In My Arms

Fyodor Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov tells a tale of hell as self-pre-centeredness and self-absorption. The failure of compassion. The story is about a stingy person and a generous God who weeps and, for the moment, flies away.

Once upon a time there was a peas­ant woman and a very wicked woman she was. And she died and did not leave a sin­gle good deed behind. The dev­ils caught her and plunged her into the lake of fire. So her guardian angel stood and won­dered what good deed of hers he could remem­ber to tell to God; ‘she once pulled up an onion in her gar­den,’ said he, ‘and gave it to a beg­gar woman.’ And God answered: ‘You take that onion then, hold it to her in the lake, and let her take hold and be pulled out. And if you can pull her out of the lake, let her come to Par­adise, but if the onion breaks, then the woman must stay where she is.’ The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her; ‘Come,’ said he, ‘catch hold and I’ll pull you out.’ And he began cau­tiously pulling her out. He had just pulled her right out, when the other sin­ners in the lake, see­ing how she was being drawn out, began catch­ing hold of her so as to be pulled out with her. But she was a very wicked woman and she began kick­ing them. ‘I’m to be pulled out, not you. It’s my onion, not yours.’ (bold print added by Views from the Edge)

As soon as she said that, the onion broke.  And the woman fell into the lake and she is burn­ing there to this day. So the angel wept and went away.

The story is about the hell of me and “mine” on the one hand, and the angel who weeps, on the other. Will the weeping angel ever return?

Three years ago during the final months of stepdaughter Katherine’s terminal illness, I sought help at the Benedictine Abbey at St. John’s in Collegeville.  I spent three days there in silence, except for meetings in the morning and the evening with a spiritual director.

In the first meeting with Father John, I shared with him the story of Katherine’s cancer.  I was feeling helpless and frustrated.  “Is Katherine a person of faith?” he asked. “Yes,” I said, “but it has nothing to do with that. I don’t believe in hell. I believe in the sovereignty of God. God is Love. I don’t believe in hell, except for the hell we’re going through right now.

“Well,” said Father John, “our tradition says that there probably is a Hell, but it’s likely there’s no one in it!” The good Father was walking the balance between God’s sole prerogative as “judge of the living and the dead,” as the Apostles’ creed says, and the nature of the Judge himself as Love, whose judgments are always a function of God’s mercy.

So…will the angel who fled the old woman come again to the old woman still clutching the half-rotten onion?

Nothing speaks to this so well, in my experience, than Sir Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven.”

He imagines himself as a rabbit fleeing from the steady, unperturbed steps of a hound.

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 midst 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 unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat—and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet—
‘All things betray thee, who betrayest Me’.

Who was the man who wrote these lines? Why and how would he see himself as a rabbit, and God as the hound who was chasing him?

Francis Thompson is remembered as a great English poet. But it was not always so. After attending college to become a doctor like his father, he moved to London in 1885 to become a writer, but ended up on the street selling matches and newspapers. He became addicted to opium, which he first had taken as a remedy for ill-health. Living in destitution and self-destruction, he submitted a poem to a poetry magazine called Merrie England. The magazine’s editors, Wilfrid and Alice Meynell, moved by Thompson’s poem, rescued him from the verge of starvation and self-destruction. They provided safe lodging and arranged for the publication of his first book, Poems, in 1893, which opened the door to a publishing career after favorable reviews in the St James’s Gazette and other venues.

Subsequently Thompson lived as an invalid in Wales and at Storrington. A lifetime of extreme poverty, ill-health, and an addiction to opium took a heavy toll even when he had found success in his last years. According to several accounts, he began an attempted suicide in the depths of despair, but was saved from completing the action through a vision which he believed to have been that of a youthful poet, Thomas Chatterton, who had committed suicide almost a century earlier. Shortly afterwards, a prostitute – whose identity Thompson never revealed – befriended him, gave him lodging, and shared her income with him. Thompson later described her as one who saved his life, a kind of savior. She soon disappeared, however, and never returned. He died of tuberculosis at the age of 48.

Whether man’s heart or life it be which yields
Thee harvest, must Thy harvest-fields
Be dunged with rotten death?

Now of that long pursuit
Comes on at hand the bruit;
That Voice is round me like a bursting sea:
‘And is thy earth so marred,
Shattered in shard on shard?
Lo, all things fly thee, for thou fliest Me!

‘Strange, piteous, futile thing!
Wherefore should any set thee love apart?
Seeing none but I makes much of naught’ (He said),
‘And human love needs human meriting:
How hast thou merited—
Of all man’s clotted clay the dingiest clot?
Alack, thou knowest not
How little worthy of any love thou art!
Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee,
Save Me, save only Me?
All which I took from thee I did but take,
Not for thy harms,
But just that thou might’st seek it in My arms.
All which thy child’s mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home:
Rise, clasp My hand, and come!’

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.’

Neither Dostoevsky’s weeping angel of mercy nor Francis Thompson’s Hound of Heaven is far from us. The scared rabbit cannot outrun the slow, unperturbed steps of Divine Love.

How little worthy of any love thou art!

Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee,

Save Me, save only Me?

“All which I took from you, I took not for your harm, but that you might seek it in My arms. All which you mistakenly thought was lost, I have stored for you at home.

“Rise, clasp My hand, and come!”

– A sermon preached at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church, Chaska, MN, September 9, 2012