Fall is such a lovely time for weather, clothes, intimations of mortality, and constantly thinking about fox hunting as a metaphor for God's work, right? Yes.
Recently I have become very well acquainted with two big names of modern cultural influence from Britain: philosopher Roger Scruton and progressive rock artist Kate Bush. The same friend introduced me to both of them and I've spent the last month watching documentaries and listening to interviews to get to know these two remarkable workhorses. I don't think they would mesh well at a cocktail party for a lot of reasons, mainly because Scruton hates pop music. He would see Bush as an outsider to the program of Beauty, tearing down culture rather than building it up. But in the midst of my great interest in both of them, I've found a common denominator that impacts their work and their imaginations: fox hunting. This image is a rich one, particularly for the spiritual life. And I believe Scruton's and Bush's diverse, yet complementary, perspectives on it can add to a Christian appreciation of the Nature of God. I aim to show how the image of a fox hunt can be understood as a kind of courtship ending in divine nuptiality. Alongside Scruton and Bush, I've placed some classic considerations of both fox hunting and God's Nature: Francis Thompson's "The Hound of Heaven" and Sebastian Flyte, one protagonist in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited.
My theme is conversion. Imagine we're galloping along together.
A few years ago Roger Scruton was asked to give an interview for a Dutch documentary called Beauty and Consolation. (Watch the whole thing sometime for the full benefit of this post.) He agreed but requested that they come on a day when he would be going fox hunting. He begins to explain why in this clip (start at the 5:00 mark):
To sum up, he says that participating in the hunt is to return to a natural state that brings with it a kind of serenity: "One relaxes into a sense of something greater than oneself." Later on he fleshes this out more. He says that the human being has a hunter-kinship with the rhythms of animal nature, but is also a being of reason. So how do we have consolation, a sense of unity with nature, unity with something greater than ourselves, reintegration with a whole? We engage, as reasoning and loving beings, in the rhythms of nature not by stripping naked and running into the woods but by a ritualized participation in the natural world. This doesn't hold us at a distance because the ritual of the fox hunt allows us to participate in the hunt as the reasoning beings that we are, rather than pretending to be instinct-driven animals. The ceremony of the fox hunt is part of the integration of our reason with the rhythms of nature. In the fox hunt, the human being does what a human being does, but in a way integrated with the whole. It is placid because, as a rational participation in the rhythms of nature, there is no conflict within the person and no conflict between the person and nature. The rider is simply going about the business of being a human being in the natural world; and, by sharing in this ritual with others, he fosters a real participation in a community, giving one a sense of place, a dwelling, a home.
Perhaps this is an especially British thing that was previously lacking in my appreciation of the scenes in Brideshead Revisited which feature fox hunting and all of its trappings. Even after reading the novel and then watching/showing the 1981 miniseries eight times, I didn't grasp the deeper significance of Sebastian running away (underscoring his surname, Flyte) in the midst of the hunt until now. His siblings are gathered on their family estate to enjoy a day of dressing smartly, gallivanting with the locals, and partaking in an enormous tea afterwards. Rather than immersing himself in this ritual and embracing its delights as his more "natural" sister Cordelia does so easily, Sebastian uses it as an opportunity to skulk off to a pub in order to nurse his growing alcoholism. Interestingly, when Scruton talks about the sorts of false and fleeting consolations that we all tend to seek, his perfect example is drink. Mr. Flyte flees the hunt which is intended to bind him to life—nature and culture—and instead sips his way towards death—isolation and despair. No longer part of the flock, he is a lost sheep.
The plight of this poor soul closely follows that of the real-life figure Francis Thompson who lived in England in the late 19th century. This handy flier from an art museum describes Thompson's life as a Catholic who at one point wanted to become a priest but, when that didn't work out, he went to medical school. While there he became addicted to opium. Sent down from school just like Sebastian, he moved to London in hopes of pursuing a literary lifestyle. The articles goes on: "A series of setbacks followed and he ended up penniless, homeless, suicidal, and still drug-dependent." At last a Good Samaritan became aware of this and arranged for Thompson to have an extended stay at a monastery as a means of overcoming the addiction. While there he penned his magnum opus, "The Hound of Heaven," a poem which earned the admiration of G.K. Chesterton. It became a work with which every Catholic school child in England was familiar, including J.R.R. Tolkien. (Students at Thomas Aquinas College in California are still memorizing it today.) Thompson never fully recovered from his addiction and required the care of his friends for twenty years while he relapsed over and over. How similar is this image to that of Sebastian in the monastery hospital being visited by his dear friend Charles, whose only real comfort to him can be a bottle of brandy. Yet in the midst of that lowness can come true humility—a deep awareness of one's utter dependence on God. Grace be thanked, that is what made Francis Thompson a poet, and Sebastian Flyte a saint.
