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Sittin’ in the kitchen with mama (part 1)

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

From John 8
Jesus said to those who believed in him, "If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."

I think first of Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, lovely, and admirable, if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think on these things.”

The words are powerful. And how they were delivered into my consciousness is a strong memory. My mother and I stood on opposite sides of our kitchen just east of Lincoln, Illinois, while I told her with gusto about the writing of Ernest Hemingway. I was home after my first year at Valparaiso University.

I had read “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” among other stories, and I felt moved and more emotionally intelligent than before I read them. The classes I was taking in humanities, literature, philosophy and theology were kindling a desire in me for “knowledge” that meant something.

How I’d put that now is that I had a taste of “truth, goodness and beauty” and felt for a moment that I was standing on the ground “in which I have my being.” At that time I wasn’t sure what I believed IN, but it was good to know something of what I did NOT believe.

In “The Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” Hemingway puts some of St. John of the Cross’ words into the mind of the good, solid man who cares for a bar, where men come for solace late at night. But Hemingway turns the words and they become nihilistic, at least that’s how I heard them then. “Our Father, who art in nada (“nothing”), hallowed be thy nada, thy nada come ...”

Hemingway’s Catholicism helped him find the words (from St. John of the Cross’s masterpiece, Ascent to Mount Carmel), which he used to express his first-half-of-life righteous anger. Hemingway railed against any shallow, careless attempts at meaning and comfort, while at the same time craving them.

This contradiction was not resolved in his story, but I felt the confluence of opposites rush around my mind surrounded with some aroma of truth. This was at least better than what I thought I’d known before. I felt righteousness swell up in me …

* * *

It was the hot summer of 1968. A few weeks later my friend Larry and I would drive to Chicago for a Lutheran conference in theology, which would adjourn on the first day so we could spend that week attending the demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention. My self-righteousness swelled again.

The convention was marked by violence from every side and widespread international publicity. In the following weeks, I wrote letters to the editor of the Lincoln Courier, our town’s daily paper, and then I wrote letters in response to the letters in response. My mother defended me to her angry neighbors, who thought I was unpatriotic and cowardly ...

* * *

But before all this, Mom and I are standing in the sun, shining through the west window of our family kitchen. Outside the July corn and soybeans soak in the humidity. Mom smiled at me from across the room and asked me to consider the words of Paul.

The “realism” drawn out by Hemingway might taste of truth, in that it relished human failure and unacknowledged sin. God’s presence in the world went unacknowledged. And I was angry at the people of God for failing to follow the Bible’s call to social justice. I was angry at God for letting that happen. I was angry at myself for being a hypocrite.

Mom smiled at me and said, “But you can think of other things. You can set your mind on these things.” And she recited Philippians 4:8. “Whatever is true. Whatever is noble. Whatever is right.”

I scoffed, I know I did. But years later the memory returns in tears of gratitude and repentance. “Whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable.” (to be continued)

* * *

The Lord is my shepherd, and I shall not want. You make me lie down in green pastures. You walk with me beside still waters. Oh yes, Lord, you restore my soul.

Ernest Hemingway, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” first published in 1926, then again in Winner Take Nothing, 1933

St. John of the Cross, Ascent to Mount Carmel, Book 1, Chapter 13, originally published in 1618



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