Lessons from the River

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

                                                                                   -Norman Maclean

It was a denim-blue sky day, punctuated by a mythic backdrop of silver peaks and only a hint of cloud mischief to christen our first day on the Snake river this summer. Millions of years ago this regal river cut her serpentine destiny through the Teton mountain range of Wyoming. Today she opens her smooth stone riverbed to wildlife (moose, bear, and bald eagles), anglers, thrill-seekers, and nature aficionados. And if the heart is open, she may even gift a seeking soul with a lesson or two on life.

The Summer after my sophomore year at Sewanee, I boarded a plane headed west for the first time. My heart had fallen for an angler who spent his mornings working construction in the village, and his afternoons casting dry flies for trout on the mighty Snake. Twenty years later I remain in awe of the graceful pas de deux of this noble angler and his beloved river. Probably, because I spend more time in fishing and in life tangled in sage brush than catching a record rainbow trout, and doubting my purpose and the divine plan, than experiencing spiritual bliss.

To admire a fly fishermen gracefully lay his line upon the rippled countenance of the river reminds one of a Zen Master flowing through his daily meditation. Each is in search of something more–A connection with the Sacred. Ask any seasoned angler and they will confess that something reverent, maybe even transcendent, happens when they cast their line into the current. Standing in the river, the angler experiences a tug on an invisible line delicately stitched through the center of their hearts. Maybe they cannot put it into elegant words, but it’s that exhilarating tug that makes them grateful to be alive and convinced that they are connected to something greater than themselves.

Although we see through the cosmic mirror dimly right now, we experience these gentle soul nudges that help us to connect the holy dots. The holy tug confirms what the soul always knew to be true: We are one with God, one with nature, and even, one with one other. The metaphoric river runs through everything. It is in God that we move, breathe and have our being. Despite life’s obstacles, the tangled line, the ominous clouds, the niggling doubts and fears, and the many days where we leave the river and life empty-handed, our lives have Divine Significance.

The spiritual search for deeper meaning and communion with something larger than oneself feels esoteric, scary, and unattainable. And yet, it remains the only true and worthy path of the human experience. It requires a curious and daring soul to venture out past one’s material existence into the mysterious realm of the spiritual. Any attempt at trying to understand or cultivate a relationship with the Christ that lives within, the Buddha, the Amazing Grace, the great I Am, the Creator, Mother Nature, the Cosmos, the Divine, God, the Father, and Love Incarnate is risky business and maybe even countercultural. And yet, I see no other way to experience healing of any depth while clothed in the flesh, make peace with our flaws and fragility, and experience the inner serenity that our souls desire. Wouldn’t we all like to believe that there’s more here than just the flesh and bone experience?

A life spent casting into the Divine current and searching for greater meaning is a life spent falling in love over and over again with God’s charm, mercy, and magnificence. When you experience a tug on the end of the line, the heart literally flushes from the inside out. Suddenly the world takes on a hue of hope and even if only for a moment, we believe that anything is possible, love prevails, and maybe even there’s a plan for us after death. But how does this play out for those of us, like me, who are more clumsy than graceful when it comes to casting the line and struggle to live a life weighted more heavily in the spiritual than the material?

I believe that God leaves us a bread crumb trail of hope if we are willing to open our eyes to the signs.

Lessons from the River:

Lessons 1: To truly inhabit the mantra, “In God, I move, breathe, and have my being,” one must live in and for the present moment. Guilt, past losses, heartbreak, regrets, fear and anxiety leave us standing helpless on the bank. We must make peace with ourselves, our pasts, and our relationships (especially the complicated ones), if we have a chance at casting for grace. At some point, we have to recognize that in every moment something sacred is at stake.

Lesson 2: On the river and in life, preparation, practice, and discipline are key. An angler arrives to the river with his rod and reel, box of dry flies, extra line, scissors, bear spray, sunscreen, net, peanut butter and nutella sandwich and canteen of water. And then he casts over and over again with the hope of a tug on the line. How many of us have big dreams of becoming a more peaceful, loving, and spiritual person in the world? And yet, we take no measures to attain it. We are only as strong on the outside as we are on the inside. We must invest in an authentic faith that will sustain us. And there is no one choreography that we must all follow. God is too clever and creative for that. Who cares how many scriptures you can quote from memory, the length of your downward dog, the number of hours you can meditate, or your perfect attendance at chapel. The spiritual life is intimate, unique, and begins within one’s own sacred heart. One must have the conviction that when you speak Someone is listening. It’s the knowledge that you are never alone and it’s safe to be vulnerable. I’ll never forget a minister who once imparted the advice to me: Get in the shower and give God a piece of your mind, expletives included. What he was trying to say is a relationship with God is not about polite manners. Spill the beans: One’s insecurities, secrets, doubts, hurts, anger, and especially our hopes. One has to believe that God has our back.

Lesson 3: Be a curious soul. Anglers don’t leave a stone unturned in their search for honey holes on the river, the places where God’s presence is electric. Get into nature, light a candle and whisper a prayer, try out yoga, mindfulness and meditation to see if they help to ground you. Read the scriptures and spiritual autobiographies of the saints and sages for a path well-traveled. Practice being still and see if the cosmos gives you a nudge. The spiritual life is an adventure that lasts a lifetime.

Lesson 4: Surround yourself on the river with friends and family that don’t diminish your spirit, but champion it. When we get “skunked” on the river of life and come up empty-handed and knocked-out, we need people around us to lift us back up and encourage our comeback. When did we become so hard on ourselves and on one another? It’s time we realized that we are all trying to make our way the best we know how. Not one of us is all-knowing, nor omniscient. All of us bear invisible wounds that we nurse in secret. As Plato said,“Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” We have to be kinder and more gentle with one another, especially with ourselves and those we claim to love the best.

Lesson 5: Storms come out of nowhere on the river. One moment, it’s all sunshine and smiles, the next, our souls are being battered and bruised by unmerciful hail. Not one of us can avoid the heartaches that come with being human. In the book I’m currently reading, The Power of One, by Bryce Courtney, the grandfather says, “Life is all beginnings and ends. Nothing stays the same.” A true angler knows how to adapt to his circumstances and his surroundings. You can never put a price on resilience. Obstacles, adversity, and foul weather upset our equilibrium and make us question who we are, who God is, and what the point of all this is. But they also teach us how to turn inward and dig in. If we are leaning into God, then we are promised to find our way to the other side.

Lesson 6: The angler isn’t always happy about the outcome, but is always grateful for the experience. Never forget that it is an honor to wear the vest of flesh and bone and carry the soul of God within.

I am humble enough to know that I have barely scratched the surface in my spiritual life (and as an angler). But I have a curious soul, and my heart will never be satisfied if I don’t have at least a toe in the divine and holy current.

Live in Hope,



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