It has fallen from the popular, but, 100 years ago, Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven” was a much-beloved poem, praised by the likes of G. K. Chesterton and J. R. R. Tolkien.
The title is meant to catch us up. Heaven has a hound? Yet the poem suggests that just as the hound relentlessly pursues the fleeing hare until running it down, so God ever seeks your soul in all the events of your day, in all the days of your life.
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 midst of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Today, the vocabulary, structure and references are a bit daunting for many would-be readers, but not so the notion that some person, some invisible yet relentless presence, is always there in our lives—just beyond our sight but only because we will not turn, look and acknowledge.
How do we learn to recognize the Lord in real time?
Haven’t all of us seen posters of the impoverished parallel to Thompson’s poem, “Footprints in the Sand”? The authorship is disputed; the versions vary; but here is Mary Stevenson’s 1936 rendition:
One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord. Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky.
In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand. Sometimes there were two sets of footprints, other times there was one only.
This bothered me because I noticed that during the low periods of my life, when I was suffering from anguish, sorrow or defeat, I could see only one set of footprints, so I said to the Lord,
“You promised me Lord, that if I followed you, you would walk with me always. But I have noticed that during the most trying periods of my life there has only been one set of footprints in the sand. Why, when I needed you most, have you not been there for me?”
The Lord replied, “The years when you have seen only one set of footprints, my child, is when I carried you.”
On any given day in my Facebook feed, among the posts made by the people whom I know, though not necessarily well, one can always find a message that says very much the same: God is here. God is faithful. We have only to look and to trust. In the Book of Wisdom we read:
I prayed, and prudence was given me;
I pleaded, and the spirit of wisdom came to me.
I preferred her to scepter and throne,
and deemed riches nothing in comparison with her...
Yet all good things together came to me in her company,
and countless riches at her hands (7:7-8, 11).
We seem to understand that we are not alone. We chide ourselves for not slowing down and allowing ourselves to be caught by this invisible lover. We admit to the many times, as we look back, when we could have recognized that we were carried through a crisis by someone other than ourselves, if we had tried to look.
One should be chary of reducing rich and complex movements to simple formulas, yet perhaps this one does reach into the depths of the faith. We have never been alone in our lives, alone even within ourselves. There is an invisible lover reaching out to us, trying to reveal himself to us. In all of those who have loved us, he has given himself over to us. In our challenges, he has given us the grace to grow. The one task that remains to us is simply to stop running and to collapse into his arms.
We were not meant to run, were not meant to be hunted. We were meant to be loved.
Of course, it is a challenge recharged each day. Fear sends us running, and we will not be caught until we drop. If looking back we can discern and confess a presence we could not recognize at the time, how do we learn to recognize the Lord in real time?
A few suggestions. First, figure out where you are running. This is important. Identify the parts of your life where you race with all your strength because you dare not imagine what failure might mean. Then ask Jesus to enter these parts of your life. Invite him to be the Lord of these regions. Ask him to help you to surrender to him, not just in name, but in the reality these terrors represent.
Second, learn to look over your day. When did you feel close to the Lord, and when did you not? What parts of your day do you review with deep satisfaction? What parts make you cringe at the contribution you made?
And then, within your heart or, even better, with the silent breath by which you live, just say his name: “Jesus.” Or pray, “Jesus, come to me.”
In “The Hound of Heaven” the runner hears the footsteps pursuing him:
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.”
Sooner or later and more than once, all of us come to the same moment of decision as did the righteous young man in the Gospel. We have been running the race as well as we can. Some of us can even claim to have excelled at all. It does not matter. We were not meant to run, were not meant to be hunted. We were meant to be loved, and this comes when we stop running.
Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him,
“You are lacking in one thing.
Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor
and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Mk 10:31).
Bucket lists have now become popular—things we really should do while the time and strength is yet ours to expend. Pardon the pronouncement, but here is the great point of life: to realize that we are not alone and to surrender in love to the one who has pursued us, who has carried us and who even now opens his arms to receive us.