Hemingway’s Catholic and artistic vision contained many of the same philosophical and theological principles these other Catholic intellectuals supported. For instance, his affinity for the cathedral at Chartres, Saint Louis IX, the medieval town of Aigues-Mortes, Roland and Roncevaux, the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, apparitions of the Virgin Mary, Mont-St.-Michel, and many other medieval figures and places exemplify the way Hemingway also wedded antiquity and the avant garde. His exemplary characters, after a profound recognition of original sin, always seek reconciliation with imperfection, yearning toward repentance through a form of traditional rituals: Jake Barnes acknowledges his wound and still prays, attends Mass, processions, and confession; Frederic Henry suffers the dark night while learning from the priest how to pray, how he may become very devout; Robert Jordan learns slowly and then all at once in that moment of conversion through la gloria, which ultimately leads to his sacrifice; and Santiago, the old fisherman, promises to say ten Hail Marys, ten Our Fathers, and to make a pilgrimage to the Virgin of Cobre if he catches the marlin. Hemingway’s interest in the poetry of Baudelaire and Villon paralleled his resistance of ennui through his quest to identify the sacred in ordinary moments of communion between friends, with wine and spirits and good meals, before the dark mystery returned in the night. And finally, the most mystical moments in Hemingway’s fiction are seen in ordered and disciplined action, which reveal the presence of mystery and actual grace in rituals like the bullfight, and sports like bicycle racing, hunting, fishing – in the act, like the great faena of the torero, “that takes a man out of himself and makes him feel immortal while it is proceeding, that gives him an ecstasy, that is, while momentary, as profound as any religious ecstasy; moving all the people in the ring together and increasing in emotional intensity as it proceeds” (Death in the Afternoon, 206-207).
Hemingway’s life would lead him on a continual quest for sacramentals, and Catholicism offered a confirmation of the sanctity of the world he lived in. His rejection of his parents’ piety was a rejection of sentimentality, of excess, of an over-emphasis on innocence, and the possibility that any man or woman can be perfect on earth. His rejection, evident in the above quoted letter to his mother from before the war, was theologically Catholic before he even encountered Catholicism. His characters and his stories attest to another piety, that which accepts the presence of sin and certain rituals of atonement, that which acknowledges imperfection while seeking, through grace, a joy in earthly objects as reflective of the heavenly good. This piety is contained in the image of Jesus and His compassion and mercy, His self-sacrifice for the salvation of humanity from sin. Or it can be found in the image of the pietà central to Christian mystery: the Blessed Virgin Mother holding her dead child Christ, an image which is at once a reminder of mankind’s imperfection through the death of Christ, our participation in his crucifixion, as it points toward a resurrection, an ultimate redemption.
-- Excerpted and adapted from the first chapter of Hemingway’s Dark Night: Catholic Influences and Intertextualities in the Work of Ernest Hemingway, by Matthew C. Nickel. New Street Communications, LLC (January 20, 2013).