“In Francis Thompson’s poetry, as in the poetry of the universe, you can work infinitely out and out, but yet infinitely in and in.”
“And Jacob said, Nay, I pray thee, if now I have found grace in thy sight, then receive my present at my hand: for therefore I have seen thy face, as though I had seen the face of God, and thou wast pleased with me.”
There are two passages of Scripture worth reading in conjunction. One is Psalm 139 and the other is Luke 15. The latter is a collection of parables told by Our Lord which represent God’s search for lost sinners, using such earthy and tender imagery as the woman looking for a misplaced coin, a shepherd going after a wandering sheep, and the familiar, comforting tale of the prodigal son, with its telling line that the father saw his son coming from “far off”, suggesting that he was already watching the road intently, waiting for his boy’s return. The Psalm, on the other hand, is a gasp of awe before a cosmic, smoking mountain, poetry rushing up and shattering on the rocks of God’s unutterable grandeur. His omniscience alone is a thought “too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it.” But perhaps more startling still is God’s omnipresence: “Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend into heaven, thou art there; if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.”
Here, then, are two glorious doctrines: God goes out into the world to seek and save that which was lost (Luke 19:10), and God is everywhere, even in the lowest pits of death and despair. Therefore, the very places we should least expect to find God is where He is in fact most likely to not only be found but to manifest Himself most aggressively.
This truth is expressed in the haunting poem “The Hound of Heaven”, which best depicts this truth of a fierce and unrelenting force hunting you, snapping and snarling at you, so that its jaws can drag you to bliss and glory. The author, Francis Thompson, was uniquely situated to appreciate this: He was a poverty-ridden opium addict so constantly sick and unsuccessful that the point finally came where he attempted suicide. Rescued from his squalor by a prostitute who found him, took him into her home, and shared money and food with him, Thompson was so strengthened by her care and example that he returned to the Faith and later died within the graces of the Church. (Like most angels, she inexplicably disappeared after nursing him back to physically and spiritual health.) There, hidden in the temporal event of a hooker harbouring a self-harming bum in her home, was the supernatural event of a soul made in the image of God being rescued from damnation. God only knows how many times the Hound’s jaws have snapped at people in the streets through the hand of a vagrant, a tax collector, a wino or a streetwalker, but Jesus assured us that He was to be found in “the least of these”.
Daniel Amos, a Christian rock band from back before Christian music decided it had to suck, recorded a song also called “The Hound of Heaven”. The lyrics reflect that the Father is to be found invisibly hunting prodigals amidst “Hollywood flash, mansions and cars” and with the “hobo sleeping alone in a dirty box car”. It is appropriate, then, that the late Richard Burton, who was trapped in “Hollywood flash” for so much of his life, recorded such a chilling rendition of Thompson’s poem, as he, like Thompson, was an alcoholic with an addiction to painkillers, in additon to being a wanton womanizer–the quintessential prodigal. And Father Edward Dowling, the spiritual mentor to Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson, once called “The Hound of Heaven” “the perfect picture of the AA’s quest for God, but specially God’s loving chase for AA.” The 12 steps towards recovery, he suggested, may in fact before God’s 12 steps towards redemption.
But there is a final example of God’s surprising epiphanies worth mentioning here. Father Andrew Greeley’s novel The Magic Cup is a reconstruction of the Irish roots of the Holy Grail myth, purged of its later Catharist influence. It is set during the days of Ireland’s transition from paganism to Christianity, which in a way makes it a prequel to Greeley’s other fiction, almost all of which deals in some way with Irish Catholicism. In the novel, Cormac, a seemingly confident but privately self-doubting king with a shaky but authentic devotion to “King Jesus” is sent to find the legendary chalice before his people will submit to his reign. Accompanying him on the journey is his faithful wolfhound named after St. Patrick and a pagan slave girl named Biddy who constantly rebukes Cormac for his disobedience to Christian principles—all the while seeking his love throughout their voyage. By the end of the novel, it is clear that Biddy herself is the Holy Grail, and Cormac returns triumphantly to assume his throne with Biddy as his bride and with a new commitment to Christ in his heart.
In the appendix, Greeley explains: “In the Irish version [of the myth] the Grail does not wait passively to be found; rather the Grail/girl cooperates actively in the quest—in the case of Princess Biddy, very actively indeed. The Irish myth seems to be revealing that ultimate reality, illumined by woman, not only attracts but seeks. If there is a specific Christian addition in my version of the legend, it is not that Cormac is a Christian king but that the object of the search is seeking the searcher as actively as it/she is being sought. The sacred vessel is, in fact, the Hound of Heaven. No accident, then, that the Princess Brigid and the wolfgound Podraig are allies.”
Here is a wonderful thought: God reels men in to salvation by a channel of grace in the form of an (often unbelieving) female, whose love and desire for you is actually iconic of God’s. This notion will clarify many of the lyrics of Leonard Cohen, Bono, Bob Dylan, and even the poetry of Dante (Beatrice, anyone?) and T.S. Eliot. See also Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor and Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh for stranger examples of the Shepherd looking for His lost sheep who have made their beds in Hell.