Now that I’m (way) past fifty, I find myself reflecting on important episodes in my life that have helped shape the person I am. I’ve come to realize that much of my spiritual formation took place during my college years. Away from the comfort of my family and the strong church background I was brought up with, I was confronted with a much larger world of ideas I had to wrestle with. In my chosen major of Biological Sciences, I was exposed to the immensity and age of the universe, the wonders of life on earth in all its variety and the mystery of the development of humanity over many thousands of years. I found it all endlessly fascinating.
I was also introduced to the broad spectrum of human ideas in various times and cultures. This happened through my exposure to some of the great literature through which one generation of humans were able to communicate with following generations. Here I was, confronted with a banquet of creative thoughts and insights that had the potential to expand and enrich my soul. I ate it all up.
By God’s grace, I wasn’t alone on this journey. I had friends in the campus group InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and we met for prayer, Bible study and discussion of our shared faith. Most of us were emerging from a narrower church tradition and were searching for a new understanding of how we could relate to God and still embrace all we were learning.
It was in an English Literature course that I met Francis Thompson (1859-1907) through reading his great poem, The Hound of Heaven. It’s hard to share the poem with you for three reasons: first, it’s 182 lines long; second it portrays God as a hunting hound dog, which is a troubling image; and third, it’s written in a kind of antique-y language, with thees and thous, wist (for knew) and drave’st (for drove). But you can listen to it and follow the words at this YouTube video.
Here’s what this poem did for me. I had grown up with the impression that I had to try really, really hard to develop a relationship with God. The truly spiritual people were those who denied themselves all sorts of worldly pleasures, prayed long and hard and followed every little commandment to the letter. God seemed to be playing hard to get.
But Francis Thompson portrays God as the pursuer, the hunter, tracking me down until I’m cornered and have to give in to him. I can’t tell you how liberating it was for me to see things Francis Thompson’s way. God really wants to befriend me more than I want to befriend him.
When I read the story of Thompson’s life, I was even more impressed that God was trying to speak to me. Francis grew up in a strong Roman Catholic family. His father was a medical doctor. First, the family saw him as destined to be a priest, but he showed no interest. Then they sent him to medical school, where he flunked out. All he wanted to do was write poetry. He left home at 26, hoping to find his way in London, but he couldn’t keep a job. He developed an opium addiction, after being introduced to the drug to deal with a nervous condition. He often slept on the street. He was able to write and publish his poems because of a prostitute who took him in and supported him. Never very healthy, Francis died from tuberculosis at the age of 47.
The picture of God chasing Francis Thompson down all of his dark rabbit holes helped me to get over my guilt-and-fear-driven compulsion to get God’s attention. In retrospect, I see this as the poem that changed my life.
— Pastor George Van Alstine