I have read multiple books by George MacDonald—Lilith, Phantastes, Princess and the Goblin, The Princess and Curdie, On the Back of the North Wind, and many of the shorter works for children. However, when I picked up Annals of a Quiet Neighborhood, I quickly realized that all of my reading of MacDonald had either been fantasy or children’s fiction. Here I was confronted with a profound story concerning the depths of life that run beneath the surface of quiet neighborhoods.
The protagonist and narrator of the story is a parish minister who has just assumed the pastorate in his first church. He wastes no time in throwing himself into the life of his parishioners—both poor and rich. The conversations that he has, the lessons he teaches and subsequently learns, and the compassion he displays convey the gospel time and again. One of my favorite passages occurs as he has suffered a personal setback and struggles with feelings of depression and doubt. He writes that he seeks consolation from the New Testament but discovers that he did not want to read the Epistles—he desires to read the gospels to see Jesus and to know then one of whom the epistles were written. He writes:
Know that man, Christ Jesus! Ah! Lord, I would go through fire and water to sit the last at Thy table in Thy Kingdom; but dare I say now I know Thee!—But Thou art the Gospel, for Thou art the Way, the Truth, and the Life; and I have found Thee in the Gospel. For I found, as I read, that Thy very presence in my thoughts, not as the theologians show Thee, but as Thou showedst Thyself to them who report Thee to us, smoothed the troubled waters of my spirit, so that even while the storm lasted, I was able to walk upon them to go to Thee.
At another point he visits a dying parishioner and in the course of conversation says to her:
“You won’t die. Your body will die, and be laid away out of sight; but you will be awake, alive, more alive than you are now, a great deal.”
And here let me interrupt the conversation to remark upon the great mistake of teaching children that they have souls. The consequence is, that they think of their souls as of something which is not themselves. For what a man has cannot be himself. Hence, when they are told that their souls go to heaven, they think of their selves as lying in the grave. They ought to be taught that they have bodies; and that their bodies die; while they themselves live on. Then they will not think, as old Mrs. Tomkins did, that they will be laid in the grave…we talk as if we possessed souls, instead of being souls.
What a wonderful and profound book that makes me appreciate the many matters of life and death and living in my own quiet neighborhood.
Johannesen Printing and Publishing has a very nice hand-bound edition available of this and all other titles by George MacDonald (www.johannesen.com).