I first came across the phrase, “The Hound of Heaven” when it was used by my religion teacher, an O.M.I. priest, at secondary school in Johannesburg, many years ago. At first I had difficulty understanding the concept, unable to grasp the idea of God as a dog. But then, I did not yet appreciate the difference in sense between “dog”, as any canine (in my experience, always a household pet), and “hound” – as a working dog, chasing down the object of its pursuit. Once I did finally get the point, it became a vivid metaphor that has never left me. An explanation at the Neumann Book of Verse, quoted on Wikipedia, conveys the sense of the metaphor:
The name is strange. It startles one at first. It is so bold, so new, so fearless. It does not attract, rather the reverse. But when one reads the poem this strangeness disappears. The meaning is understood. As the hound follows the hare, never ceasing in its running, ever drawing nearer in the chase, with unhurrying and imperturbed pace, so does God follow the fleeing soul by His Divine grace. And though in sin or in human love, away from God it seeks to hide itself, Divine grace follows after, unwearyingly follows ever after, till the soul feels its pressure forcing it to turn to Him alone in that never ending pursuit.
The Neumann Press Book of Verse, 1988
Joseph Gentilini, whom I referred to earlier this week for his long ministry of writing to the American bishops about matters of gay inclusion in church, has used the image in the title of a forthcoming autobiography, “Hounded by God”. This image is entirely appropriate, as a description of how for years he felt tormented by a perceived conflict between what he knew to be his natural affectional and sexual orientation, and the formal, proclaimed sexual doctrines of the church – conflict which led nightly, to thoughts of suicide. Many Catholic gay men and lesbians will have no difficulty recognising this experience, as one that they too have endured.
In “Hounded by God”, the author writes about his struggle to integrate his homosexuality with his personality and his Catholic-Christian spirituality. He grew up in the late ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s when homosexuality was considered either a mental illness or a major sin. In 1968, he had his first homosexual experience. Feeling shame and trying to repress his feelings, he spent over six years in therapy.
Raised a strict Roman Catholic, Joseph confessed his many “sins” to a priest and attended Mass daily. He felt hopeless in accepting his homosexuality and living happily as a gay man, repeating nightly, “If it gets too bad, I can always kill myself.” By 1974, he knew that therapy was not changing his sexual orientation and felt desperate.
Some older Catholics, but perhaps rather fewer younger people will also recognize the resolution of the conflict – that while the institutional church may appear to reject us, that is never true of God, who like a hound will follow us relentlessly, as God did in pursuit of Joseph, until we are able to recognize and accept God’s unconditional love for us all – no exceptions.
Joseph experienced God as hounding him to accept his gay identity and to believe that God loves him as he is. His autobiographical journal reveals his gradual awakening to live his vocation, not only as a gay man in relationship with his partner and with God, but also as someone willing to share his journey with those who struggle with their homosexuality and their faith.
The two passages quoted above are from a summary of the book that I received yesterday by email, together with two reviews, in advance of publication later this year. These gay Catholic biographies are important. Dugan McGinley has written an entire critical analysis of the genre “Acts of Faith, Acts of Love”, which he has sub-titled “Gay Catholic Autobiographies as Sacred Texts”. To call them “sacred” texts may appear to many to be a step too far, but I think the description is entirely appropriate. These stories, if they are honest and sufficiently reflective on the writer’s life of struggle and resolution, can help us all in a similar predicament to find illumination and support in our own search for reconciliation, with God and the Church.
This could be particularly true of this book. Whether we know it yet or not, it will certainly be true that whatever our response to the Church, whatever our perceptions of its doctrines or pastoral practice, whatever our decision or strategies in our lives so far, to deal with and attempt to reconcile the conflicts that we, like Joseph, probably felt or perhaps still feel about our sexuality and our faith – God is constantly chasing us down, hound – like.
I look forward to reading this book once it has been published. I hope you will look out for it, too. Meanwhile, to whet your appetites, I include two short reviews, but theologian John McNeill, and by Mark Matson, a former president of Dignity USA,
St. Augustine put it beautifully into words: “You made us for yourself, Oh Lord, and our- hearts will never rest until they rest in you.” Most of us go through life covering over that yearning at the heart of every human, distracting ourselves with the desires of this world. Not so Joseph Gentilini. God gave Joseph an extraordinary awareness of that call to union with God.
In his autobiographical journal, Joe spells out his painful journey as an active gay man, from revolt against that voice of God to final acceptance with God’s grace of his gay identity given to him by God—a remarkable journey which brings hope to all of us that God’s call to union is to the authentic self. God dwells within us, and the only way to union with that God is through the authentic self.
John McNeill, theologian, former Jesuit priest and author
Anyone who has had their sexuality shamed by their religious tradition should relate to Joe’s story of staying connected to his Catholicism while rejecting the teaching of Catholic Bishops on homosexuality and replacing it with a truly authentic spiritual connection with his Creator. He give the reader access to his most intimate thoughts, fears, and experiences—all of which provide the fuel for a seminal work in LGBT spirituality.
Mark Matson, former president of Dignity USA