I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years . . .
The words fell out in a dour sigh, all booze and smoke. Long after hours in the back room of a Greenwich Village bar called the Hell Hole, the man who would become America's most celebrated playwright seemed to be straining in a hell all his own. He was reciting from memory "The Hound of Heaven," a long poem about the ways of God and the evasive maneuvers of the human soul:
. . . I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him . . .
On that cold winter night in 1917, audience was a crowd of self-styled freethinkers and artists, free-love bohemians and hangers-on. At his side was , a 20-something reporter for the nation's largest socialist daily newspaper, The New York Call. Like O'Neill, she was a lonely idealist with a taste for rye whiskey and lover-done-me-wrong songs. They used to walk pressed together on the late-night streets, lost in conversation about the mystic lyrics of Baudelaire and the "God-is-dead" philosophy of Nietzsche. She had never heard O'Neill speak of this poem before.
I stand amid the dust o' the mounded years—
My mangled youth lies dead beneath the heap.
My days have crackled and gone up in smoke,
Have puffed and burst as sun-starts on a stream.
Yea, faileth now even dream. . . .
And now my heart is as a broken fount,
Wherein tear-drippings stagnate . . .
Written in the 1870s by a former opium addict turned Catholic named Francis Thompson, "The Hound of Heaven" could have been O'Neill's spiritual autobiography. Reared Catholic and educated in Catholic schools, O'Neill had forsaken his parents' faith in a disillusionment that spiraled down a back alley of reckless excess. He professed a morose and anguished atheism, refusing homage to a God who could allow so much suffering in the world.
“I awoke in the night … with a sense of futility, of being unloved and unwanted. And suddenly … I felt a sureness of God’s love.”
Dorothy Day parted company with him not long after that night in the Hell Hole. O'Neill went on to fame—winning four Pulitzers and the Nobel Prize in Literature—but not quite happiness. His plays were studies in loss: he wrote of a God who failed to deliver, of sin and guilt and the burden of memory, of the search for satisfaction and the terror of death.
At first, Day continued along the downward path she and O'Neill had been on. She was wounded in action in the Jazz Age's sexual revolution—
knocked up and then abandoned by a hard-drinking journalist. She had an abortion, married a man on the rebound, and lived for a time as an expatriate in Paris and Capri. Her marriage broke up, and she bore a daughter out of wedlock with another man.
In December 1927, a decade after that winter with O'Neill, she surrendered to the relentless "Hound of Heaven" and entered the Catholic Church. The long days until her death in 1980 were spent not far from the Hell Hole. She lived without income or security, sheltering the homeless, speaking out against injustice and war, and spreading through her writings and her life's witness a radical belief in the merciful kingdom of God. Many believe she will one day be declared a saint.
She never stopped praying for Eugene O'Neill, who had opened her eyes with that poem. "It is one of those poems that awakens the soul, recalls to it the fact that God is its destiny," she wrote in her first autobiography, From Union Square to Rome. "The idea of this pursuit fascinated me; the inevitableness of it, the recurrence of it, made me feel that inevitably I would have to pause in the mad rush of living to remember my first beginning and last end."
God's Unhurrying Chase
Our destiny. Our first beginning and last end. Inevitable pursuit. That is about as succinct a definition of God as you are going to find. God is "our Father in heaven," as Jesus taught us to pray to him. He is the origin and goal of our lives, and the loving sustainer of all points in between. He put us here. He knows where we came from, where we have been, and where we are now. And he knows where we should be heading—always on the road back to him.
In his poem, Thompson calls God "this tremendous Lover." He is out to get us. He hounds our days and hounds our nights. He knows what we need even before we ask, and he knows that he alone is what each of us is searching for. This is the God Dorothy Day knew. This is the God revealed in the pages of the Scriptures.
The drama begins with God making the first man and woman in his own image to share his life. Quickly his children spurn his love. He pursues them, calls to them with words that will resound through the pages of biblical history, and in every human heart today—"Where are you?"
