Tracked by the Hound of Heaven

How I became a Christian in spite of myself


I was brought up to be an atheist. My parents joined the Unitarian Church when I was four years old, and continued as faithful members; my father remains active to this day.

Church was an important part of my life as a child, even though it offered pretty thin fare. The sense of vague benevolence and general humanitarianism were little but a powdering frosting on the cake of life. To the ultimate questions, if one bothered to ask them, one had to look elsewhere. The first answer I was given was Science. This is not surprising, as both my parents and three of my grandparents were scientists. Science was supposed to provide the answers for everything, although no one was very specific as to how. When I was six years old, I proudly told my family—to their enthusiastic approval—“I don’t believe in God; I believe in science.”

I was exposed to religious people to some degree. Winchester, Massachusetts, my home town, was divided between Yankee Protestants and Irish and Italian Catholics. The division was a division by class as well as by religion. “Our kind of people” were Protestants, and as far as I could tell from my friends and my parent’s friends, all of them actually believed about the same thing as Unitarians, except that the members of other Protestant churches were not forthright about it. Catholics were the lower class. They were not our kind of people at all. They were the kids who didn’t do well in school and tried to beat you up. They were slovenly, ignorant, morally corrupt, and had too many children. The Catholic Church had been, I was taught both implicitly and explicitly, responsible for most of the evils that had befallen the world throughout history, keeping people in ignorance and opposing Science. Unitarians were supposed to be tolerant of everyone; but anti-Catholicism was everywhere. It was not stated in so many words, but it came out in assumptions, in the kind of jokes people told, in the judgements people made about historical events. The culture of the intellectual elite was then, and is now even more, deeply hostile to any sort of definite religious faith, and to Catholicism especially. Books, plays and movies attacking the Church are hailed as bold statements of liberation; it is taken for granted that a Catholic upbringing is something to escape from. This was the culture in which I was raised. We educated and enlightened people had moved beyond the primitive ideas of our depraved and ignorant ethnic inferiors.

[To be fair, I should make it clear that this is what I thought and felt about things when I was young, although I must have learned it from somewhere. I am sure that most if not all of the people who communicated this prejudice to me would be shocked to realize that this is what they were communicating. But clearly I learned it. One clear if rather absurd example: I was in third grade when the election campaign of 1960 was fought. Although my parents were devout Democrats and dedicated haters of Richard Nixon, I believed that Kennedy was a grave danger to the country simply because he was a Catholic. I think I imagined that he would sell out the country to the Pope of Rome and bring in the Spanish Inquisition. Years later, while I was in high school, I remember a Unitarian minister at a church youth camp admitting that anti-Catholicism was Unitarians’ “dirty little secret.” That may have been the summer that realized that I did harbor this prejudice, and consciously made an effort to rid myself of it. I took seriously the other teaching I had received, that all forms of prejudice were wrong.]

Although I learned to despise Catholics, at times I was inclined to envy them. When Nancy, a neighbor girl, explained to me what she was learning about Communion: “It looks like bread, and it tastes like bread, but it isn’t bread—it’s Jesus”, I laughed at her but was touched by her faith. She had something tangible to believe in. But of course, she was one of those ignorant Italian Catholics, not one of our people at all. When I learned about how Catholics confess their sins to a priest, I was again a bit envious. If only I could tell someone all those things I was so ashamed of, knowing that he could not tell anyone else! There were times when passing in front of St. Mary’s I felt the urge to go in, just to get a few things off my chest. But of course, everything they believed was nonsense and properly enlightened Liberal people must be happy to be free from it.

But I wasn’t happy. The cake of life was not very tasty. As my second-grade teacher said, “You may know a lot about things in books, but you’ll never be any good at dealing with people.” I was intellectually arrogant, disdaining the interests of my peers, and so had few friends. I despised my teachers in school nearly as much as the other children, since I saw them as part of the same mass of ignorant humanity above which my family and I stood. My eminence was a lonely one, however. I longed for love and acceptance, but that is very hard to get when you look down on those by whom you desire to be loved.

