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Francis Thompson and “The Hound of Heaven”

In 1887 there was a great stirring in the office of a London journal. The editor, Wilfrid Meynell, had received a rather shoddy-looking and soiled package that contained within it a number of pieces of paper equally stained and wrinkled. On those pieces of paper was written with pen and pencil some of the most magnificent poetry the editor had ever read in his life, signed by someone he had never heard of. Immediately a search was instituted. There was no address, and no one who knew the author. It was impossible to locate him.

At length Meynell decided he would publish these poems and invite the writer to come to his office immediately. He did, and sometime later there was a knock at the door. He said, “Come in.” The door opened, and a man took one step into the room, then withdrew his foot and closed the door. The editor again said, “Come in.” The door opened again, and the man took two steps into the room and then withdrew and closed the door a second time.

Meynell sat there in amazement. At length the door opened once more, and a shabbily dressed figure shuffled into the room. He was dressed far worse than the average beggar. In fact, he had no shirt or undershirt at all, but only a torn and stained coat, which almost covered the naked bones of his ribs that showed through, indicating that the man was close to starvation. Maynell looked down, and the man’s toes protruded through broken shoes. The man was a wreck.

The man finally said, “I am the man who wrote that poetry. I am Francis Thompson.” Happily, Meynell and his wife took this beggar into their home and saw to his physical needs; they clothed him, fed him, and nursed him back to health. They discovered that he was a man who had been studying medicine and doing very, very poorly. He left his home and ran away after eight years in college. He found his place among the lowest of the low and the vilest of the vile in the slums of London.

He usually slept on an embankment under a bridge over the Thames River, or sometimes on a concrete ledge protruding from a building, with a discarded newspaper as his only blanket. He ate whatever scraps of food that he could, on occasion, find. He wrote poems sometimes at night, with a stub of a pencil, holding the paper against a wall. A nearby lamppost provided the only illumination.

Thompson heard from Meynell the Gospel of Christ. He had heard much of it before, but he had wanted nothing to do with it and had fled from it. Now the love of Christ seemed to reach out and grasp his heart, and he invited the living Savior into his heart. His life was utterly transformed, and that is when he wrote his most famous poem. It has been likened unto the work of Milton. It is a glorious poem entitled “The Hound of Heaven.”

Thompson had conceived that God was some kind of monster and that, should He get His claws into him, He would destroy him or make his life even more utterly miserable than it was. So he fled from God. He fled into the slums. He fled to live among the vilest of people. He fled into opium. He fled, seeking joy and happiness, into the arms of a young woman. He turned to children to try to find some joy and could not find it there. Nothing satisfied, and yet he continued to plod, step after step, looking over his shoulder, lest that red-eyed Hound with His huge fangs should overtake him.

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the year; 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.”

I pleaded, outlaw-wise, By many a hearted casement, curtained red, Trellised with intertwining charities; (For, though I knew His love Who followed, Yet was I sore adread Lest, having Him, I must have naught beside.)…

Now of that long pursuit Comes on at hand the bruit; That Voice is round me like a bursting sea:… “Lo, all things fly thee, for thou fliest Me!… Wherefore should any set thee love apart? Seeing none but I makes much of naught” (He said), “And human love needs human meriting: How hast thou merited— Of all man’s clotted clay the dingiest clot?… Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee Save Me, save only Me?…” Halts by me that footfall: Is my gloom, after all, Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly? “Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest, I am He whom thou seekest! Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me.”

In a way that poem is the autobiography not only of Francis Thompson, but also of most of us. How many of us have spent years seeking to flee from God in the pursuit of every other sort of hope of happiness, only to find that nothing satisfies—to discover, as St. Augustine did, that “Thou hath made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”

I know that in my own life I can testify to this. Though reared in Sunday school and church as a child, as soon as able, in my early teens, I squawked loudly enough that my parents quit sending me (note well: sending me), and for ten years I had nothing to do with Christ. Oh, I sought pleasures, fulfillment, joy, and meaning in my life in all of the things of this world and found, I thought, some little satisfaction in it all. I could go day after day, week after week, month after month without ever giving Christ one single thought. Yet if you were to ask me if I were a Christian, believe it or not, I would have said yes.

But then, after that long pursuit, there came a day when, sound asleep in my bedroom, the Spirit of God slipped right in the window and turned on my alarm clock radio. There He spoke to me through the lips of Donald Grey Barnhouse, fifteen hundred miles away in Philadelphia, and He told me about that love. He told me about that wondrous matchless grace, and how He had loved me even unto Calvary, and there He had paid for all of my sins, and He desired to forgive me, to pardon me, to cleanse me, and to make me new.

I was overwhelmed, and at length, falling on my knees on the floor of that apartment, I cried out, “O God, I didn’t know. I didn’t know that was You seeking me. I didn’t know that You loved me even unto the cross. I didn’t know You were willing to forgive me for all of my sins and accept me just as I was. O God, I am sorry. I am so, so sorry, Lord.” I rose up a new creature. I had been found by Him. Yes, indeed, I was one of those of whom it has been said, “I will be found of them that sought me not,” for I had sought Him not at all—and yet I was found.

Without Him, all of the good things in your life will come to naught. With Him, He will turn everything unto good. Without Him, finally, having rejected His grace, you must face His justice at that Great Assize, at that final judgment. There, all of your sins—now hidden, for you are a respectable man, an upstanding man, a respectable woman—will be revealed. God knows your sin, and one day all of the world will know, unless you come to Him whose blood can cleanse you from every sin, who has promised to take our sins and to bury them into the depths of the sea, never to remember them against us anymore.