In an early letter to his mother, Ernest Hemingway attempted to put her mind at ease about what she saw as his failure to live a Christian life. “Don’t worry or cry or fret about my not being a good Christian,” he told her. “I am just as much as ever and pray every night and believe just as hard, so cheer up!”
Too bad his critics, often Christians, seem to have missed the message of this letter and the Christian aspects of his greatest works. Ernest Hemingway has not fared well at the hands of his critics, who often dismiss or fail to understand the Christian aspects of his writings. Too often they overlook his love for the Church and the truths of Christianity in his writings.
The truths of Christianity are evident in Hemingway’s writings, from the conversion experiences seen in A Farewell to Arms (1929) and The Sun Also Rises (1926) to the glorious symbolism and analogies in his later work, The Old Man and the Sea (1952).
Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms is a tale of war and love. It is not, however, simply a story about the romantic love of Frederic Henry and Catherine Barkley, the novel’s protagonists. Instead, it is a story of Frederic’s new understanding of his self as relational and communal.
Thrown into the destruction and chaos of the Italian front of World War I, Frederic becomes vulnerable and seeks to better understand both himself and humanity. As a result of his new understanding of self as relational, Frederic searches for a religion that is more aligned with his view of humanity.
Frederic’s desire to find a religion that matches his new understanding of self ultimately becomes a denial of the religion of his upbringing. Leaving behind contemporary American Christianity, Frederic seeks the aspects of community, ritual, and acceptance of evil. Looking at the novel’s sacramental and religious symbolism, along with Frederic’s relationships, it is clear that Frederic begins to see Catholicism as the path that suits him best.
There is also a misunderstanding of Hemingway himself. Critics have claimed that Hemingway’s works do not carry any Christian implications. This idea is based on the view of Hemingway as “old master tough guy.” They assume the myth of Hemingway and neglect the facts that Hemingway was a Catholic convert, attended Mass every Sunday, prayed at holy sites, gave generously to churches, and remained close friends with various priests in his life.
Hemingway grew up attending the Congregational Church in Oak Park, Illinois. The church’s theology was liberal for the time, as Larry Grimes points out in The Religious Design of Hemingway’s Early Fiction. The Oak Park church is described by Grimes as preaching “a blend of liberal theology, sentimental piety, and Victorian morality.” There was a strict emphasis on self-control, but a belief in an easy redemption and “the perfectibility of human life.” Both Hemingway and Frederic, by moving to Italy, reject the American lifestyle. The church of Hemingway’s youth was “the convergence of the American Dream and the Kingdom of God,” something Frederic would detest.
After witnessing World War I, Hemingway could no longer accept the belief in the “perfectibility of human life.” Also, he could no longer accept what Hemingway scholar H.R. Stoneback calls the “all-too-easy redemption” that was preached in his Oak Park church in America. However, he did not reject Christianity. Another Hemingway expert, Matthew Nickel, points out that after the war Hemingway found himself in the Catholic Church, where he discovered “a ritualistic and disciplined redemption” that appealed to him.
After World War I, Hemingway could no longer accept an idealistic religion that viewed God as an interventionist who made it possible for Christians to be perfect and gain an easy redemption; the violence and atrocities he witnessed in the war would not allow for such a belief. Instead, Hemingway moved into a form of Christianity that shows vulnerability through the absence of daily intervention, yet allows for love, sacraments of grace, and a community of saints.
Hemingway has been criticized for his life of heavy drinking, multiple marriages, and foul language — a life that ultimately ended in suicide. His faith is regularly called into question, and it would be difficult to find his name on a list of Catholic writers. Though Hemingway may not be the ideal representative for Catholic writers, his works and his love for the Church are more than admirable.
In the Gospel we see a woman “caught in adultery.” She is taken to Jesus and threatened with stoning, in accordance with the Law. As is well-known, this woman is forgiven by Jesus who tells her, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”
The words of the Gospel bring us great comfort. This comfort does not come from an excusing of sins. Instead, Christians take joy and comfort in God’s mercy. Jesus does not excuse the adulterous act. Rather, he acknowledges the sin and tells her to do it no more. The sad fact, though, is that she likely sinned again.
As fallen people, we must work very hard to avoid sin. However, we still fall into the traps. This is not an excusable part of our being, but we thank God for the forgiveness and salvation given to us. To sin is in our nature, and our sin is why we need Christ.
Hemingway had his shortcomings — like many people Jesus spent time with and like many people who now spend time with Jesus. Nevertheless, the truths of Christianity are present in his works, and these truths are not there by accident. The great writer had a deep love for his faith, and this love is reflected in his writing.
As a Catholic writer, I strive to be a Catholic first and then a writer. I hope that these two things blend together and that my writing shows my Catholic faith. Yet, I know that I am much like Hemingway. I am a Catholic who falls short, despite my efforts. Aren’t we all, though?