Since I hated my life so much, I thought about death often. I cannot remember a time, once I was conscious of the possibility of death, that I did not consider suicide as an option. But what happens when you die? The answers of generic “religion” as I understood it, were ludicrous in their simplicity. I did learn about the answers of some other religions because my father for many years taught the ninth grade Unitarian Sunday school class on world religions. Reincarnation was a possibility, but the Hindu formulation, as I understood it made little sense. Besides, it presumed that after death one remained within the same world as the present. But what guarantee was there of that? I can remember having long philosophical conversations with my mother on the subject of perception. We all say we see the same thing, but do we really perceive the same things? Does the color I call “blue” look the same to you?

The question of perception led to further doubts concerning reality. On my solitary walks to and from school, I would ponder these questions. At night, I dream. While I am dreaming, the dream appears to be real. What if life is only a dream, and at death we wake up? Or do we pass into some other unimaginable dream? I considered suicide simply as an experiment, calculating that the next dream might be better. But what if it was worse? This thought stopped me, as I have never been a person of great courage. (And I hadn’t even read Hamlet yet!) I concluded, however, that I had no way of knowing that my perceptions corresponded to anything outside my own mind. If I tried hard enough, I might wish them away. I remember punching trees to try to will them out of existence. It didn’t work. But I came to accept this notion as the only viable explanation for the world. By the time I was ten years old, I was a full-blown solipsist. I expected the world to roll up like a movie screen at any moment—and the sooner the better, I thought most of the time.

When I was twelve, my family moved to Minneapolis. We only stayed there six months, but it was long enough for me to attend a Unitarian junior high camp in northern Minnesota. While I was there, I had an experience that changed my outlook on life. It sounds rather contrived, and I would never find it credible if I read it in a work of fiction, but it happened. I was walking by the shore of Cass Lake admiring the sunset. I felt a response stirring within me to its beauty that I realized somehow had to come from something beyond me. It was as if a small hole had opened in the movie screen and I saw something beyond it. The beauty of the sunset was something clearly beyond my control. As I walked among the horsetail rushes at the edge of the lake, I realized that I had encountered the same unnamable quality elsewhere: in the face of a beautiful girl, in a well-reasoned argument, in the sound of a ball leaving the bat for a home run. If I had read Plato, I would have recognized the Idea of the Good; if I had read the Romantic poets I would have called it the Sublime. But I was only thirteen and had always been of a scientific bent, so I had no name for it.

This intuition punctured my solipsism like a balloon, but the air didn’t go out of it all at once. I named this sublime quality Ness (as in “goodness”) and at first identified it with pure quality. I imagined that somehow the perceptible world was spun out of some sort of interaction between Ness and my consciousness, but this became hard to sustain logically. Knowing that there was something out there meant that I had to accept the reality of the world and the existence of an ultimate ground of being, something that, I realized, people call “God.” If there was a God, then I needed a religion, a real religion that provided a coherent explanation of, and a satisfactory means of access to, ultimate reality.

My experience, however, had not provided me with many examples of this sort of religion. There were, of course, the Catholics, but their religion I could reject out of hand. They were all a bunch of ignorant Irish and Italians, not our kind of people and responsible for spreading ignorance and superstition. Unitarianism provided no ultimate answers or indeed any sense of the sublime at all. Other Protestant churches were no different from Unitarians, except that they cloaked their lack of real belief in trite language about God. What I needed was an example of a religion that actually made a difference in people’s lives. Apart from the Catholics, the only place I had seen this was in the stories I had read from the Iliad and the Odyssey and the rest of Greek mythology. So I became a pagan.

I did not know much about how to be a pagan. If I had, I might not have considered it. The type of paganism I formulated resembled (I learned much later) the actual belief of many educated people in late antiquity. It went something like this: There is a single ultimate God who is in some sense the source and ground of all being, but is utterly beyond the reach of human or indeed any material consciousness. The gods and goddesses are the intermediaries between this ultimate God and the world, each representing some aspect of reality. Each had a sphere within which he or she operated, as described in mythology. In particular, they provided messages in the form of omens to those who knew how to look for them. As with the Greeks and Romans I was half-consciously imitating, my religion consisted in large measure of seeking omens, or what some would call superstition. I was not much of an augur, but I tried.

