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The Hound of Heaven

I fled Him down the nights and down the days;

I fled Him down the arches of the years;

I fled Him down the labyrinthine ways

Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears

I hid from Him, and under running laughter.

Most of us who are searching for God could find meaning in this poem, written by Francis Thompson in 1890. But it isn’t so much about our search for God as it is about God’s search for us. For some, it may seem an insult to compare God to a “hound.” But the analogy, I believe, is in the doggedness with which God pursues us and our determination to hide from God.  

Because Thompson was a Catholic who influenced many Catholic authors, many people who went to Catholic schools are vaguely familiar with this poem and this poet.

Full of Failure

Thompson’s life was full of failure and rejection. According to Wikipedia, he studied medicine for nearly eight years at what is now the University of Manchester in England. But his passion was for poetry. He never practiced medicine but tried to enlist as a soldier. He was rejected for his slightness of stature.

In 1885, he fled, penniless, to London, where he tried to make a living as a writer, meanwhile taking odd jobs. He became addicted to opium, which he had first taken as medicine for ill health, and was denied admittance to Oxford because of his addiction.

Thompson lived on the streets with the homeless and other addicts and contemplated suicide. He was saved from carrying it out through a vision which he believed to be that of a youthful poet, Thomas Chatterton, who had committed suicide over a century earlier. A prostitute, whose identity Thompson never revealed, befriended him and gave him lodgings. He later described her in his poetry as his savior.

Eventually, he was rescued from homelessness by a publisher and lived for a time as a border in a monastery. In the loving care of nuns, he died from tuberculosis at age 47.

Pursuit of the Hare

Thompson’s writings influenced J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, and G.K. Chesterton. The Hound of Heaven describes the hound’s pursuit of the hare, describing how the hound refuses to give up as the hare continues to hide. 

It reminds me of gospel stories with similar themes, including the story of the “lost sheep,” which appears in the gospels of Mathew and Luke. Here’s Luke’s version.

“What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the 99 in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost.’ Even so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who need no repentance.”

A Little Put Off

Those of us who practice a religion may think of ourselves as one of the 99 and feel a little put off by the parable’s favor toward the “sinner.” That would be before remembering that WE are sinners who often find ourselves fleeing and trying to hide from God.

One sure way of being sure we are among the sinners is to deny God’s interest in those we perceive as worse sinners, believing that we have God’s love wrapped up and failing in empathy toward those who are, perhaps, more successful in fleeing God than we are.

Thompson’s message, and that of the gospel parable, is that fleeing God – including “down the labyrinthine ways of our own minds” – can be a waste of our precious, limited time.

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