Divine Lover, Hound of Heaven,Return of the Prodigal

Rerutn of the Prodigal Francis Thompson, a troubled heroin addict, described God as The Hound of  Heaven:

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 mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter;
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbed pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat — and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet—
“All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.”

God is the Hound in relentless pursuit of the hare. Merton has said that God finds us (not we find God).

The Song of Solomon, the most erotic book in the Bible, describes God’s quest for us in terms of a Lover bounding like a gazelle over mountains. God pursues us but God does not put us in a hammer lock to ensure compliance. God INVITES us to further union:

“Arise, my beloved, my dove, my beautiful one,
and come!
“For see, the winter is past,
the rains are over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth,
the time of pruning the vines has come,
and the song of the dove is heard in our land.
The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines, in bloom, give forth fragrance.
Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one,
and come!

After weeks of dreary, rainy, winter steel-grey cold in the mountains, I can appreciate the invitation to a place where winter is past. In fact, we will go back to Florida for the winter months in just a week. [Ah, the sun is shining brightly over the mountain and streaming rays of warmth into my study as I write. New light. The beginning of a new day.] On a deeper level, the Song speaks of new life, new beginnings, a new order as we await the coming of Jesus the Christ–already here but always coming to us. Flowers, pruned vines, fresh figs, fragrant vines, a dove’s song–new beginnings. New hopes. New dreams. Arise. Come to God.

New beginnings never come easy. When we read the Gospel story, it seems like Mary just popped over to Ein Karem in Judea. Not so. It is a very long journey across very unfriendly desert and mountains from Nazareth in Galilee to Ein Karem in the burbs of Jerusalem in Judea. Mary’s response to the news of Elizabeth’s pregnancy was to go be with her cousin.

The journey in response to the Divine, “Come, My Beloved” can be difficult and challenging. It just “happened” that the web page where I retrieved part of Thompson’s poem featured a picture of Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal.” This was a favorite theme of Henri Nouwen, whom many consider to be the second greatest spiritual writer of the 20th century after Merton. Dom Eudes Bamberger knew both Merton and Nouwen and he cautions us that they are different writers appealing to different audiences. Both speak truth to hearts hungry for union with God.

Nouwen suffered with a longing for love and affection his whole life. He had a troubling relationship with his father. He speaks to those who never seem to have measured up to the expectations of others. He prayed for healing but, like Mother Theresa, was never delivered from the darkness.

Nouwen spent countless hours in the museum in St. Petersburg studying Rembrandt’s painting. Suffering a severe depression after a broken relationship at L’Arche, Nouwen discovered the richness of the painting. Is the father’s embrace of the returning prodigal son an image of what Nouwen longed for? Probably. Nouwen discovered that we need to live between immersion in our pain and total indifference to our pain. Forgiveness may well take place but some wounds heal gradually. In his journal, The Inner Voice of Love, Nouwen says that we have to work around our abyss:

There is a deep hole in your being, like an abyss. You will never succeed in filling that hole, because your needs are inexhaustible. You have to work around it so that the abyss gradually closes.

Since the hole is so enormous and your anguish so deep, you will always be tempted to flee from it [as in The Hound of Heaven].

Nouwen wisely counsels us not to be “completely absorbed in [y]our pain” and not let many things distract us from our wound. Keating says that our false programs for happiness (distractions) cause us to flee our pain and the Hound of Heaven. We reject the gentle invitation. Then, when we finally fall deep down into the abyss of our utter nothingness and tumble out into infinite Love and Mercy, we need to stop running. We need let go and we need to let God find us.

We let God find us when we respond to the invitation, “Come, My Beloved.” No matter how deep the wound or how deep the pain, God speaks the same words to us that God spoke to Jesus, “You are my beloved son/daughter in whom I am well pleased.” We are always held in the warm embrace of God’s love. God is always delighted with us! The Father is always waiting for us to return.

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