"The Hound of Heaven" imagines God pursuing man as a dog pursues a fox. (Here is an excellent dramatic reading of the poem by Richard Burton who perfectly captures the heart-pounding energy of the chase.) One essay about the poem reminds us that this idea is not as audacious as it may at first seem: "It is as old as Adam and Eve, who hid themselves from the face of God." It has additional Christian sanction in the Good Shepherd who goes out to seek the sheep that is lost. In this convention, it is God the Father who is the shepherd and Christ is the faithful hound who goes about his Father's business of superintending the flock. It is this idea that I want to seize on: Thompson's tale is not one of a savage beast relentlessly hunting its prey, but rather of a "tremendous lover" reclaiming his dear one; thus our "Father's business" (Luke 2:49) of pursuing the sinner is rendered sympathetic, attractive, moving. We should be overjoyed that we are desired so strongly that this great Fido (which means "faithful one") will stop at nothing to win us back from the clutches of sin and death. Man's best friend, indeed. In the poem, the hunted seems somewhat aware of this. He does not fear the Hound for its fierceness; he fears, rather, to be caught:
For, though I know His love Who followed,Thompson understands that all sin is a misguided search for happiness—or to use Scruton's word, consolation. Another essay points out, "No sooner has he got away from God than he is conscious of the pursuit. He must continue flight if he is not to be overtaken. And in his flight he cannot stay to enjoy the pleasures he had hoped for." This is how living in sin is already a hell on earth. Nothing that is not from God can truly satisfy.
Yet was I sore adread
Lest, having Him, I must have naught beside.
The language of the poem turns nuptial in the second half, illustrating the idea of God as Divine Bridegroom, to consummation with whom each and every soul is called:
Naked I wait Thy love's uplifted stroke!The poet is overtaken, at last stripped of everything that would hinder his union with Christ: his attachment to sinful pleasures, but also to every created thing. Complete nakedness, or detachment from creatures, is demanded; nothing whatsoever may compete with the all-sufficient Love of the Bridegroom. (This image also calls to mind what became of Eustace Scrubb, which I wrote about here.) There is a kind of sacramental violence at work, but it should be understood in the Biblical sense of mortification and death as a prerequisite for life. It is a dramatic sundering of oneself from comfort, from shame, from self-consciousness. Basically, it looks like this:
My harness piece by piece Thou hast hewn from me,
And smitten me to my knee;
I am defenseless utterly.
This of course is Bernini's incredible "Teresa of Ávila in Ecstasy," one of my favorite things on earth. Just beholding it is akin to taking a whole semester on The Theology of the Body. I'll leave an elaboration on that in the comments if anyone is interested; for now I want to use it as a pivot point as I turn to the final player in this English quartet...
When I first heard the voice of Kate Bush two weeks ago, I winced. After watching over a dozen music videos, I sat dumbfounded and uncomfortable. Some of her work is like a Hieronymus Bosch painting come to life. But one song/video that I found not only entirely palatable but also enjoyable is the single from her album "The Hounds of Love" by the same name. It is far more Bernini than Bosch. Take a few minutes to watch this:
Obviously, the lyrics evoke the same sort of imagery as "The Hound of Heaven," and since we know that God, after all, is Love, I think Bush's song invites a close comparison. Kate Bush was raised Roman Catholic and attended Catholic high school. It is very likely that she would have studied this poem during that time, but I can't find any place where she credits it as an inspiration. She explains in one interview that the idea just came to her:
I started coming across the line about 'hounds' and I thought the whole idea of being chased by this love—that when it gets you it's going to rip you to pieces and have your guts all over the floor. So this...being hunted by love—I liked the imagery, I thought it was really good.
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 are 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.'
This is such a striking and profoundly moving scene which (among a hundred other things) serves to round out the rest of the lyrics from Kate Bush's song. Both artists begin as children hiding, then become conscience-pricked adults ashamed of running away. They seek refuge in the arms of the beloved, and both make the leap of faith by clasping the outstretched hand. The hand is everything. It is the gesture of invitation which God extends to all of us. It is the proof that we are free creatures, always consensual in the act of Divine Love. Would that Bush understood her expression of erotic/romantic love as a precursor to the agapic love that Thompson enjoys. She celebrates that feeling of release and consolation by howling, "Take my shoes off and throw them in the lake." Would that this image were a Mosaic one, and that she embraced her true identity as a spiritual spouse of that Burning Bush. She asks her beloved, "Do you know what I really need? Do you know what I really need?" By the end of the song, after clasping his hand, she has been shown the greater good. She concludes with this revelation: "I need love love love love love." Anytime I see five of anything in a piece of British art, I can't help but imagine that on some level—consciously or unconsciously—the artist is calling to mind the Five Wounds of Christ, that country's emblematic devotion. All the imagery of piercing and tearing and delivering oneself into hands comes to a fantastic crescendo therein.
