"What is this babbler trying to say?" Acts 17:18

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Hunt For the Souls of Men

In the winter of 1887, Wilfred Meynell, editor of the Catholic Magazine Merry England, received a mysterious parcel containing an essay and some poems written on dirty scraps of paper. In the cover letter, pardon was asked, “for the soiled state of the manuscript,” claiming it was not through slovenliness, but the unavoidable circumstances under which they were written. Meynell published one of these poems, hoping by this means to gain further correspondence. His bait worked and one day an unkempt, ragged man, suffering from an opium hangover, entered his office, introducing himself as Francis Thompson.

Born in 1859 to Catholic parents, Thompson was sent to Ushaw College to study for the priest-hood. But at 18 he returned home with a letter from the headmaster which said: “It is quite time that he should begin to prepare for some other career.” So accordingly, for the next six years he lazily studied to become a doctor like his father. But he failed the medical exam three times. About this time he took up opium which was not only available for medical use, but was, as a liquid called laudanum, cheaper and just as available as beer. After his threefold failure he took to the streets of London; a bum, poor and homeless.

It was during these years on the streets writing poetry that Wilfred Meynell found him. Meynell and his wife Alice (also an accomplished poet) took Thompson under their wing, placing him in a drug clinic and then a monastery to recover. For some years he seemed cured of his opium addiction and during this time he wrote nearly all of his poetry and a number of literary essays. But in 1898, Thompson relapsed into his opium addiction from which in part he died in 1907 at the age of 48, due to a mixture of tuberculosis and laudanum poisoning.

From out of this shaky life, in 1893, Thompson wrote "The Hound of Heaven," a poem that is considered his masterpiece. Coventry Patmore called it, “one of the very few ‘great’ odes of which the language can boast.” After gaining fame in England, Thompson’s popularity quickly spread to America and beyond, due in part to critics like G. K. Chesterton who called him “a great poet.” His patron Wilfred Meynell hoped to promote Thompson as "the Poet of Catholic orthodoxy" and even claimed: “One greater than Milton is among us.”

The verse form is irregular and somewhat confusing even after an initial reading. There are rhyming couplets and quatrains spaced throughout that give it just enough regularity to throw off the novice reader (like myself). Even ignoring all rules of order and blindly rushing after the pageant of florid words, however, is often excitement enough. For as nearly everyone who has read it has remarked, the pace is frenzied, running and rushing headlong, as if the Hound of Heaven were indeed close behind.

Thompson was called a mystic poet, that is, he used allegorical and symbolic figures to represent God and other spiritual things. In "The Hound of Heaven," which is autobiographical, the allegorical image is that of Thompson being pursued by a hound, the Hound of Heaven. From which he flees,

Down the nights and down the days...
Down the arches of the years...
Down the labyrinthine ways
of his own mind. But no matter where he goes or what he does, he cannot escape,
From those strong Feet that followed,
Followed after
. But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbed pace.
Soon, the reason he flees is made clear; he does not wish to give up his dreams or his sins. "Lest having him, I must have not besides."
He then says that during the pursuit he leaves even the fellowship and abode of men. Hoping that by living under the open sky and eating in the “wind walled palace” (i.e. outside) he might partake of Nature’s delicate fellowship.
But not by that, by that, was eased my human smart...
And past those noised feet
A voice comes yet more fleet
'Lo! Naught contents thee, who content’st not me.'
At last the Hound draws near and asks him why he delays. What is so precious on earth? Doth he not know that,
Lo, all things fly thee, for thou fliest me!
Strange, piteous, futile thing!
"The Hound of Heaven" is very forceful in presenting humanity fleeing from God even though the gloom is after all only, “Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly.” The poem reaches a raw, emotional pitch rarely attained in written words. As G. K. Chesterton said: “It was an event of History, as much as an event of literature, when personal religion returned suddenly with something of the power of Dante or the 'Dies Irae,' after a century in which such religion had seemed to grow weak and provincial, and more and more impersonal religions appeared to posses the future.”

Many people from all walks of the Christian life, not just Catholics, have appreciated "The Hound of Heaven" because of its overarching theme: the love of God. That no matter where we are or what we’ve done God is always pursuing, not in wrath, but in love. Perhaps Chesterton expresses best what this poem means: “The awakening of the Domini Canes, the Dogs of God, meant that the hunt was up once more; the hunt for the souls of men…. and…the hunt will continue until the world turns to bay.”

Friday, November 14, 2008

Gorgias (No, Not Georgia)

My first tentative reconnoiter into the field of Greek literature after reading Who Killed Homer, was with the playwright Aeschylus. While all went well, I did not learn much, and subsequently, have nothing to report. But though my first foray was unfruitful, the adventure I am currently in the middle of has already yielded a wealth of interesting things. I am, as it were, still on the front lines, in that I have not yet finished exploring Plato's Gorgias. I only have a partial picture of Socrates' dialogue (did the spelling change to dialog recently and I missed it? Spell check isn't happy with me and I'm not happy with it.) with Gorgias and Callicles on the purpose of oratory.

Even though I started with the intent to learn what Plato thought about public speaking because I am enrolled in a public speaking class, my interest has been taken captive by the discussion of good and evil that he creates. Basically, Plato, speaking through Socrates, claims that the evil man who inflicts harm is more miserable than the good man who unjustly receives it. Also, the wrongdoer who escapes harm is more miserable than the wrongdoer brought to justice.

Even if, like Callicles, we disagree with what Plato says about a disciplined and upright life being a happier state to live in than unrestrained immorality, where does the differentiation between good and evil come from? In other words, why does Plato (a pre-christian) even recognize the existence of good and evil, right and wrong? And further, see the two alternatives as the most important choice a person can make?

O.k. I want to read a few more pages of this dialogue (or dialog) before bed.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Reflecting on the "Emerging Church"

There seems to be quite a stir going on over what it means to be an "Emerging Church" inside the Emerging Church. I've always been a bit confused over what the term means, but now Dan Kimball, author of The Emerging Church, posts on his blog that he too is, "finding that the term has become so broad now and so confusing." But maybe none of us should be surprised that a word like "emerging" that denotes movement and change is doing just that: changing.

The "emerging conversation" is starting to sound like an argument as some groups all of a sudden try to distance themselves from "emerging" or scramble for some other label like "missional" or "emergent." One blogger noted that there is now a polarizing movement with leaders like Kimball on the right focusing on evangelism and others on the left embracing a more liberal theology. I've been out of the loop for a while so maybe this has been building for some time. If I get the chance I would like to understand the Emerging Church a little more and maybe post my findings. We'll see. Until then you might want to check out Dan Kimball's post, which he promises is the first of a series.