God wants us to discover what Dorothy Day found out on the road one night:
"I was traveling and far from home and lonely, and I awoke in the night almost on the verge of weeping with a sense of futility, of being unloved and unwanted. And suddenly the thought came to me of my importance as a daughter of God, daughter of a King, and I felt a sureness of God's love. And I felt a sureness of God's love and at the same time a conviction that one of the greatest injustices, if one can put it that way, which one can do to God is to distrust his love, not realize his love. God so loved me that he gave his only begotten son. 'If a mother shall forget her children, never will I forget thee.' Such tenderness, and with such complete ingratitude we forget the Father and his love!"
The divine drama of God's pursuit is also the story of our hiding from him, our failure to realize his love. Try as we might, however, we can never elude him. The best we can do is delude ourselves that we have given him the slip. Like it or not, we are made for God.
One Love, Three Lovers
Jesus revealed to us a God who is a Trinity, a communion of three divine persons in love—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. To say that God is a Trinity does not mean that we believe in three gods. It does not mean that there are three "modes" or ways that God expresses himself. To say that God is a Trinity is to say that there are three real, distinct Persons within the unity of the one God. It is a mystery best described by a word, as the apostle John did—"God is love." Augustine would later say, "In truth, to see the Trinity is to see love."
The Trinity is Love—Love on a mission to make us his own.
What does that mean? An early Catholic hymn, preserved in Paul's letter to the Philippians, sings of how Jesus "emptied himself" to be born in our likeness and to offer himself on the cross. In emptying himself to become man, and again in offering himself on the cross, Jesus revealed the love of God—not only God's love for us, but also the nature of the love that is God, the inner workings of the Trinity.
Within the Trinity, the very life of God, the Father pours himself out in love, eternally fathering the Son. The Son eternally receives himself as a gift of the Father's love and offers himself back completely to the Father in love. The Holy Spirit is that love that gives life, proceeding from the total gift of Father to Son and Son to Father. The love in the Trinity is like the love we experience on earth. Love is always a triad involving the lover, the beloved, and the nexus of love, the bond that unites lover and beloved.
These are words of worship and wonder, more poetry than precise schematic. And yet these words reflect not only the teaching and example of Jesus, but also the history of humankind's experience of God. Though we do not often think of it this way, we know God in our lives as a Trinity—as the Father who made us, as the Son who saved us, and as the Holy Spirit who gives us new life as God's children.
The hound of heaven. This tremendous lover. These are simply different poetic ways of talking about the Trinity. The Trinity is love—love on a mission to make us his own. All creation and all history flow out of this love. And all creation and all history flow on toward this love, back into the Trinity.
Seeing is Believing
The Catholic believes that the Trinity has left marks of his kindness and omnipotence in creation, like a divine tattoo. "The world is charged with the grandeur of God," said the nineteenth-century Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins, perhaps the finest Catholic poet. Another poet of the divine, the sixteenth-century Spanish monk St. John of the Cross, saw vestiges of the Trinity everywhere:
Scattering a thousand graces,
He passed through these groves in haste,
And looking upon them as He went,
Left them, by His grace alone,
Clothed in beauty.
All this beauty, all this power and glory, is meant to lift us up, to lead us deeper into the weft of the Father. We know with Augustine that "heaven and earth and all that is in the universe cries out to me from all directions, that I, O God, must love you."
In God's Fatherly Eyes
Jesus came into the world to show us the fatherly face of our Creator. When he began preaching, the Father was his only message. In his most famous sermon, he tells us to live as "children of your Father in heaven. . . . Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." Many of his parables were stories of fathers and sons. The most prophetic of these is also the most graphic—a father sends his son to reason with the wicked tenants of a vineyard he owns, but the tenants rise up in jealousy and rage and kill the son.
And this is what happened to Jesus. Sent to reveal the Father, he spoke so much about him and in such intimate terms that the religious leaders of his day deemed him a heretic and a blasphemer. The Gospel of John reports: "For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was . . . calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God."