Since I was a teenager experiencing all the things that teenagers experience, Aphrodite in her many manifestations became more prominent in my approach to the world, although she was not very kind to me as her devote. I read Robert Graves and accepted much of his notions of the Goddess, imagining that I too was a poet in the great tradition he claimed to represent. One person who shared my outlook was Bob, whom I met in the summer of 1965. He and I became close friends and fellow pagans, gradually building up our own mythology and devotion to the Goddess.

One summer, I believe it was 1968, at a Unitarian youth camp on Star Island (off New Hampshire) some of the young people decided to hold a sťance to contact the spirit of a woman about whom there was some legend relating to the island. I was not present, but apparently some phenomena occurred that resulted in some profound psychological disturbance for the people involved, causing a few to be sent home. There were two prevailing schools of thought concerning the incident. One was that they had somehow done a great supernatural thing; the other was that it was all delusion and nothing supernatural about it. I subscribed to neither view. I believed that they had in fact come in contact with some supernatural power, but that it was evil and to be avoided. I went out to seek omens and to try to propitiate the gods for what had happened, with no perceptible result.

The same could be said of my life in general. While my pagan religion was fairly fertile in material for my imagination, it provided no guide for my life, and no satisfaction for the profound loneliness and sense of isolation from all those around me that was constantly present in my heart. Even though my senior year at Andover was relatively happy, it was still there. I had no idea what I wanted, and less and less notion of how to find it. I went off to Antioch College in the summer after graduation in search of some sort of liberation and in hope of finding the sexual fulfillment that was the only sort of happiness I could imagine. I spent my first quarter not going to class, but drinking a lot of cheap wine and most of the time being frustrated.

The system at Antioch was that students were supposed to go off on coop jobs every other quarter, but after the Winter quarter of 1970, I went away with no plan for the Spring. For some reason I felt a profound need to go to visit Bob. He had moved to Albuquerque in 1967, but has come back to Massachusetts in the following summer full of talk of how wonderful the mountains were, and plenty of sophistication in matters of sex and drugs. I think that I believed that somehow I would find what I was looking for there. I had not talked to Bob in a while, but I called him and he told me where he was and agreed to put me up.

I hitchhiked to New Mexico at the beginning of April, and went to find Bob at the University of Albuquerque. What I found shocked me. Within the last few months, he had become a Christian. He was involved in a charismatic Catholic prayer group at the University, within which context he had been converted, and was preparing to be baptized in the Catholic Church. This was something completely unexpected. I had consciously abandoned my prejudice against Catholics several years before, when I realized that I had such a prejudice. Still, this was something I could not understand. However, having no money or prospects, I was totally dependent on Bob for accommodations, so I was led perforce to meet his new friends.

So for the first time I began to learn what Christians actually believe. I was taken to a prayer meeting, which was a blend of early-seventies Catholicism and Texas Pentecostalism, with a strong Hispanic streak. I adopted the stance of an observer, thinking, “How quaint,” but I found that impossible to maintain. The sense that I had had before of being in the presence of a powerful supernatural force was stronger than ever. This time I could not consider the presence evil, but it made me extremely uncomfortable. I could hardly stand by the end of the meeting. Several of the participants, seeing my distress, tried to pray with me, but I stumbled from the room desperate to get away from the presence.

A few days later, I tagged along with Bob to an English seminar led by a professor who was part of the prayer group and who had been a great influence on him. When I recounted this experience to her, she told me I should read Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven.” After the seminar, Bob marched me to the library, checked out a copy of the poem, marched me back to his room, and read it to me from beginning to end. The image of the poet pursued by God made an impression, but not a pleasant one.

I saw that I had come up against something that I had to deal with one way or the other. One way I could get free food was to get coffee and doughnuts at the campus Chaplain’s office every morning, where many theology students would also hang out. I did not understand most of their conversation, but I did perceive one thing: this was a religion one could reason about. As I associated with Bob’s friends from the prayer group, I found that they accepted me as few others ever had, even though I did not share their faith. They were mostly college kids like me, not too different from me, with whom I could identify, but they spoke of Jesus as someone whom they knew personally, and whom I too could get to know.

