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The Hound of Heaven

April 18, 2024

Sheila Vamplin

Life has recently had me reading poet Paul Claudel for the first time. Reading his Five Great Odes has been a revelation. Each ode has its own subject, and the group are held together in part by the theme of the classical muses that the poet addresses in various ways.

The fourth ode, titled “The Muse Who Is Grace,” has not only the poet addressing the muse, but also the muse addressing the poet, and doing so quite directly. Claudel creates a conversation between a man resisting God’s grace and Grace, a female character, who teases, argues with, and pursues the man.

I was struck by the almost cheeky tone of this Grace. She early on calls the man “a lumbering beast,” says he should be “a petty clerk, a plodding functionary, a bureaucrat.” (He does, in fact, work for the government.) Later she addresses him, “Oh, dull companion!”

Sounding quite like women I can imagine, she clarifies for him that “I cannot be reached by reason alone and you cannot do as you like with me.”

This is an amazing grace! Nothing sentimental or cheap about her.

Her persistence is a key theme:

“ . . . No, I will not

release you nor give you respite.

And if you do not wish to learn joy from me,

instead you will learn sorrow.”

She insists that he pay attention to her and makes clear that she asks for total commitment:

“Do not attempt to elude me or to give me the world

in your place,

it is for you yourself that I ask.”

She describes herself as a jealous lover:

“Know my jealousy: worse than death.

It is the death that calls all things to life.”

When I first read this roughly 15-page back-and-forth, back-and-forth, I was a bit put off by Grace, the muse sent by God. She’s persistent. You might say pushy, even pesky, at the outset. Her tone mellows somewhat throughout the poem, but the persistence remains:

“It is not you who have chosen me, but I you—

From before you were born. . . 

So here I am, come to meet you, like Mercy

Who kisses Justice upon rousing her.”

At some point, in pondering this unusual poem, another poem came to mind as a way of understanding this tenacious character, Grace.

I encountered “The Hound of Heaven,” by Francis Thompson, in high school, when an older friend shared it with me. He had been through some really hard things related to choices he had made, choices that did not fall into the category of God’s will for living. And yet he had made it through, and he was very much aware of the role of God’s grace in his life.

The poem struck me, back then as mostly about love, the love that is always there when we seek it. Steadfast. From my perspective, I could not see that I had at that point needed to be pursued. My own life circumstances had caused me to pursue God, as I was so in need of love, strength, and hope. His steadfastness was a life saver for me, and while at that age I didn’t understand Thompson’s poem in all its meaning, I developed a love for it.

My friend associated the poem with a hymn we used to sing in church, “O Love, that Wilt Not Let Me Go.” One verse is addressed to “Joy, that seekest me through pain.” I loved this hymn in those high school years, though even with it I didn’t really notice the theme of persistence in it. Steadfastness, yes, but the actual persistent, seeking nature of God’s grace did not strike me until later in my life. But it is clearly there.

Francis Thompson wrote of the Voice “around me like a bursting sea.” The author of the hymn, George Matheson, described the “ocean depths” of God’s love. The second ode in Claudel’s collection creates a deep connection between the Spirit and Water. In one place he writes:

“How it is lively and agile, fearless of running dry—

(However far I plunge, I shall never outwit

The reach and suppleness of ocean’s abyss . . .)”

Claudell’s muse made more sense to me as I read through the ode and connected it with the other odes and also with the other two poems.

Reading these poems and reflecting on the persistence, the “hounding” nature of God’s loving grace, has brought to mind also a couple of recent life experiences. And a very different metaphor from that of water and the ocean. More like the Hound, in a way.

A young man I know has struggled greatly with severe depression. Twice it resulted in his having to drop out of college. He is very bright. He is, in fact, a writer and a poet; but his struggles with depression and daily functioning were wreaking havoc with his life and his very sense of self.

He found a life coach. The life coach’s name is . . . Grace. When telling me about the life coaching, he described Grace as a bulldog. His parents used the same image to describe her, saying she makes things happen, she finds a way, she absolutely will not give up. If one thing doesn’t work, she’ll insist on trying another. She’ll call the college and cut through the bureaucracy, no matter how many calls it takes. She pushes my friend to do what he says he wants to do. Nothing is impossible, from her view. Occasionally it was a little uncomfortable for my friend, but it became clear that her persistence came from love, and it began to make a real difference.

That young man is now set to graduate from college, and he recently made the Dean’s List.

I learned along the way that several years ago Grace lost her own young son; a severe depression took his life. This made so much sense of the “bulldog” approach to her work, which is targeted to teens and young adults making the transition into adulthood and all the challenges that brings, especially in today’s culture. Grace isn’t just helping kids do well in college. Grace is saving lives.

And this makes sense of the hounding, persistent quality of God’s grace that people begin to notice

if they pay attention to life.

And perhaps you begin to notice it most when you try to resist it. That was the case in my own life. Life history and experiences as a young adult led me away from my constant pursual of God, of His love and His wisdom for living. Not in outright rebellion that anyone around me would have noticed, but more a crisis within me, as desires, experiences, and disappointments created a maelstrom of struggles. At times I felt I might drown in the maelstrom.

Instead, the ocean of God’s grace was always there. Through friends, through scripture, through nature, through mentors, through music, through the quiet voice of the Spirit. As with Francis Thompson, “With unhurrying chase and unperturb-ed pace, deliberate speed, majestic instancy,” God’s “strong Feet” were always there.

I made it through that young adult storm and have made it through many more storms over the years, and in doing so I have become more and more aware of this sense that God is not only a steadfast lover who will wait patiently, but He is One who seeks and pursues and sometimes crashes His waves up on the shore to remind me He is here–and that it is “for me myself” that He asks, not just the things I do or the beliefs I hold.

This kind of grace makes sense when we realize that God is wanting to save us from ourselves and from the darkness in the world. He has seen lives lost, lives destroyed, lives struggling in terrible and unnecessary ways. We underestimate the word “salvation.” He wants to save us, heal us, because He knows the alternative is our own misery and the loss of something beautiful He set out to make.

He is the Grace who “calls all things to life.”

In reflecting on these things, a final image comes to me. Recently I was blessed to be part of a five-day silent retreat. As we sat in the chapel focusing on the presence of Christ, the leader, encouraging us to still our souls and listen, said, “Jesus may be silent, but he is never passive. He’s always speaking. We need to be silent so we can listen.”

Jesus is never passive. Amazing grace.

The featured image, “Pondering by the Sea,” is courtesy of Ariel Lovewell and is used with her kind permission for Cultivating.

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  1. Diane Rose says:

    This is beautiful, Sheila!
    Diane Rose

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