An Easter reflection on ‘The Hound of Heaven’

Upon arriving in Durham, I had never heard of Ushaw College. I quickly learned that the CCS has a strong relationship with the former “national seminary of Northeast England,” tracing its roots to Cardinal Allen’s vision of a “Catholic Oxford” in Douai, France, where priests – many of whom became martyrs – were trained for the dangerous missionary territory of Post-Elizabethan England.
Moving to its present site after the Reign of Terror in Revolutionary France, Ushaw became and remains a remarkable treasure-trove of history, art, spirituality and scholarship. (I’ve held in my hands their first editions of Ignatius of Loyola’s “Spiritual Exercises,” Darwin’s “Origin of Species” and St. Cuthbert’s ring which the monks carried along with his coffin when they fled Viking invasion).
It once housed upward of 400 academics, seminarians and lay students, and sort of reminds me of the Professor’s house in the Narnia books – dusty rooms filled with artifacts and books and who-knows-what-else waiting to be found.
There’s also an overwhelming sense of pride and love for the place from its former graduates, which include some prominent cardinals, theologians and businessmen. I even recently played a game of “Cat” with some of the “old boys” at an alumni event: sort of a 19th-century cross between baseball and cricket. The complex’s groundskeeper is the fifth generation of his family to care for the place (stop and reflect on that for a second: can you imagine having the same job as your great-great grandfather?).
The future of Ushaw is currently up in the air, but there are some exciting potential plans to strengthen its relationship with the university here, as well as some high profile ones in the States.
One aspect of Ushaw’s history which touched me profoundly was learning that Francis Thompson studied there, although he did not graduate because of personal problems. Thompson was the tortured, substance-abusing, and at one time homeless poet who wrote (what is to me) perhaps the most beautiful and haunting masterpiece ever penned in English: “The Hound of Heaven.”
It begins with these lines:

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.

The testimony is reminiscent of St. Augustine and over the years has spoken to so many about how the human heart seeks to delude itself: chasing peace, happiness and satisfaction in every place and every thing, except where they can ultimately be found.
And yet, “with unhurrying chase and unperturbed pace, Deliberate speed, majestic instancy” there follow unrelenting Footfalls from which we cannot escape.
We are the rabbit, God the hound. As a hunter myself, I’ve always loved the poem deeply.
Perhaps my favorite line, one which I have returned to time and again in my own life, is the suffering protagonist’s Job-like cry to the relentless pursuer: “Ah! Must Thou char the wood ere Thou canst limn with it?”
The formality of the prose may sound alien, but it’s a question each of us asks: Do you, “Designer Infinite,” have to burn the wood of our lives through suffering before you can use it as charcoal to draw the plan you envision properly? And if so, why? There is no easy, readymade response. Evil and sin are a mystery to be encountered and endured, not a puzzle to be solved.
But the poem ends with God’s answer:

All which I 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….
I am He Whom thou seek’est.”

In this Easter season, let us prayerfully reflect on such truths – that the suffering of the Passion and the triumph of the Resurrection are not separate events, reflecting simple cause and effect, but rather deeply intertwined ones. That is why every church in the world reminds us that “He Whom we seek’est” suffered on that wood so that God could limn with it.

Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., of Collingswood, is a Research Associate at Durham University’s Centre for Catholic Studies in Northeast England.

Categories: Growing in Faith

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