Something Rare: Ernest Hemingway’s Mystic Communion

Religion, the Marxist “opium of the masses”, was a bright cynosure that I curiously indulged and eventually dispensed with early in my youth, an adolescent dalliance with romance that was more about lustful infatuation than anything resembling true love. My one true faith is and always has been literature, and my first introduction to the cathedral of books was through organized religion.

In Parkersburg, West Virginia, in the summer of 1965, when I was six-years of age, my younger brother and I attended Vacation Bible School at our community First Baptist Church; it was there that my attention was arrested by the spellbinding stories, symbols, and imagery of Noah and the Great Flood, Moses and the Ten Commandments, Joshua and the Battle of Jericho, Daniel in the Lion’s Den, and the Sermon on the Mount. The Biblical tales were laid out in vibrantly illustrated children’s Bibles (the saints and prophets always smiling and benevolent) with easy-to-read verse and we were also gifted with Holy Bible coloring books. Who said religion can’t be fun?

In later years, I was perhaps the only ten-year-old boy among my peers who regularly watched the Billy Graham Crusades when they were broadcast on television; at the time I did not possess the intellectual tools to separate a fascination with storytelling between religious faith, for that is what first summoned me to religion, so I considered myself a “Born Again” Christian, a shopworn but still effective title in the ’60s and ’70s.

From this foundation it is easy to understand why Evolutionists consider Creationists a clutch of Biblical literalists who put their trust in “fairy tales”; the Bible, after all, does require the reader to take a tremendous leap of faith in order to believe that the words are unquestionably gospel, and the fact that a malleable young mind can fall, however temporarily, under its spell speaks volumes, from my perch, as to the maturity of the intellect that falls prey to theistic dogma.

Thanks to a progressive high school curriculum in the San Francisco Bay Area of the ’70s, not to mention the popularity of martial arts owing to the Bruce Lee “kung fu” phenomenon that spawned a widespread interest in Zen and Buddhism, I was subjected to a Comparative Religions course in my junior year that rearranged my thinking about Christianity; the mere fact that all Great Religions of the World, as I learned, share the same advertising jingle (‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’) was enough to make me suspect the viability of the Christian Bible as the ultimate authority on religious faith.

Ernest Hemingway, one of my early literary favorites, was no great cheerleader of monotheistic fairy tales either; there is precious little discussion of faith to be found in his novels and short stories, save for the mystic communion between man and nature that the macho author/adventurer explores … well, religiously.

Recently I studied Terry Mort’s non-fiction work The Hemingway Patrols (2009), a sometimes engrossing study of a controversial chapter in the author’s life, his passionate and quixotic pursuit of treacherous German U-boats aboard his beloved fishing boat, The Pilar, off the coast of Cuba during World War II.

On pages 206-07 of Mort’s rendering, a passage about ‘Papa’ Hemingway’s flirtations with the metaphysical, essentially a long aside, caught my attention over and above any other prose in the book:

Certainly he (Hemingway) believed in luck and its evil twin, which was a lurking menace always to be deflected or propitiated with a touch on wood, just to be on the safe side – menace in the form of the amorphous “they”, as in “They killed you in the end. You could count on that. Stay around and they will kill you.” It is probably significant that Hemingway’s spiritual homelands, the places he was drawn to most – Spain, Italy, France, and, of course, Cuba – were all Catholic countries, places where a sense of mysticism seemed intertwined with everyday life in a way that he had never experienced as a boy in the Middle American Congregationalism of his parents, and especially of his mother. Bourgeois morality, the YMCA, the confident assurance of salvation through good work and character – all these were missing in the more ancient rituals and images of the Catholic Church.

The clean, well-painted churches of the Midwest were worlds and ages away from the dark, incense-scented European cathedrals with their images of saints and martyrs casting pity and terror into the hearts of the congregation. Even the worshippers reinforced a sense of the mystery and dread, for unlike the well-dressed Norman Rockwell congregations back home, these were mostly old women whose heads were covered in dark scarves, kneeling stiffly and summoning the saints to intercede for them and protect them from the always present evil. They prayed and made the sign of the cross to keep this evil away – old women in black who reminded everyone else of the tragedy of life and the fact that heaven was not guaranteed. None of this made sense to the heirs of the Puritans, whose relationship with God needed no intercession, no grotesque imagery, no Gothic architecture, no absolution requested of some strangely celibate and unnatural priest, no church hierarchy whose dictates must be followed no matter how strange or irrational. But it seemed to make sense to Hemingway, perhaps because it was so different from what he had known as a boy, and certainly because he loved the people and the countries in which this older, more mystical form of belief combined with a structured ritual that appealed to his emotions and his aesthetic sense.

