In the August 7 Travel Section of the NY Times there was a long story written about fly fishing on Montana's Big Blackfoot River. The author was drawn to this location by reading Norman Maclean's novella, "A River Runs Through It", and the Robert Redford film version of the same. Near the beginning of the article the author writes about fly fishing on the Big Blackfoot, "I am not religious person, but I'll be damned if I didn't feel something holy."
He is not alone in his perception of the holy. From the time my brother and I, and our father as well, first read "A River Runs Through It" in the 1970's it has served as a kind of 5th gospel for us, putting into words a whole set of intuitions, values, and memories that have conveyed whatever it is that the theological word "grace" is supposed to mean. There is no "something" about it.
My earliest "religious experience" came at about age 6 when my father returned from fishing in the Delaware River with a stringer full of Smallmouth Bass. I was astonished to learn that these mysterious creatures came from a region beyond our sight, from beneath the shining surface of the water-world, and that they could be coaxed to reveal themselves by engaging in a traditional ritual called "fishing", and that one could learn the elements of this ritual from practitioners such as my father, who would teach me. Hence I came to know that if I was quiet, and patient, and humble, as well as skilled, I could invoke a relationship with beautiful beings from an unseen realm, and they would feed me, if need be, and, in any case, bless me.
Later, in my teens, when I learned about "God", and "grace", and the techniques of liturgy, it all seemed quite familiar, although I had been hitherto innocent of religion. Prayer, it seemed, was much like casting a fly out onto the opaque surface of the world, in anticipation of affirmation from unseen depths. Sacred behavior, the solemn movements and gestures, the exaggerated respectfulness shown to participants and symbolic objects, all reminded me of rituals I had performed many times by streams and rivers. So it was not "faith" that informed my fishing, but rather fishing that informed my faith.
There is a holiness that is invoked by fishing that comes, I suspect, from the embedded memory of our ancestors who, by accident or by grace, discovered the saving mystery of the fish. They discovered that by a combination of skill and luck they could lure fish to their nets and spears and hooks, and find themselves blessed and supplied with food. They could lure the fish, but they could not create them: that was a gift, and it astonished them and filled them with gratitude. It is from this astonishment and gratitude, most likely mingled with fear that the gift might be withdrawn, that "religion" came to be. So not only "something" holy, but rather, the source of holiness and genesis of sacred meaning.
In the film-version of "A River Runs Through It" there is a sequence where Norman Mclean is with his father and brother beside the river after an abundantly successful day of trout fishing. "My brother stood before me, " Norman's voice recites, "not on a bank of the Big Blackfoot River, but suspended above the earth, free from all its laws, like a work of art." Or, I would say, like an icon, or a sacrament.
That occasion was to be the Mcleans' last together, as Norman's brother was killed a few days later in a gambling dispute. In the film, Norman's commentary states that "I knew just as clearly that life is not a work of art and that the moment could not last."
I wonder about that. While it is true that "life" does not fit neatly into an artistic paradigm, and churns with random eruptions of absurdity, mindlessness, and triviality, yet it does seem to organize itself around certain key events like this transcendent moment by the Big Blackfoot, not a "work of art" in the sense of having been contrived by any human hand, but a creation nonetheless, a graceful confluence of disparate choices, actions, and meanings, "suspended above the earth" like a Dali crucifix, or a hatching mayfly. Mclean's character in the film says "the moment could not last," and of course that is literally true. But, in a sense, such moments do outlast their duration in the flow of time. Such moments transcend duration, and partake of that quality of "anemnesis" invoked at the Eucharist, as well as by trout streams.
"Eventually," Norman Mclean writes in both the book and film versions of "A River Runs Through It", "all things merge into one, and a river runs through it." So it sounds to me as if there is a sense in which the moment does "last," does ascend into heaven, as it were, does straddle the boundary between time and eternity.
Here's how I expressed it after a day fishing in the Au Sable River downstream from Mio, Michigan, in 2007.
"What we had been doing was more than a fishing expedition, it was an immersion in the symbiotic relationship between fish and insects and river, and in their collective relationship to us. In this setting we were the intruders, the witnesses, the priests who, alone among the actors in this drama, could behold all the elements of the plot, and all the relationships between the players. We could even masquerade as legitimate members of the cast, disguising ourselves as bugs so as to gain backstage admittance, where we could don our neoprene vestments, and wave our sacred wands over the river, beseeching acceptance.
Our lives proceed from such lavish abundance, and end the same way. Love is not scarce, nor is grace in short supply. The problem for us is not how to beat each other to the fishing hole… it is to find a way to inhabit the abundance with humility and grace, like a native, like a mayfly, like a trout."