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He Whom Thou Seekest

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He Whom Thou Seekest

Post by Karen on Sat 2 Apr 2011 - 7:04



David Bryant considers Francis Thompson's message.

"Dear Sir, In enclosing the accompanying articles for your inspection, I must ask pardon for the soiled state of the manuscript. It is due not to slovenliness but to the strange places and circumstances under which it has been written. Kindly address your rejection to The Charing Cross Post Office."
This package arrived on the desk of Wilfred Meynell, editor of a religious journal, Merry England, in the winter of 1887. It contained poems written by the Victorian poet and mystic Francis Thompson (1859-1907), who was born in Preston, Lancashire, 150 years ago, on 16 December.
Thompson was brought up in a Roman Catholic family, and his father, a doctor, sent him to train for the priesthood at Ushaw College. He was rejected as unsuitable, and reluctantly studied medicine for the next six years. He left Owens Medical College an opium addict.
A long period of living rough on London streets followed, and he owed his life to a prostitute - "my saviour" - who gave him a home. Wilfred Meynell realised he had a highly gifted poet on his doorstep, and referred him to a doctor who weaned him off drugs. He spent a period of convalescence in a Premonstratensian monastery at Storrington, and, later, he moved in with the Meynells, and his verse flourished.
His two masterpieces are "The Hound of Heaven" and "The Kingdom of God." A journalist wrote of the first, "London is ringing with it." "No mystical words have so touched me," was the Pre-Raphaelite artist Burne-Jones's response.
The poem pictures Thompson running away from God, who is 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."
He tries every means of escaping from God. Surely, life, with its variegated experience, its laughter and tears, is enough to satisfy the soul? What about human love, or the wonders of cosmology, "the golden gateway of the stars", or "the pale ports of the moon?" Do we need God when all this glory is to hand? If that does not suffice, do not little children point to the gateway of heaven with their innocence and beauty?
As a last refuge, the poet turns to nature, the clouds, the weather, and the spume of the sea. The hound of heaven still follows. "But with unhurrying chase, And unperturbed pace, Deliberate speed, majestic instancy." Finally, Thompson finds himself at bay, defenceless and naked at the feet of God.
Then comes the ringing finale. He waits the uplifted stroke of the hound's paw that will bring death, but finds instead absolute love. "Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest, I am He whom thou seekest! Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest me."
In "The Kingdom of God", the poet envisages a world immersed in holiness. You do not have to look to the heavens to find God: he is here, on the earth. "Does the fish soar to find the ocean, The eagle plunge to find the air - That we ask of the stars in motion If they have rumour of thee there?
Nor need we search the skies for "the drift of pinions" (the fluttering of angels' wings). "Turn but a stone and start a wing!" The holy is all around us. It is only because we are so deeply estranged from God that we "miss the many-splendoured thing".
He ends on a note of towering optimism. When life is at its saddest, you will find a ladder like that of Jacob, "Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross." Yes, in the night when your soul cries, you will see the Lord right in the very heart of London. "And lo, Christ walking on the water Not of Gennesareth, but Thames!" His vision of the overwhelming love of God, and of the presence of the holy at every turn of life is a profoundly beautiful and powerful message for these secular times.

The Revd David Bryant is a retired priest who lives in Yorkshire.

Source: Church Times, December 11, 2009, Page 16

Karen Trenouth
Author of: "Epiphany of the Whitechapel Murders"
Author of: "Jack the Ripper: The Satanic Team"

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