Wednesday, May 26, 2021

The Troubled Catholicism of Ernest Hemingway

 From Angelus:

Hemingway was raised in a Congregationalist Protestant home, and his first conversion to Catholicism occurred when he was a 19-year-old and volunteer ambulance driver in Italy during World War I. Two weeks into the job, he was delivering candy to soldiers on the frontlines when he was hit by machine-gun fire and more than 200 metal fragments from an exploding mortar round. An Italian priest recovered his body, baptized him right on the battlefield and gave him the last rites. 

Hemingway later described what happened this way:

“A big Austrian trench mortar bomb of the type that used to be called ash cans, exploded in the darkness. I died then. I felt my soul or something come right out of my body, like you’d pull a silk handkerchief out of a pocket by one corner.  It flew around and then came back and went in again and I wasn’t dead anymore.”

After having been anointed, Hemingway described himself as having become a “Super-Catholic.” It was a near-death experience that changed the course of his life. After the war, he went to work as a foreign correspondent in Paris. And eight years later — after his first marriage failed — he undertook a second, more formal conversion process in preparation for marriage to his second wife, devout Catholic Pauline Pfieffer.

It was at this time that Hemingway changed the title of his unpublished first novel, tentatively titled “Lost Generation,” to “The Sun Also Rises.” And writing to another friend, he declared, “If I am anything I am a Catholic . . . I cannot imagine taking any other religion seriously.”

He attended Mass (albeit irregularly) for the rest of his life and went on pilgrimages, received confession, had Masses said for friends and relatives, and raised his three sons as Catholics. Most of his novels are set in Catholic countries, and his last great hero (Santiago of “The Old Man and the Sea”) was a devout suffering servant, much in the cruciform mold of most of his heroes. When he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954, he gave away the medal as a votive offering to “Our Lady of Cobre” in Havana.

Unfortunately, his subsequent divorces and additional marriages, drunken brawling, domestic abuse, poison pen letters, paranoia, megalomania, and habitual womanizing tarnished his youthful sense of himself as a “super-Catholic.” Hemingway never wanted to be known as a “Catholic writer” because he simply felt he couldn’t live up to the responsibility.

In a letter to his friend Father Vincent Donavan in 1927 just before he married his second wife, Hemingway wrote, “I have always had more faith than intelligence or knowledge and I have never wanted to be known as a Catholic writer because I know the importance of setting an example — and I have never set a good example.” (Read more.)


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