I am blogging my last sermon delivered as Dean from that supremely elegant pulpit in St Paul's Cathedral. What a journey and what a privilege it has been.
Choral Evensong June 3, 2018
Readings: Jeremiah 5:1-19; Romans 7: 7-25;
Tonight I thought we might talk about the deep truth of God - and us. It was long ago expressed most memorably by St Augustine in his Confessions when he says to God: “You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless till they rest in you.” In that phrase alone is encapsulated a love affair; a story of search and flight; of loss and recovery. In the gospels we catch glimpses of this affair; parables and stories tell it, the lost sheep, the prodigal son. We catch an echo of it even in the Romans passage this evening, when Paul laments: ‘Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?’ Who will save me from myself? Let's begin with that extraordinary poem by Francis Thompson, The Hound of Heaven, just a fragment or so.
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”
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.”
Francis Thompson (1859-1907) (The Hound of Heaven,1893)
Thompson’s poem can be found startling, strange, disturbing. But when one reads the poem, it makes sense. As the hound follows the hare, never ceasing in its running, ever drawing nearer in the chase, so does God follow the fleeing soul by divine grace. Our attempts to evade, thwart and elude are met by this divine persistence that sees through every attempt, every device, every shameful exploit.
A modern variation on this same theme is a much briefer poem by the priest and poet Malcolm Guite. He uses the sonnet form, the Petrarchan form of octet and a sestet with the characteristic volta or turn at about line 8. He sings the praise of the sonnet form: “At the heart of its virtues are
brevity, clarity, concentration, and a capacity for paradox, for expressing, juxtaposing and containing contradictions, all of which are required if we are to approach the paradox and mystery that is at the heart of the Christian faith.” (Introduction, p.xi.)
Hide and Seek
Ready or not, you tell me, here I come!
And so I know I’m hiding, and I know
My hiding place is useless. You will come
And find me. You are searching high and low.
Today I’m hiding low, down here, below,
Below the sunlit surface others see.
Oh find me quickly, quickly come to me.
And here you come and here I come to you.
I come to you because you come to me.
You know my hiding places. I know you,
I reach you through your hiding places too;
Feeling for the thread, but now I see –
Even in darkness I can see you shine,
Risen in bread, and revelling in wine.
(Malcolm Guite, Sounding the Seasons, p.50)
Guite’s telling of the ancient story of God and us frames it as a game, ‘hide and seek’, and through the lines are resonances of older texts. ‘I know/My hiding place is useless’ irresistibly calls to mind the opening prayer by the priest in our 1928 800am mass: “Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, and from whom no secrets are hid.” Of course, my hiding place is useless!
There is urgency here ‘Oh find me quickly’ and we recognise that urgency mirrored in our hearts and our lives.
Then we note the volta:
“And here you come and here I come to you.
I come to you because you come to me.”
The poet has us reaching in God’s hiding places, those churches we visit in the labyrinth of this world, ‘feeling for the thread’ to lead us into light and then the encounter with the One who is “Risen in bread, and revelling in wine.”
Augustine knew the truth: “You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless till they rest in you.”