The name of the Father was on his lips in the lonely garden on the night he was arrested, and again as he breathed his last—"Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." After he rose from the dead, he gave his apostles the gift of the Holy Spirit, which he called "what my Father promised," and commissioned them to continue the mission of God's only Son: "As the Father has sent me, so I send you." It was a mission of family building, to make all nations children of God our Father through baptism in his name.
All that could be heard were … the nuns singing the Salve Regina … and the sound of the blade lopping off their heads, one by one.
So what does it mean to have God as our Father? Before we can understand this, we must throw out any ideas or images we have of human fathers, especially any bad experiences we might have had with our own fathers. The French poet Charles Péguy, killed in World War I, said that God looks on us with "fatherly eyes." The way God sees it, Péguy said, we are "sweet children, inimitable children, Jesus' brothers," and he loves each of us as he loves his Son:
They remind me of my Son
And he was like them . . .
That is why I love them, says God.
Jesus taught that our Father holds each of us in his loving gaze. It is not as if, in creating the universe, God set a timer and then sat back, paring his nails, waiting for the clock to run out. Our Father is in the details—he knows when a sparrow falls from a rooftop; he feeds the birds and grows the flowers. There is nothing so small that he does not see it. The Father has numbered every hair on our heads and appointed an angel to watch over each one of us, posted before the very face of our Father in heaven.
There are no accidents in our lives. "Everything comes from love," reminds us. This is the great paradox of our Father's love. In a world filled with evil and innocent suffering, how can we believe in God's love? How could a God who supposedly cares personally about each and every one of his children permit them to suffer? These questions gnawed away at Eugene O'Neill. "His whole life" was consumed with "the problem of evil and God's permissive will," Dorothy Day said.
His anguish was hardly original. The scandal of evil haunts the Catholic imagination and is the theme of some of our greatest art, literature, and philosophy. The painful refrain of , novel about the persecution of missionaries in seventeenth-century Japan, hangs over all Catholic meditations on the Father: "Why is God continually silent while those groaning voices go on?"
The cross, which on Good Friday was the symbol of God's apparent powerlessness against evil and injustice, was transformed on Easter Sunday into a pledge of triumph to all who suffer: God will bring a greater good out of even the most evil circumstances. Faith in Jesus means faith that those who suffer in Christ will also be raised to new life with him. Because the Father delivered his Son from death, we can be confident that our Father will deliver us too from evil and lead us into everlasting life.
In faith we can find God working even in the midst of tragedy. This does not mean that we are to remain passive in the face of innocent suffering. Quite the opposite. Suffering marks the hour of Christian witness. used to remind people that the innocent suffer often because of our failures to love and sacrifice: "If sometimes our poor people have to die of starvation, it is not because God didn't care for them, but because you and I didn't give, were not instruments of love in the hands of God."
Our God is a crucified God, a Father who groans in compassion for his suffering humanity.
In faith we respond to suffering with works of mercy. And though we discern God's will only dimly, we trust with Paul that "all things work together for good for those who love God," and that all the "sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us." We trust that, as Jesus told in a vision in 1375, "sin is necessary, but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."
Living Witness of the Martyrs
Our faith in the victory of God over evil also stems from the witness of twenty centuries of Christian martyrs. The martyrs testify to the real presence of God in a world that claims he is dead or indifferent.
The martyrs approached the cruelty of their fates with the faith that they were joining their sufferings to the sufferings of Christ. "The pangs of birth are upon me," St. Ignatius of Antioch said before being fed to the lions in Rome in 107. "Leave me to imitate the passion of my God." In the face of his imminent torture and death, he spoke of the new life given to him in baptism and nurtured in him by the Eucharist:
"There is within me a water that lives and speaks, saying to me inwardly, 'Come to the Father.' I have no delight in perishable food, nor in the pleasures of this life. I desire the bread of God, the heavenly bread, the bread of life, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, the Son of God."
