there are more productive things to do, more urgent things to do, even more holy things to do, then remember this verse from the Psalms: God gives sleep to his beloved! Say the Rosary together before or after, but read this book and sleep on it!
Why, it starts with a burial, you object! Fitting reading for this time of year, humph! But keep in mind that the season of Lent has passed, when we all gathered around a burial on Good Friday… The dead man in this book, similar to the dead Man on Calvary, is more alive now than many you or I know; maybe more alive than me or you. For some who are dead, death is more like sleep, and sleep is a gift from God. This entire book is about sleep and the life, the resurrection, that God gives to his beloved sleepers.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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First, take some small notice of the non-sleepers in this story: on one hand, characters (happily, few) who stay awake to take advantage of their neighbors; on the other, characters (most of them) who can’t sleep well for other reasons. The character of their sleeplessness is based on their characteristic faults. The stern Calvinist stays awake despairing for the salvation of others and himself; the wastrel cannot rest in his sleep because he is drunk; the avaricious man and his partner sleep little because setting traps and digging pits for the people around you is busy work! Meanwhile, the malicious aristocrat keeps a vigil nursing his petty pride and monstrous revenge.
Indeed, those who are redeemed in this book are always accompanied in their redemption by better sleep. On the other side, woe to them that never learn the Psalmist’s injunction: “it is vain for you to rise before light, rise ye after you have sitten, you that eat the bread of sorrow.” Something about this book, perhaps some profound appreciation of the nature of sleep, made the stakes higher for the author than usual; MacDonald, always leaning to the heresy of universalism, seems to commit at least two of the sleepless villains to a damnation devised by their own paltry hearts and unblinking eyes.
Strangely enough, even the hero we encounter at the beginning of the book has to be redeemed. As active, as brave, and as kind as Alec is when he enters on stage, it becomes clear as the book continues that something is lacking for true goodness. Until he starts to understand what is missing, he free-falls into cruelty and mediocrity. There is more to being a good man than simply doing. And this is not surprising when we consider the last two words of Our Lord’s response to the young man seeking perfection, the young man who did all the specific deeds he was supposed to: “Follow me.” What is “following” Jesus but the better part, the life of contemplation, which is pure receptivity to God’s will, which is closest to sleep than anything else in this world?
And the word “sleep” brings us to the treasure of this book, the character of Annie. No, no! Don’t rush to equate the ideas of “sleep” and “lazy” yet, hear me through! Annie is as dutiful, as loving, as hard-working a young lass as you might wish for; and she is a real woman; and the thing that makes her a living, breathing character is her uncanny ability to sleep. Anywhere. In a garret infested with rats, in a hay bale, in a flood, in the snow; Annie can be overtaken with the sleep of the blessed anywhere. For those of us who know real human beings, and know siblings, or friends, or maybe even enemies who have this same strange and evolutionarily-unfruitful knack, this might even bring you to agree with me, and say that Annie Anderson is the most real character in fiction you have ever encountered.
It is certainly no accident that Annie is also the most trusting character in the book, the most resigned to God’s will, the most interior. And here, one notes another unique instance in all fiction, a real squaring of the circle. For it seems to be the hardest thing for an author to do, to create a character that is both good and interesting. It seems the one type of creativity which God has reserved to himself, for good people in real life are almost always more interesting than bad people. But Annie is something like a real good person. Although on the surface she always seems to be the most submissive, in the final analysis she is the underlying dynamo of the whole plot. Read this book with your family and gain a good and true friend not only for yourself but for your children!
And what an opportune time to bring such a friend into the family! Now, when we have been adoring God as a sleeper, first as a Babe in Bethlehem and then as a dead Man for three days, as the object of hours of contemplation by shepherds and lamentation by myrrh bearers, and besides, in a season when the cold yet nips and lingers with the rosy promise of summer days, and the appeal of a warm fireplace, a cup of cider and cocoa, and reading to the whole family remains; in such a season, I repeat, move over and make some room for Annie Anderson!
Author’s Note: The original title of The Maiden’s Bequest is Alec Forbes of Howglen (1865).