Robert Redford, director and voice-over narrator of the film ‘A River Runs Through It’ says near the beginning of the movie: “My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things—trout as well as eternal salvation—came by grace; and grace comes by art; and art does not come easy.” A successful film at the box office, this movie is a masterpiece with award winning cinematography and with spoken language that closely follows the autobiographical novella on which the film was based.
For anyone who hasn’t seen this 1992 movie, it’s a story of two sons growing up in the same house with their Presbyterian minister father in rural Montana, in the early 1900s, but with different results. One takes the path of vice and personal destruction while the other brother becomes a professor of literature in Chicago. It’s a story about the unconditional love between brothers and their father, and their mutual love of fly fishing that binds them together. It’s no accident that many parallels between the art of fly fishing and the rhythms of life—of coming of age—are carefully drawn into the rich texture of this favorite film of mine.
I’m not a fisherman, but there is one fly casting scene in this movie that creates a deeply spiritual experience just to watch. In the scene Brad Pitt, who plays one of the sons, is fly fishing in the Big Blackfoot River and he’s in total communication with nature. He’s using an artful casting rhythm that’s far advantaged beyond the four count rhythm of a metronome that his father had taught him as a child. And watching this scene—the morning sun dancing on the greenery and bubbling blue water, the sounds of nature blending with the casting rod’s rhythm as its fly tempts the trout to the surface—you can’t miss the reverence this film is trying to convey about the relationship between religion, spirituality and art. The art of doing something well after years of practice—of creating something from nothing—and knowing that it’s only through the grace of God that you were able to find your passion in life is something few of us appreciate the way we should.
Grace is my favorite word in the English language. My Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary defines ‘grace’ this way: Unmerited divine assistance given to man for his regeneration…” I see grace in my life in simple things like being raised in a family that nurtured its children and in the fact that I was born in a place and time where there were opportunities for women. I see grace in the angry storm that passes without damage or in the car accident up ahead that I’m able to avoid. I see grace when we find people to love.
And there is pure grace when we discover creative activities to get passionate about that in turn regenerates our spirits and souls. The art of fly fishing, turning the soil in your garden, feeding your appetite for writing, finger painting with your children—there are many arts and craft forms that we can practice to perfection and find that kind of regeneration of spirit in the doing.
But life is also about choices—about choosing between living on the edge and living within the circle of rightness and the time-honored rhythms of life. Two brothers grow up with the same opportunities and love from their parents. One grows into a responsible adult and as an elderly man, he writes a story about his brother who took a different path and died young. Not exactly Cain and Able but none the less ‘A River Runs Through It’ is a movie with the same kind of message.
The last lines of the movie are spoken in another voice-over by Mr. Redford, the exact words written by Norman Maclean in his novella: “….when I am alone in the half light of the canyon all existence seems to fade to a being with my soul, and memories. And the sounds of the Big Black Foot River, and a four count rhythm, and the hope that a fish will rise. Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs….”
Choice and grace—man has been enjoying them both since the beginning of our place on earth. The waters flow. The flowers grow and man comes and goes as that basement of time keeps the rhythms of life. We as individuals are a baby’s blink in the grand scheme of things. But each time I see ‘A River Runs Through It’ I am not only entertained by the complexities in the story, the beautiful scenery, and the flawless acting but I am also reminded that we are a part of all that has gone before us. I am reminded to revere the passion projects we find that have the power to regenerate our spirits and grow our souls. ©