Religion and the Contemplative Experience of Fishing

Bart Price: The poetry of fly fishing dovetails with the poetry of faith.

“In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.” – Norman MacLean, A River Runs Through It

It’s Saturday, daybreak.

The metronome of summer crickets encircles the cove. I raise my rod, release the tension and, in one uninterrupted motion, send the minnow sailing into the ochered dawn. The sound of line unraveling from the spool is enough to awaken the sleeping fish, I hope. The weight hits the water, silver like drum scales, severing the silence and sending ripples towards the surrounding bank.

Rod in hand, I sit back upon my five-gallon bucket, open end down. Fish should be biting. Got to be biting. One will snatch my line any second. Then nothing. Still nothing. A bird flits across the sky, barely above the lake’s glassy surface, looking at itself in the watery mirror, I’m sure, before alighting on a limb nearby. My mind drifts: The Strange Islands. A poem called “Stranger.” Merton up at dawn, in hooded habit, waxing poetic:

One bird sits still
Watching the world of God:
One turning leaf,
Two falling blossoms,
Ten circles upon the pond.

My mind, unstill from the week’s breakneck pace, cannot remain on one thought for long. It moves from Merton to Monday: an e-mail I need to send…. From work to finances: documents I need to fill out…. And back again to Merton:

Now dawn commands the capture
Of the tallest fortune,
The surrender
Of no less marvelous prize!

The still, lovely dawn. The bird so present to the nuances of nature. The stillness of the entire scene commands the surrender of my soul – the tallest fortune here, the pinnacle of creation.

This stillness, this beauty, begins to act upon me like grace. I realize, in my attempt at reciprocation, I am in pursuit of Christ, through whom all this loveliness came to be. Christian faith and the contemplation of such wonder – are they not, in a sense, inseparable, as flesh from soul?

A River Runs Through It. Maclean recalling his father, a preacher: To him all good things – trout as well as eternal salvation – come by grace….

Now resting in the palm of His hand, amid this loveliness, I reel in slowly and cast again. I am a fisher among men, but not so much a fisher of men, unless you wish to follow my contemplative example: into the dawn, to sit still and let the grace of creation nourish you, strengthen your will, bolster your resolve to steal away more often, from the machine that attempts to numb your senses, deaden your soul; to catch the nuances of existence – if not a bucket of fish.

The dry salvages in the distance, rising up like miniature volcanoes, remind me of Eliot. Four Quartets. The dirty Mississippi still there, still formidable in its power to transform, like grace:

… the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities – ever, however, implacable,
Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget….

MacLean keeps coming back. There is something of God in the river, in the myriad facets of nature – not a pantheistic God, but the immanent and transcendent Father of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. All this river of being continuously emptying into an ever-embracing oneness, mystically blurring distinction between religion and the contemplative experience of fishing.

“Eventually,” says the wizened MacLean, “all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.”



Bart Price resides with his wife, Angie, in St. Augustine, Florida. He is a Six Sigma Black Belt and seeker of beauty and truth. His most recent articles and essays have appeared in the John Jay Institute’s The Statesman, Ethika Politika and the National Catholic Register. He has published a poetry book entitled The Wild Woods Edge and creates and sells what he calls Photo Poems, combining his original poetry and photography on 8×10 mats. All his art can be found at

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