By the Rev. Dr. Ed Hird
It’s hard to find a really good movie that the whole family can watch together, without exploitive sexuality and violence. My extended family could not stop talking about ‘The River Runs through It’. So eventually I too saw the movie and joined the ranks of the enthusiastic “River” boosters.
The movie is directed by Robert Redford and the star of the movie “Norman” looks remarkably like a junior Robert Redford. It is set in the Midwestern United States of the 1920’s. Its breathtaking scenic shots are reason enough as to why this movie was an Academy Award winner.
The movie begins by having the elderly Norman recall his father’s words: “Someday when you are ready, you might tell our family story. Only then will you understand what happened and why.” An intriguing feature of this movie is that all the meaningful statements are deliberately understated in a way that provokes curiosity. For example, Norman commented: “in our family there was no clear line between fly fishing and religion.” Norman doesn’t really explain what he means, Instead he just teases your imagination, and then moves on. The symbol of life at its best was “the river running through.”
Again and again, as tragedy and setbacks hit the Maclean family, they seemed to find solace and refreshment by returning to their family river, the big Blackfoot. As the movie put it, “Beneath the (river) rocks are the words of God. Listen … and if Paul and I listened very carefully all our lives, we might hear those words.”
Norman’s father was a rigid, but well meaning Presbyterian minister. There were times in the father’s life where his rigidity seemed to totally alienate his sons. Yet again and again their common love for the river would bring them back together as a family.
As Norman put it, “In the afternoon we would walk with him while he unwound between services and he almost always chose the path along the Blackfoot, which we considered our family river, and it was there that he found his soul restored and his imagination stirred.” Norman, of course, is making a clear allusion to the well known Psalm 23: “He leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul.”
In contrast to the modem tendency to “pigeonhole” religion into a small private slot, Norman’s father saw religion as a totally normal part of everyday life. Faith was as normal for him as breathing or fly fishing. Flyfishing for the Macleans was a symbol of an integrated and healthy spirituality pervading all of life. As Norman put it, “… Paul and I probably received as many hours of instruction in fly fishing as we did in all other spiritual matters.”
Norman’s father saw fly fishing as symbolic of the rhythms of life that we all need to discover. Norman comments: “As a Presbyterian, my father believed that man by nature was a damn mess, and that only by picking up God’s rhythms could we regain power and beauty. To (Norman’s father), all good things come by grace, and grace comes by art, and art does not come easy.” Norman’s father trained his two sons to cast “Presbyterian style”, on a four count rhythm between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
One of the most significant moments in the movie was the first time that Paul the younger brother broke free of his father’s instruction, into a shadow casting rhythm all his own. All of us, at some point, need to break free of our fathers’ spiritual instruction, to find a relationship with God that we can call our own Secondhand spirituality can only take us so far.
Paul stayed at home for college, unwilling to “leave the fish he had not yet caught. Norman went east for college, and entirely abandoned fly fishing.
When Norman returned home, he felt embarrassed and awkward down at the river, because he had lost touch with the rhythms of life while at college. Yet as the elderly Norman looked back on his life, he confessed that he was “haunted by waters”. Despite all the tragedy and horror of life, Norman’s returning to the river replenished him again and again.
As Norman put it, “… when I am alone in the half light of the canyon, all existence seems to fade to a being with my soul and my memories, and the sounds of the big Blackfoot River, and the four count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.” A Jewish Rabbi said 2,000 years ago: “Whoever believes in me, streams of living water will flow from within him.”
My prayer for those reading this article is that streams of living water may flow through the middle of our lives, bringing a peace that passes all understanding.
The Rev. Dr. Ed Hird, BSW, MDiv, DMin
-author of the award-winning book Battle for the Soul of Canada
-previously published in the Deep Cove Crier/North Shore News
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