Let’s pause a moment to isolate author Mort’s emphasis on “grotesque imagery” and “Gothic architecture”. There is indeed something in the spires and gargoyles of Notre Dame in Paris, something in the macabre allegorical representations of Biblical subjects in the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch that tugs and gnaws at the collective subconscious, whether atheist, agnostic, or hardcore True Believer.

In the long-running scholarly journal Notes and Queries, established in London in 1849, Gothic architecture was described by an anonymous 19th century correspondent thus:

“There can be no doubt that the term ‘Gothic’ as applied to pointed styles of ecclesiastical architecture was used at first contemptuously, and in derision, by those who were ambitious to imitate and revive the Grecian orders of architecture, after the revival of classical literature. Authorities such as Christopher Wren lent their aid in deprecating the old mediæval style, which they termed Gothic, as synonymous with everything that was barbarous and rude.”

Could there be something base, feral, and perhaps heretical, that pulls at us when we gaze upon the clustered columns, wheeled windows, pointed arches, ribbed vaults, limestone crypts, and richly carved heavy wood doors of ecclesiastical architecture in cathedrals from Paris, France, to San Francisco, London, Munich, and New York City? Terry Mort continues from above:

This same sort of feeling attracted him (Hemingway) to bullfighting, with its elaborate ritual, its ornate imagery, its roots in ancient pagan rites, and its inevitable tragedy that is structured as carefully as a drama, but involves actual death. The feelings that the bullfight aroused, when it was a good fight, were similar to the feelings that the deeper mysteries of the Catholic Church created for him – appreciation of carefully constructed and well-orchestrated emotion. He was trying to create this kind of emotion in his writing: “After a book I am emotionally exhausted; if you are not you have not transferred the emotion completely to the reader.”

The infamous Munich Summer Olympics Massacre happened in 1972, mere miles from where my family was living at the United States Military Hospital Base (Munich Army Station Hospital, fondly known by the acronym MASH); my stepfather, a Vietnam War veteran, was a Sergeant in the hospital motor pool and our family lived in base housing. I was 12-years-old, a studious adolescent, with my interest in religious faith prolonged by my stepfather’s devout Catholicism.

On the morning of 5 September, eight Arab terrorists stormed into the Olympic village and raided the apartment complex that housed the Israeli Olympic team. The terrorists killed two athletes, seized nine others as hostages, and demanded the release of 200 Palestinians from Israeli jails. We watched spellbound and horrified in our Army base apartment as the intense afternoon and evening of hostage negotiations and the eventual bloody, tragic aftermath at the Munich Airport was covered live on television both by German broadcasters and a German-language simulcast of ABC-TV’s Wide World of Sports.

I’ll never forget the disturbing images of machine-gun toting terrorists in ski masks on the balcony of an Olympic Village apartment or the voice of ABC Sports broadcaster Jim McKay reporting somberly on the results of the airport gun battle (with the Palestinians still holding their hostages): “They’re all gone”, McKay said.

Pretty heady stuff for a 12-year-old to digest, and in my own backyard, no less, a site I had visited on a Junior High School field trip three weeks before the tragedy occurred. The anxiety and depression that I sunk into lingered throughout the summer and into the fall and winter of 1972.

On Christmas Eve of that dark year, we attended Midnight Mass at the Munich Army Station base chapel, my first time at such a celebration, and there was something inescapably magical about the whole affair, something other-worldly, that drew the darkness of the Olympics Massacre out of my mind. On the altar was a life-size replica of the fabled Bethlehem manger. The priest was in flowing white gowns and the words issued forth from his mouth as majestically as his garments.

For a brief moment, the high mysticism and liturgy of the Catholic Church possessed the power to transform the anxieties and angst of one adolescent mind into thoughts of peace, tranquility, and a renewed belief in the goodness and charity of man.

In a few short years, however, as previously essayed, my faith in Christian dogma shattered like a cheap porcelain doll and to this day I have only passed through the transom of a church to attend weddings and funerals. But for a few brief moments in my youth, “something rare”, as Terry Mort calls it, occurred:

People who have seen bullfights understand that most fights do not approach these levels of emotive perfection; most turn out to be rather straightforward scenes of bloody cruelty. But when it does happen, then “something rare” is created, something transcendent that has to be seen to be appreciated. Similarly, prayer is often nothing more than going through the motions. But now and then, under the inspiration of ritual and imagery, music and liturgy, it can be something rare, too. Hemingway was looking for these moments, and Catholicism appealed to him because of them. As an artist, he appreciated artistry. As a romantic, he appreciated a moment in which everything comes together perfectly, before inevitably flying apart – in bullfighting, the celebrated “moment of truth” when matador and bull are merged, the moment of “La Gloria”; in prayer, the moment is seems possible there is a God listening.

For ever and ever. Amen.