|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.|
|Up vistaed hopes I sped;|
|And shot, precipitated,|
|Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,|
|From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.|
|But with unhurrying chase,|
|And unperturbèd pace,|
|Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,|
|They beat—and a Voice beat|
|More instant than the Feet—|
|‘All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.’|
Francis Thompson was the only son of a doctor. His father planned an easy life for him- he was sent to a Catholic seminary for his primary education, then on to Manchester to study medicine. Thompson, however, was not an easy young man to plan for. After eight years at Manchester he was asked to leave, having failed too many exams after spending too many afternoons watching cricket. The weight of his father’s expectations, of his studies, and of his failure began to crush him. He had a mental breakdown and was forced to return home. But he didn’t want to stay there. A career in medicine was not for him, Thompson decided, instead he wanted to be a poet.
To escape the many attempts of his disappointed father to set him on a straight path, Thompson ran away to London. For a short time he lived a rebellious young poet’s dream. He slept on benches alongside the Thames. He mixed with friendly drunks and prostitutes.He took odd jobs at factories and sold matches. He fell in love. Most importantly, he had finally obtained what he had wanted for years: to be his own man, free from his father’s will.
The dream did not last long. Before he had been on the street for even a year he became addicted to opium, and he struggled to support himself. For two more years he foundered in addiction while living on the street. He later confessed that there were times when he sank to such depths of despair that he considered killing himself.
In 1888 he caught a lucky break. A friendly prostitute took him in, which gave him time to write.He sent one of his poems to a prominent literary magazine, and it met with nearly instant acclaim. Indeed, the editors were so impressed with his work that they sought him out in his dreary slum and took him into their own home.They sent him to a priory to convalesce and recover from his addiction, and they encouraged him to begin writing his first collection of poetry.
He wrote Hound of Heaven, the poem at the head of this post, during his time in recovery. At the time, many people thought describing God as a “hound,” was an insult, even a heresy. Personally, I always liked it. It’s the story from Matthew told from the sheep’s point of view. You see, hounds herd sheep very well because they can control sheep. Not because the sheep love the hound, or because they believe the hound wish them well, or because they respect the hound’s authority. Sheep follow the hound because the hound is fast, terrifying,and he doesn’t ever tire out. While they’re fast over short distances, sheep aren’t distance runners and they’re naturally quite stupid. In short, they can’t run and they can’t hide. So they obey. Because they know they can’t getaway and they know the hound has a mouth full of sharp teeth. Do you think any sheep has ever been happy to have his heels nipped, even though the hound is doing it to point him in the direction of home?
Similarly, I don’t think the sheep in Matthew 18:12-14 was overjoyed to be found. A shepherd isn’t any different from a hound. Both are terrifying to sheep, as they are big and lead the sheep in directions that they don’t recognize whether they like it or not. Sure, he had been wandering in the hills for a while and maybe he missed the other sheep, but I don’t think he wanted to be knocked over, tied up, and slung over a shepherd’s shoulder (which is what’s involved in retrieving a sheep, by the way). He would have no idea that the shepherd wasn’t going to hurt him. All he would know is that he is being abducted by something very tall, that some will he does not understand is being exercised over him. That is pretty terrifying, especially to something as stupid as a sheep.
Maybe that sheep tried to hide behind a rock or a tree. Maybe behind a bush like Adam and Eve,or behind opium like Thompson, or behind a concubine like Augustine, or behind a million petty sins like the rest of us. Perhaps he thought what Adam and Eve thought, that he wouldn’t have to tell the hound the truth. Perhaps he thought what Thompson thought, that this time he could outrun the will of the hound.Perhaps he thought what Augustine thought, that maybe the hound would let him run wild for just a little longer if he were to ask in just the right way.
But the hound won’t accept these half answers to the gift of grace. Even if we reject God’s grace to cling to knowledge, or to our own will, or to our own pleasures we are never truly free, and our every conceit betrays us to Him. And He pursues us. Christmas is a celebration of this pursuit. For God so loved the world that He gave us his only Son, that He freely gave us Himself in the flesh, to follow us down the labyrinthine ways and down all the years and tears even into death so that we might be truly free not to follow our own will or cherish our conceits, but to surrender our will without fear and be guided all the way home.
Tess Fitzsimmons ’19 is a History & Literature and Religion joint concentrator in Lowell House and Editor in Chief of the Ichthus.