Francis was born in Preston, England in 1859, the son of a doctor and homemaker. At a young age he considered a vocation the Priesthood, but was dismissed from the seminary, not for academic or moral reasons, but because of practical things, for example, he couldn’t remember how to post a letter.
As Francis struggled to figure out his future, his family sent him to pursue medicine, like his father. At medical school he excelled in language arts, poetry, and Latin. He ranked first in his class in the classics, but last in math and science. He failed his medical boards three times.
Late in medical studies Francis developed a “fever,” and he was prescribed laudanum, a form of opium, whose addictive properties were just beginning to be understood. He only arrived at home from school an academic failure and with a serious addiction. Eventually he left home for London with a desire to write.
Francis took odd jobs, each more desperate than the previous, to pay for “some food and opium.” He became destitute, living under bridges on the banks of the River Thames. He was asked not to return to the library, where he passed his days reading and writing, because his clothing became threadbare.
For all his struggles Francis never forgot his Catholicism; his Catholic faith remained strongly intact.
Francis took a writing sample to the mailbox of Merry England, a popular publication. The publishers, Wilfred and Alice Meynell, were so impressed they tracked Francis down and persuaded him to write. They convinced him to begin recovery and they covered the cost.
Overcoming his addition was a long path that included time at a Catholic priory outside of London where monks nursed Francis back to health. Francis wrote to the Meynells about the darkness of overcoming the addiction, which gradually no longer imprisoned him.
Francis’ story of suffering and brokenness is also one of redemption. He reflected on the Grace of God given by Jesus Christ, and how His pursuit of humanity is a relentless love story. Francis began to write about his life and recovery, creating a work that can speak to all people of faith.
Francis begins, “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 way of my own mind; and in the mist of tears, I hid from Him.”
Francis realizes that no matter where he ran someone was constantly following after him, and of all the places and things he ran to, nothing satisfied him. Finally, Francis reveals that the one he is fleeing is the object of his longing, and after endless miles of searching for fulfillment, Francis lets himself be found.
In the final verse we hear the voice of God speak to Francis, saying, “Rise, clasp My hand, and come! I am He Whom you are seeking!”
Francis’ story portrays the image of “The Hound of Heaven.” It tells us that God, in His love for us, is pursuing each one of us, and that no soul is ever left abandoned. One might run for years, seeking fulfillment in empty pleasures, doing battle with sin, enduring suffering, and perhaps feeling lost.
In the spiritual life we might identify with that soul in different ways, or we probably love someone who does. Francis Thompson’s “Hound of Heaven” reminds us that the one the world often wants us to run from is the only one capable of satisfying the deepest longings of the human soul.
By Father Eugene Ritz, Chancellor of the Diocese of Allentown; Director of the Office for Canonical Services; Director of the Office for Permanent Diaconate Formation; and Judge on the Diocesan Tribunal; in residence at St. Joseph the Worker Parish, Orefield.