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The Love of the Hound of Heaven

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One morning sometime in the middle of August about ten years ago, I lay awake on an uncomfortable bed in my bedroom, which was tucked above the stairs in the Cottage, one of the volunteer houses at Red Cloud Indian School where I was preparing to start my second year of teaching. I hadn’t been able to sleep the previous night, so at about 4am, I decided to watch the sun rise over the ancient hills of Pine Ridge. Throwing on a sweatshirt, I plodded past the elementary school playground, past the green dinosaur, and up a hill to the cemetery. My feet were damp with dew and dust as I took a seat in the far corner of the cemetery, next to Chief Red Cloud’s grave. There I watched the sun come up over Manderson Hill and a full moon set over the buttes out toward Chadron Road. For a single suspended moment they faced each other, as though speaking the strange, secret language of the dawn, an earnestly joyful exchange of light.

For that brief moment I felt as if I were being torn in two by God’s majesty—by a desire to fall to ground in tears, and a desire to flee. Suspended and restless, somewhere between wonderment and besiegement, I paced among the headstones until the moon disappeared.

In his piercing and haunting masterpiece, The Hound of Heaven, Francis Thompson recollects the two fundamental movements of sin and redemption: our futile flight from the God who is Love, and God’s relentless, unerring pursuit of his beloved. The poet strains anxiously against God:

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, under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.

Across the world, down into the depths of the darkness, and up to “the gold gateway of the stars” the poet runs from Divine Love, Who follows “with unhurrying chase / And unperturbèd pace,” so “sore adread” are we, lest falling into the hands of the living God, we “must have naught beside.”

God pursues us with an ardent desire. It is this desire that makes the psalmist’s words so dreadful and consoling. There is no escaping the hound of heaven’s “unhurrying chase,” and “unperturbèd pace.” God searches for us. There is no evading the woman who casts her light now here and now there in search of her lost coin. There is no cavern deep enough to stop the shepherd who would bear the lost sheep home. The father endures his son’s rejection and allows him to waste himself in sin. Yet, he waits, and waits, and waits for his son’s return home, running to meet him and embracing him when he does, healing and restoring him to from the dead in a flood of tears.

There is no night dark enough to hide us, no depth deep enough to swallow us, no flight swift enough to carry us away from the love of God. It is the terrifying Love that knitted us together in our mother’s womb and fashioned each of us in that secret darkness (cf. Ps 139). It is the Love who looks upon us, searches us, tests us, holds us, who waits for us. If we have naught else besides it is because we have all in him:

All which took from thee I did but take,
Not for thy harms,
But just that thou might’st seek it in My arms.
All which thy child’s mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home:
Rise, clasp My hand, and come!

The dazzling radiance of Christ, which it seems we endlessly seek to evade, is the radiance of the Love that burns away our sin, the Love that searches us and knows us, that ventures into the desert to hunger and thirst for us. He is the Love who, “cypress-crowned,” climbs the Cross for us. He fashions peace in his own flesh, drawing us forward from the desert of sin into the springtime of Easter.

Editors’ Note: This post was delivered as a homily during Vespers for Thursday of the Fourth Week of Lent.

Featured Photo: Phil Norton; CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0.

Jessica Keating

Jessica Keating is the director of the Office of Human Dignity and Life Initiatives in the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame.