The definition of being Christian

Published 6:30 am Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Kneeling, head bent, he…..

“was a little ashamed, and regretted that I was such a rotten Catholic, but realized that there was nothing I could do about it, at least for awhile, and maybe never, but that anyway it was a grand religion, and I only wished I felt religious and maybe I would the next time…..”   (citation for the novel, “The Sun Also Rises.”)

Joseph Waldmeir, a student of Hemingway’s writings, has stated, “The other world, God does not often enter into the thoughts, plans, or emotions of a Hemingway character.  God exists — most of the characters are willing to admit His existence, or at least, unwilling to deny it — but not as an immanent Being, not even benevolent or malevolent.”  It’s a way of saying “there is a God, but an absent God.”  Yet characters like Jake Barnes in the cathedral at Pamploma is praying for everybody he can think of, for good bullfights and good fishing and events in his life as noted in my previous description of the kneeling person, Jake.

Email newsletter signup

Where the spiritual factor is employed

Added to the Barnes scene are many other examples like the picture of the “Old Man and the Sea,” who in the midst of his monumental struggle, prays for heavenly assistance, thinking, “I am not religious and Hail Marys are easier to say than Our Fathers.”

One may be aware of a scene from the novel “Death in the Afternoon,” where Hemingway writes of one he terms “a cowardly bullfighter” girding himself for action, is in church in his bullfighting clothes to pray before the fight, sweating under the armpits, praying that the bull will embiste, that is change frankly and follow cloth well; “Oh Blessed Virgin, give me that bull, Blessed Virgin……promising something of value or a pilgrimage, praying for luck…..”

Questions on the character of Hemingway

Augsburg College in the Twin Cities was my introduction to Hemingway and I’ve followed him for about 50 years.  A literature class included a response and test on the story “A Clean, Well-lighted Place.” Author Sean O’Faolain has written of the place where two elderly men seek sleep and forgetfulness in their despair and boredom.  Another person, still young enough to feel passion, feels not futility and silence, but hope.  The setting is a place where the story grants a ray of light that reveals itself as that which pierces the darkness (nothingness?), “no fear of going home — stay late at the cafe … with all those who need a light at night.”

These scenes open our eyes, our observation to what has been written that, “Hemingway, deep down is one of the kindest and most tender of writers.”  (O’Faolain)

A kind of parable seen in other novels is repeated in the novel “A Farewell to Arms.”  It is a war story, but early on, I thought, the arms are not the weapons of war but the arms of two lovers, Fredrick Henry and Catherine Barkley.  In another setting, Hemingway’s character says, “The test of morals is the sensibility of Catherine, who learns from her love for Fredrick, that it is all right.”  The larger story is the struggle that these two have.  She is said to be as Orthodox as a priest, and his being conflicted over religious practices.

Revealing this, following the tragic ending, is the death of Catherine.  A nurse ushers Fredrick into her room, a doctor standing by the bed.  “Catherine looked at me and smiled.  I bent down over the bed and started to cry.”  “Poor darling,” Catherine said very softly.  She looked gray.  “You’re all right, Cat.”  I said, “You’re going to be all right.”  “I’m going to die,” she said; then waited and said.  “I hate it.”  I took her hand.  “Don’t touch me,” she said.  I let go of her hand.  She smiled.  “Poor darling.  You touch me all you want.”  “Do you want me to get a priest or anyone to come and see you?”  “Just you,” she said.  Then a little later.  “I’m not afraid.  I just hate it.”

When fishing, be aware of the sharks

Robert P. Weeks has written that Hemingway’s vision of life embodies itself in stories about physical activity in the outdoor world, but another professor believes that the real battleground in these stories is inward.  Weeks adds, “His achievement is not merely that he has rendered the here and now with the authority of a candid photograph; he has also caught a glimpse of eternal and universal truth.”

Distractions, many from literary and social critics, have not always been kind to his writings:  too stoical, too slim, too limited in subject matter, or a moral code if there is one, is not effective or practical.  Questions on style, content, artistic shapes, and even some offense of some of the so-called vulgar characters.  Observations are as varied as the recipient of the stories.  So, that’s just a reality!

After all is said, one comes up against a fact.  The writer from Oak Park, Illinois, was granted a Pulitzer Prize in 1954 and the Nobel Prize for Literature one year later.  It is often said that the prizes he won were not for just one novel, but for “forceful and style-making and mastery of the art of modern narration.”

My interpretation, no doubt, is influenced by my seminary education and a bent toward a liberal, open-ended commitment to Christianity.  Religious symbols run through the novel “The Old Man and the Sea.”  My suggestion is to all seekers and inquisitive persons to become familiar with this short novel.  Of course it was the one novel cited as the reason for the 1954 Pulitzer!  In your reading, note the small boy, the fishing craft, the open water, the fish that is sought, the shoreline, the details of even baiting the hooks, and the physical character of the Old Man — your appraisal will add more.

Think of the several levels where the book embraces a “message.”  I chose the allegorical intention; I see religious symbols that are apparent.  Fish is an acknowledged symbol of Jesus Christ, the intricate numerology is, I assert, purposeful.  The Old Man fishes alone for 44 famine days; with the boy for 40 more.  The struggle with the great fish lasts three days; the fish is landed on the seventh attempt.  Seven sharks are killed.  Although Christ fell only three times under the cross, the Old Man has to rest from the weight of the mast seven times.

When the great fish is brought near the shore where it could become a noble keepsake, the blood-thirsty sharks surround the catch and rip into it, filling their appetites.  The struggle with one’s past-time, fishing, ends in defeat.  Is it defeat?  Any lessons?  Is it a “lesson” that is implied, when the Old Man follows the loss of the great fish?

In the ending of the story, “his hands pain him terribly, his back is lashed from the line, he spits blood.”  He now has killed a great fish, driving his harpoon into its heart.  A lasting commentary of the Old Man after the combination of almost victory and final loss is, “I went out too far.”