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Season of Holy Discontent


Season of Holy Discontent

Jean Hoefling

Detail from an ancient Roman fresco from the Sala di Grande Dipinto.
Detail from an ancient Roman fresco from the Sala di Grande Dipinto.

“Jesus is dead,” she said, slowly and sadly, but with perfect calmness… “He came too early, and there was no one up to take care of him, and he’s dead—dead!”       —George MacDonald,  "The Gifts of the Child Christ"

In MacDonald’s classic story, the chronically neglected child, Phosy Greatorex, sits alone in church while the vicar preaches that God manifests his love by correcting human souls. Whom the Lord loveth, he chasteneth, he quotes from the heart of Scripture. In her lonely desperation, Phosy pines for this chastisement, if that be the proof of love—any love. When the bitter pallor of an unfathomable loss visits the child on Christmas morning, her innocent acceptance of love’s visitation is so complete that she does not recoil, but gazes full-faced into the heart of her grief, embracing what she must. When her father, Augustus, enters the room, Phosy’s facial features have conformed to reflect the symbol of the chastisement she does not fear. Augustus observes the power of relinquishment radiating from his daughter’s normally plain face, this little “speechless mother of sorrow.” Phosy’s willingness to receive the love of God in any form has rendered her beautiful.

For those of us who are Phosy’s spiritual inferiors, the slow and muted draining down of autumn into the winter of the Advent season may, by grace, be enough to render us more pliable in the hands of our own sorrows and misfortunes. With its emphasis on prayer, fasting, and anticipation of the blessed day of Christmas, the hope of Advent is that to some degree we might be better equipped to come and gaze full-faced on the enigma of the God-man we often do not understand, this one who in his paradoxical way claims to love us most fiercely when all seems lost. I don’t have Phosy’s innocence. To the detriment of my soul, I have yet to pine for the signs of heavenly love as she did. Truth be told, I’m fairly discontent toward all the loves in my life, even the divine. Still, I pray with John Donne for a more “holy discontent” that might turn vanity to spiritual fruit, no matter what form the lesson comes to me. Perhaps in some small way this is the true meaning of Christmas.

O might those sighes and teares returne againe Into my breast and eyes, which I have spent, That I might in this holy discontent Mourne with some fruit, as I have mourn'd in vaine.