We Went Down to the River to Pray

We Went Down to the River to Pray

A day off. Wow. Did I even dare to pray for it? It’s a rare treat in the religion business!

What to do? Where to go? My beloved and I chose Mt. Seymour, a provincial park just 30 minutes outside our city. Mountains, woods, rushing rivers. No cell phone service. No internet access. A different rhythm.

We parked at a high elevation, and hiked down to the river gorge. The trail led us into dense, damp woods. Spanish moss, mushrooms, black slugs, nurse logs – under towering old growth pine and cedar trees. Deep quiet, woodsy smells, soft dark ground.

Our thoughts and feelings, too, became quiet and soft. As we hit the trail, we fantasized about breaking free of our frenetic life. We would create the family business of our dreams. But, under the spell of the woods, we gradually forgot all details of our everyday life. We talked only about what was before us. Leaf. Root. Rock. Creek.

Down in the gorge, the river ran fast and loud. We had no need to talk, and couldn’t hear one another if we did. At a pebble beach, we sat on boulders. We looked, we listened, we felt, we thought.

From my pack, I took out a book of poetry by Solomon ibn Gabirol (1021-1058). We have no words, I thought, but surely this lover of infinity does. And he had the perfect words, translated by Raymond P. Scheindlin.

Three things there are, together in my eye

that keep the thought of You forever nigh.

I think about Your Great and Holy Name

whenever I look up and see the sky.

My thoughts are roused to know how I was made,

seeing the earth’s expanse where I abide.

The musings of my mind, when I look inside –

at all times, “O my soul, bless Adonai.”

Here we were, amid those three things. Sky peeking through trees and opening up over the river. Earth so green and damp and fragrant. Thoughts so calm, flowing with the river. We weren’t thinking of God, but we didn’t need to. We had merged with the spirit of the place, feeling ourselves in the One world-soul, blessing Adonai by simply being.

We were praying, ibn Gabirol would say. But not with prayers found in a prayer book. Written prayers only offer concepts about God. Our prayer was deeper. More direct. We broke our mundane patterns of thought. We contemplated creation. We felt the spirit that pulses through it.

On our day off from the religion business, we encountered spirit.

Read about ibn Gabirol’s masterpiece Adon Olam, the hymn that closes almost every Jewish prayer service.

An earlier version of this post appeared at Rabbis Without BordersPhoto credit: Charles Kaplan.

6 Comments
  1. God has many faces and we see glimpses of him through many different lenses. Sometimes he creates beauty and sometimes he delegates. And when he delegates, the emotions you feel can be just as powerful.
    When we were in Barcelona last month we visited the Sagrada Familia Cathedral, the ongoing creation of artist and architect Antoni Gaudi.
    As we walked though the sanctuary we experienced the same emotions you did. ” We had no words”, we didn’t need them, ” we just used our eyes.” We felt ourselves merging with our surroundings, never wanting to leave. I guess that is why you describe someone’s work as truly inspired. When it was time to go Charles just sat there saying, “I need to soak this up a while longer.” When we did finally leave he said, “even if you don’t believe in the power of God you can’t be here and not believe in the power of art.”

    Sandra Cohen

    1. Thanks so much, Sandra, for a beautiful description of a beautiful experience. It makes me think of how often the word “God” gets in the way. Yours is an experience that brings “religious” together with “spiritual but not religious.”

      1. Charles:

        I never found the distinction between “spiritual” and “religious” to be very useful.

        And it gets really blurry, when you have an experience in an organized-religious setting, but it’s not _your own_ organized religion!

        Sandra:

        Being in that setting, made me aware of the power of God, as Catholics see it, and as Gaudi expressed it for them.

        Gaudi’s aim was to bring God into that cathedral, for the average person. In other cathedrals, I’ve felt that the aim was to show the people the power of the Church and the State. God wasn’t there, for me, in those places.

        1. One more thought:

          For me, in that place, God was not in the way at all. In fact, I felt that Gaudi made room for him, in a way that I have never felt before in any building built by a religious institution. I think that is why he is so embraced by everyone.

          Sandra

          1. Sandra, I looked at photos on line. AMAZING! The style of architecture that draws people up to heaven, so to speak, is especially surprising in a contemporary context where North American religious architecture focuses on drawing people into community. To see modern construction of the older style, what a combination! – Laura

        2. My latest random oversimplified reflections on the spiritual not religious distinction is: We have ways of talking about God that are fashionable in each historical-cultural time. Some people feel the religious language of their time frames their experience beautifully. Others feel it doesn’t at all. So they acknowledge their spirituality, but feel outsiders to the religion.

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