The next time I went to a prayer meeting, I was not so shaken, although I knew that the others there shared something I did not. At one point I closed my eyes and I saw in my imagination a dog, which I knew was the Hound of Heaven. When Bob had read the poem to me, I had pictured a dog like a wolfhound or a deerhound, a powerful and fierce hunting dog. But what I saw that night was a bloodhound, his nose to the ground. I thought, “I’m lost, and someone is looking for me.”

My defenses were being overwhelmed. But if this was the thing for which I had been so desperately seeking, it came in a form I found hard to take. It was hard to deny, however. One morning I went out for coffee with a friend of Bob’s from before his Christian days, in a coffee shop near the University of New Mexico campus. She asked me what this thing was that Bob was into now, and I gave her a brief resume of Christian belief as I understood it. As I did so, another part of my mind was saying, “This all makes sense. Could you believe this too?”

The last intellectual hurdle was the scandal of particularity. The notion that a loving God might save a fallen mankind through the sacrifice of Himself made sense, but why in Palestine and at one particular time? The last defense fell when I realized that if God was going to break into human history, it had to be at some particular point, or it was not really history. If there were to be an Incarnation, God would have to be incarnate as some particular Man. But accepting the idea is not the same as having faith. I was still on the other side of a profound divide, with no way to cross it on my own. I needed more than an idea. I needed a Person.

In my interactions with Bob’s non-Christian friends all the worst aspects of my personality were coming to the surface. It culminated one night in a long lecture from him that began, “The reason people don’t love you is that you’re not very loving to them” and ended “If you reject Jesus you’ll be turning your back on the best friend you can ever have”–or at least that’s the last thing I heard before I fell asleep. And I knew he was right.

The next day, Bob had to type up a paper in a carrel in the library, so I went along and spent the time reading The Cross and the Switchblade, David Wilkerson’s account of his ministry to street gangs in New York. As I read about the conversions of the gang members, I found myself laughing aloud for sheer joy. I knew there was a prayer meeting that evening, and I was eager for it. During the meeting, I was happy but apprehensive; afterwards, I went to talk to the leader and he directed me to a room where I knew people were being invited to make a commitment to Christ. I eagerly made my act of faith and asked Jesus to be my Savior. The University of Albuquerque was on the mesa west of the Rio Grande, in an area that at the time was very little developed. The clear sky was filled with stars as usual, but this time I looked at them with new eyes. As I walked back to the dormitory, I thought, “Now I know the One who made all those.”

Now I had to figure out what to do next. I had a coop job waiting for me in Oakland, California, in July, but it was the first of May and there were few prospects in Albuquerque. The leaders of the prayer group suggested I should go to Ann Arbor, where the group that was to become The Word of God was forming and was the center for the very new Catholic charismatic or Pentecostal movement. So I decided to forget about Oakland and spend the rest of the summer in Ann Arbor. While I was there, I was baptized in the Catholic Church at the end of July.

When I went back to Antioch in the fall, I noticed a few changes. A number of things about me had changed. I can’t describe exactly what, but I could see the effect. I got on much better with people; I actually had friends. In fact, the sexual relationships I had pined for were now within my reach. But now I aspired to an ideal of chastity and found the climate of sexual license troublesome rather than inviting. To have a roommate who did not bother to ask me to leave when he had his girlfriend in for the night was now offensive to me. Moreover, I was now interested in learning something, and there were few solid course offerings at Antioch, at least in the humanities. I formed a plan to transfer to the University of Michigan, to join the community that was now called The Word of God, and study history. I took all the decent courses I could during the next two quarters and was accepted. I moved to Ann Arbor in April 1971 on a coop job and started at the University in the summer.

For many years I was looking for a foundation for truth, and I found it in Christ. That was not the end of learning and seeking, but the beginning. I am sure of the road, but the journey is not over. My faith is in constant combat with fear, my hope (the virtue with which I am most poorly supplied) with despair, my love with self-concern. I have only begun to grow in the knowledge of God, a quest that will last for eternity. As I look back on how I came to faith and what has happened since, I begin to see that while it seemed that I was looking, it was He Who was drawing me. I have seen many disappointments and mistakes, wrong choices by me and by others. Several people involved in my conversion have abandoned their Christian profession; while I am saddened by this, and sorry for my own failures, I have learned to base my faith not on others or on myself, but on God.