The river flows...

One of the images for my spiritual journey is the river: I love them - small or large - gentle, flowing streams in the woods or massive, honking waterways like the Mississippi - they all speak to me on a host of levels (as do these songs about rivers.)

Part of my reflection on rivers comes from good old Herman Hesse from way back when and his story of the Buddha in Siddhartha.

+ If you've read the book you know that at three different times the emerging Buddha finds himself in the same place beside the Ganges River. And each time he understands that something within him has changed - life all around him has changed, too - but many of these changes are only of degree not substance. In fact, there is a gentle irony that invites him to go deeper. You see, he realizes that over and over again he finds himself beside that same place by that same river and everything in life is still passing him by. At first, like many young people, he makes bold outward changes - towards pleasure and towards asceticism -but these only alter the externals. So, in humility, he begins to go inward as the river continues to flow.

+ This has certainly been one part of my spiritual story:
playing with the externals - fasting, yoga, hedonism, dedicated work with radical social justice groups, hours of meditation - only to find myself back at the same damn place beside that same damn river - and nothing has really changed within.

As I cared for my father last week - with all the fear and insanity - I found myself returning over and over again to the river of the Serenity Prayer: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to his Will; that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with him forever in the next. Amen.

I think of Garth Brooks' tune, The River, which a dear man in Tucson shared with me: he had it sung at the funeral for his life partner who died from HIV/AIDS. It became his standard for engaging life - in the hard times as well as the blessed ones - and is one of the ways I sense the words of the Serenity Prayer become flesh.

In sitting meditation, the image of the river holds two ideas, too: Sometimes, as your mind wanders, you can gently notice the distraction and let it pass away sweetly as if you are watching things float by in a river. And at other times, rather than pull back from "monkey mind," you can follow the distraction to wherever it might be leading and see what new insight emerges.

Two of my favorite river songs that tell stories - one about the inward journey and the other about the outward events of life - are Springsteen's, "The River" and Joni Mitchell's "I Wish I Had a River."

Joan Chittister writes this about all of our wandering on the river: "long life is given for the gift of insight... it gives us time to understand life and to profit from its lessons and to learn from its failures and to use its moments well and to make sense out of chaos... We expect our elderly to be wise... but there is much in life that dulls our senses." The challenge of the river here is to take it all in as a gift... and search for God's presence even in the shadows. "Clearly, living life well is the very essence of repentance."

And then there are the psalms: to be like the trees that grow beside a stream... or the deer that pants for the water of the Lord... or the pilgrim searching for water in a dry and weary land... for the Lord maketh me lie down beside still waters... and my soul thirsts for you, O Lord.


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