Know you what it is to be a child?
It is to believe in love, it is to believe in loveliness, it is to believe in belief.
In last week’s post, I mentioned how my childhood home was replete with lovely sentiments like “The greatest joy in life is to be loved.” Here is another example. That quote above—“to believe in belief”—greeted me nearly every morning during my coming-of-age years.
The poster pictured here used to hang on my bedroom wall. It’s now rolled up and stashed away in a closet in my house (you may see how it doesn’t want to lie flat). I remember it from my earliest days; though in those days, I shared a room with my sisters Julie and Susan. I think it may have been in our shared room, but I particularly remember hanging onto it as my oldest brothers and sisters migrated out of the house, and I moved into a room of my own.
It remained up on the wall even when I was a teenager, where I recall it had to fight for space with posters of the Police and INXS. There was also a Nagel-style print commemorating Mardi Gras 1986, and an oddly prescient landscape of the American southwest. (I chose to attend the University of Arizona, sight unseen, several years after I chose to hang that poster).
When I left home in 1987, I left the “believe in belief” poster behind. But Mom saved it for me. I think she always loved that poster. She had to be the one to buy it, though I never heard if there was any story behind it. It’s probably because there wasn’t much of a story, other than I think Mom liked the picture and the poems of Francis Thompson.
I would come to like his poems, too. The “believe in belief” quote is from “The Message of Francis Thompson.” I included the full passage at the end of this post, I think it’s worth reading.
But here’s the thing. While I left the poster behind, I unwittingly did not leave Francis Thompson behind. It’s a connection I didn’t make until many years later. Here’s the start of that part: When I was a bull-headed seventeen-year-old, shortly before I left for Tucson, I chose to share something with Mom. Rather than skip Mass and keep it to myself, like most self-respecting-raised-as-a-Catholic teenagers would know to do, I told my mother why I was choosing to not go to Mass anymore. I was having the first of many crises of faith to follow.
In response, Mom gave me Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven.” I read it right away, and really liked it, but it didn’t immediately make me a regular Mass attendee. It would eventually happen, and I’m sure Mom was glad it happened in her lifetime. But the impetus to start attending Mass again had more to do with trying to overcome a feeling of isolation, rather than with Francis Thompson’s words finally sinking in.
The poem “The Hound of Heaven” is lovely, and it’s nothing more than a pamphlet, really, very portable, so it traveled with me to Arizona and to all points beyond. It’s been described as a “well-loved Christian poem,” and it’s about God’s pursuit of the souls who turn away. This line has always struck me:
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways / Of my own mind
So here I have these lovely passages swimming in my head, this one from earliest memory—“To believe in love, to believe in loveliness, to believe in belief.” And then this resonant line from earliest adulthood—“the labyrinthine ways of my own mind.”
It wasn’t until I got a look at the poster, maybe five or six years ago now, and saw the attribution, that I realized the source of each was the same. I felt appallingly dense. “What? Is that the same Francis Thompson who wrote ‘The Hound of Heaven?’”
From my vantage point of middle age, and my mid-life realization of writerly aspirations, the influence of these passages is particularly salient to me. According to Wikipedia, J. R. R. Tolkien apparently attributed some influence to the works of Francis Thompson.
Francis Thompson died in 1907, at the age of forty-eight. Also according to Wikipedia: “Francis Thompson was an English poet and ascetic. After attending college, he moved to London to become a writer, but could only find menial work and became addicted to opium, and was a street vagrant for years.”
Further Google searches also reveal this: there is some suspicion that Francis Thompson may have been Jack the Ripper. I didn’t read enough about it to be authoritative on the hypothesis, but I assume he was in London at the right time. Apparently, during his street vagrant years, addicted to opium, his only friend was a prostitute. The theory goes, that when she left him, he became mentally unstable and took out his anger on street-walkers.
I’m not sure what to make of that, except to say that I hope it wasn’t the case. The world that Jack the Ripper inhabited has passed away, but the memory of his gruesome acts certainly lives on. Meanwhile, the writings of Francis Thompson also live on, but in a much more affirmative way. I suppose I choose to believe that the dichotomy between these two actions, and their lasting effects, did not reside in the same person.
But come to think of it, a fictionalized version of that hypothesis might make a helluva novel. Inspiration strikes!
Here’s the full passage from “The Message of Francis Thompson”:
Know you what it is to be a child? It is to be something very different from the man of today. It is to have a spirit yet streaming from the waters of baptism; it is to believe in love, to believe in loveliness, to believe in belief; it is to be so little that the elves can reach to whisper in your ear; it is to turn pumpkins into coaches and mice into horses, lowness into loftiness and nothing into everything (for each child has its fairy godmother in its own soul); it is to live in a nutshell, and to count yourself the king of infinite space; it is
“ ‘To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.’”