This brings us back to Roger Scruton. Even though he is not actually a Christian, he gets the Crucifixion on some level. In the aforementioned interview, he says that it "has been the central image of consolation in our tradition, and it's a most extraordinary idea. [...] A path of renunciation which is also an acceptance. It's not the path that I have the strength to take." He says that the Crucifixion remains a kind of ultimate symbol, but evidently not more. His view is a humble one, however. He says that he doesn't know how to answer these theological questions and finally stops the interviewer with a slightly embarrassed and very endearing smile, saying, "Now that's enough of that subject."
I can't help but love him. I feel a font of affection spring forth when I watch this interview. Particularly when he speaks about his unhappy childhood, I see a Sebastian Flyte who never had an Aloysius or a Nanny Hawkins. My maternal impulse beats. I want to chase him down like the Hound, extend my hand, and show him what the life of faith can be. That's what I'm trying to do here. A quote from Thomas Aquinas summarizes my theme: "To convert somebody, go and take them by the hand and guide them." The twitch upon the thread is really a tug upon the wrist.
Dear Roger Scruton, what if you could believe that it is not your strength that would help you embrace the cross but that it is God's own, freely given to you? What if you studied "The Hound of Heaven" closely and saw that the hunt which you understand and appreciate so fully is actually the very business of God in all its naturalness and serenity? Your unique perspective has something to teach every fox/sinner who is afraid of being caught. You say that if we are made in the image of God, then God must be even more personal, more loving, more rational than we are. To us, God looks more like a hound than a fox-hunter; we are foxes. And that is because, just as the placid fox hunter goes about His business in a way that transcends animal experience and instinct, so too does God Himself go about His business in a way that, while supremely rational and loving in itself, is glimpsed by us, piecemeal and partially. This is because God is above nature, supernatural; and we cannot comprehend Him as He comprehends Himself. God's ways transcend our ability to grasp them. And yet He is going about His business. What happens when God catches us? He catches us up into the supernatural realm that He inhabits—a transcendent consolation, a re-membership in God that transcends what we could procure. The fox-hunter can fully embrace the nature of the hunt, going about the business of nature in a human (because rational/ritualized) manner; this is consoling. However, the human being as hunted by God cannot enter into the hunt unless the human being is somehow brought into God's perspective, where what seems frenetic and terrifying to the human becomes placid and consoling when that same human is elevated to partake of God's own life. Then the human being stands in the position of a mediator—having membership by natural constitution in the rhythms of nature and having membership by supernatural elevation in the rhythms of the divine life. That is why "The Hound of Heaven" can end as it does only if written from a supernatural perspective. Without entering into the rhythm of the divine life, one could never perceive God's hunting as something peaceful or consoling, "going about His business," because one would not have access to God's "business." But there is a bit of a paradox, because one can only enter into God's business if one lets oneself be "caught" by the Heavenly Hound. Therefore, in the mysterious workings of the divine hunt, there is already a sense of consolation because part of God's hunting is His empowering of the individual to allow themselves to be caught—i.e., the first graces of conversion are those that empower the will to accept or reject faith in the Lord.
Notice, too, dear Roger, that this celestial pursuit is not limited merely to one stray lamb but includes all of the created order. As the essayist linked above said, "What meaning this cosmic hunt possesses and how it is related to the love-hunt of man's soul require a consideration of God's other book [besides the Bible], nature, and of Thompson's orthodox interpretation of nature." This is totally your thing! You met your wife while hunting. So does God.
What if it's not just man's search for meaning but also Meaning's search for man? What if we all read This Tremendous Lover (a spiritual classic, the title of which comes from Thompson's poem)? And then what if we saw eccentric Kate Bush as not just another pop star destroying culture but as almost a kind of mystic who might understand the nuptial bond between Christ and His Bride better than most of us? What if the alcoholic and the opiate-addict at the margins have something crucial to teach us about Our Father's Business of unconditional love? What if the last shall be first?
Let the hunt commence.
HALLOWEEN BONUS: Some of you may wish to revisit your childhood this weekend with this episode of Nickelodeon's Are You Afraid of the Dark? titled "The Tale of the Hungry Hounds". My apologies if it's not spiritually edifying in any sense other than nostalgia for your own Arcadia.