We see this same faith in the Carmelite nuns of Compiègne, martyred on the guillotine at the height of the French Revolution. Branded enemies of the "progress of public spirit," they were killed as part of the Revolution's systematic effort to efface all trace of the living God from France.
Priests and nuns were jailed and killed by the score, churches confiscated, seminaries and religious houses closed. Notre Dame Cathedral was desecrated and refashioned as a pagan "Temple of Reason." During the height of the Terror in Paris, wild mobs would gather each day to cheer the executioners on, the air thick with the stench of their victims decomposing in open mass graves.
But witnesses say something remarkable happened on July 17, 1794. As sixteen Carmelites filed up the scaffold singing hymns, the feverish crowd fell silent for no apparent reason. All that could be heard were the strains of the nuns singing the Salve Regina, a hymn to the Blessed Mother, and the Te Deum, the ancient Catholic hymn to the Trinity. That, and the sound of the blade lopping off their heads, one by one. Ten days later, the Reign of Terror abruptly ended as Robespierre and his revolutionary government collapsed.
Our God is a crucified God, a Father who groans in compassion for his suffering humanity. In his love, the Father sent his only Son, from out of the heart of the Trinity, to take a body like our own, to walk in our shoes, to suffer in his broken flesh the wages of sin, the most unfathomable depths of evil.
The Son's Mission of Mercy
No matter how grievously we have rebelled against his love, the Father is "rich in mercy," as the apostle Paul said. The mercy of the Father is the theme of perhaps Jesus' most famous story, the parable of the prodigal son. The prodigal son represents the entire human race, which has squandered its birthright and degraded the image of God in which all were created. Yet God in his mercy reaches out to the lost sons and daughters and welcomes them back.
Jesus intended each of us to hear this story as our own. We are to make our way back to the Father's house. We go by way of conversion, sorrow, and repentance, saying with the prodigal, "I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.'" The parable's promise is the Son's promise to each of us—that we will see our Father running out to embrace us, to cover us in kisses, to exult in his joy: "This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!"
On the road to the Father, the Holy Spirit is our guide and advocate. In Jesus' farewell talk to his apostles, he said that he would not leave them orphans but would send his Spirit to comfort and guide them. True to his word, the Father and the Son poured out the Spirit of God on his church, and through the church the Spirit still flows as a gift of love given to a world of orphan souls.
If we pause in the mad rush of our living … we will hear the insistent voice of the Father, promising to fill us with the love we long for.
Becoming Who We Are
As we grow, the Spirit shows us the love of the Father and teaches us his name. "Because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!'" Paul said. The Spirit teaches us to pray, to know that we can speak to the Father and hear his words in our hearts. Through the Spirit we are able to look upon the world with the eyes of a child of God, to see his gifts and marvels all around us.
By the Spirit, we are taught to walk in the ways of the Son and guided along the path to our Father. As we walk by the Spirit, we daily become more like the "little children" that Jesus said we should be—children who look up to their Father in love, who want to be just like him when we grow up. As Paul described this spiritual process, we are "changed into his likeness," becoming more deeply "conformed to the image of his Son," who is the "likeness of God."
To bring us out of the solitude of a life lived without God, to bring us into a life of adorable intimacy with the Trinity—that is why the "Hound of Heaven" keeps after each of us "with unhurrying chase, / And unperturbèd pace," as Thompson puts it in his poem.
If we pause in the mad rush of our living, as Dorothy Day did, we will hear the insistent voice of the Father, promising to fill us with the love we long for. He pleads with us in the words of Thompson's poem:
Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee,
Save Me, save only Me?
Only God knows if Eugene O'Neill ever felt that saving love. We do know that while he lay on his deathbed in Boston in 1953, Dorothy Day was still praying fervently for him and asked that a priest be sent to him. She hoped that in his last moments, O'Neill would cease his futile wrestling with God and really hear the words he recited in that barroom on that cold winter's night:
All which thy child's mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored
for thee at home:
Rise, clasp My hand, and come!