Monday, September 22, 2014

"...The Sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a Four-Count Rhythm..."

In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing...It is true that one day a week was given over wholly to religion...Even so, in a typical week of our childhood [we] probably received as many hours of instruction in fly fishing as we did in all other spiritual matters.

...My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things--trout as well as eternal salvation--come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy

- Norman Maclean [1]

Maclean's novella A River Runs Through It (and the Robert Redford film inspired by it) is a fine example of uncovering the sacred in the mundane. Though there is much more to the memoir than this, the idea that an activity such as fly fishing can become pregnant with such profound meaning is an important takeaway. Early on, Maclean explains the tedious labor of learning the purely functional elements of fly fishing: "So my brother and I learned to cast Presbyterian-style, on a metronome."[2] It was a craft that must be done with great care. "If our father had had his say, nobody who did not know how to fish would be allowed to disgrace a fish by catching him."[3] It was part of the Maclean boys' "religious training" to never be late for "church, work, and fishing."[4] These three all operated under the same metaphysical assumptions, the same religious framework. Various passages demonstrate the profundity of a craft or task, whether it be fly fishing in Montana's Blackfoot River or the TPS reports on Monday morning.

It was through fly fishing that Maclean's alcoholic and gambler brother Paul (played by Brad Pitt in the film) became his best self. While witnessing "the last fish we would ever see Paul catch," the Maclean brothers' father simply states, "He is beautiful."[5] The struggle with the enormous trout transformed Paul. He was the very messiness of humanity endowed with divinity; "a distant abstraction in artistry and as a closeup in water and laughter." He was, in the words of his father, "a fine fisherman."[6] Through his art, grace was made manifest.

The art above took time, patience, discipline, and practice. Fishing is "an art performed on a four-count rhythm between ten and two o'clock." While Maclean's father may not have "believed God was a mathematician...he certainly believed God could count and that only by picking up God's rhythms were we able to regain power and beauty."[7] As young boys, the Maclean brothers often had to cite the first question in The Westminster Shorter Catechism: "What is the chief end of man? Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever." This accompanied sermons and personal lessons about Christ's disciples being fisherman, leaving the young boys "to assume...that all-first class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman."[8] In the case of the apostles, discipleship, art, and vocation came into one (at least for this Presbyterian minister). On the banks of the river watching Paul's final catch, Maclean's father made an important insight: "[The New Testament] says the Word was in the beginning, and that's right. I used to think water was first, but if you listen carefully you will hear that the words are underneath the water...The water runs over the words."[9] One scholar has noted,

The river is the background of the story and is associated with the flow of experience, with nature, and also with our memories of the past that continually flow into the present and sometimes threaten to drown us. Words are our attempts to understand, to deal with, and to control insofar as we are able, the flow of life. It is the words that enable us to perceive meanings and to create the forms that articulate our lives.

For this writer, "the interplay of river and words" is "the dialectic of the flow of life and of our attempts to understand and shape it..." The "words are the medium through which the river is conveyed to us and so they also return in the last paragraph of the story as the foundation of everything."

I'm sure few would consider fishing "art" in any familiar sense, just as few would describe the menial tasks of everyday work as such. However, these tasks can be infused with meaning and purpose. They can provide structure in the midst of chaos and provide tools to deal with life in general. They can, in essence, "glorify God" and become one way we "enjoy Him forever." And sometimes, they can even be the means by which we witness perfection.

Try remembering that next time you're prepping a spreadsheet for work.


1. Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories, 25th Anniversary Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 1-2, 4.

2. Ibid., 4.

3. Ibid., 2-3. 

4. Ibid., 34. 

5. Maclean, 2001, 100. According to Maclean, his father, "unlike many Presbyterians...often used the word "beautiful"" (Ibid., 2).

6. Ibid., 101.

7. Ibid., 2.

8. Ibid., 1.

9. Ibid., 95-96.