Upstream, downstream

The current was alarmingly swift. Though experienced since childhood at canoeing on lakes and streams, I had never paddled on such a large river, nor in such dramatically powerful current. This was to be a new experience.

The seven Episcopal dioceses of New England sponsored the River of Life: Connecticut River Pilgrimage, a 40-day journey from the Canadian border to the Long Island Sound. The pilgrimage was designed to highlight the significance of the river to our lives – ecological, economic and social. Rivers occupy a central role in our well-being. Our connection to them, and our stewardship of them, is a matter of deep spiritual significance.

I joined the pilgrimage on July 3, ready for two days of paddling from Springfield to Enfield, and Enfield to Hartford. A small core of guides and pilgrims was making the entire trip. Others joined for a segment of the journey, or for events at towns and parishes along the way.

Pilgrims pull their crafts ashore in Enfield. 

By prior agreement, bishops from six of our seven dioceses (and our Lutheran colleague) came together at Springfield. We aimed to underscore our common delight at the natural beauty of our region; our common commitment to sound stewardship of the world God has entrusted to us; and our common yearning for a spirituality that honors our connection to the world around us.

As we prepared to launch on Monday morning we were startled by high waters. Major storms in New Hampshire and Vermont over the weekend now caused the overflowing of river banks and docks in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Large quantities of debris, both natural and manmade, floated rapidly toward the ocean.

A peaceful stretch.

Our guides reviewed equipment, emphasized safety measures and communication protocols, and described features of the upcoming day. Some two dozen paddlers put out into the river in canoes and kayaks. By design our first hour of travel each day was in meditative, communal silence. The sounds around us took on a heightened prominence: the rush of water along the bank; the cry of birds overhead; the quiet rhythm of paddles entering and exiting the water.

Relativity was keenly evident. When for a moment one ceased paddling, it seemed for all the world as though our vessels were standing completely still. Look down at the water’s surface and all seemed stationary. Look ahead, downstream, and no forward movement was apparent. Look right, to the far riverbank, and no progress was evident at all. But then look left, to the bank close at hand, and the trees were simply flying by. By force of current alone, we were moving along at a good clip. I wonder how often in other ways progress towards distant goals is imperceptible, when in fact the movement is significant. I am reminded to look for it.

Contrasts were everywhere: the deliberate pace of our earthbound vessels contrasting with the swift arrival of Bradley-bound aircraft overhead; the rumble and blare of the freight train alongside us, contrasting with the silent swoop of hawk and eagle above us; the peaceful woods and midday prayers of our lunch stop contrasting with distant shrieks of delight and giddy apprehension from the Six Flags/Riverside amusement park on the opposite side of the river. I am reminded to cherish alike rush and rest, sound and silence, stimulating excitement and reflective calm.

Bishop Tom Ely of Vermont.

Upstream and downstream became temporal realities as well as topographic ones. I was moved to reflect “upstream” to my childhood, when my mom – a sometime camp counselor – taught me the finer points of launching and landing in a canoe, and how to do the J-stroke. The river also caused me to recollect gratefully my mom’s environmental activism, enduring skepticism and ridicule when in 1972 she helped found the first recycling center in our Midwestern city. Meanwhile, my thoughts turned “downstream.” I am reminded to ask, what will my great-grandchildren expect me to have done for this threatened world they will (by God’s grace) one day inherit?

At every point in my short pilgrimage I had a visceral sense of becoming ever more a part of something larger than myself. The group of pilgrims evinced a strong sense of community. The shores of the river became increasingly populated. And the river itself grew perceptibly larger and wider. Its waters are, of course, heading towards the ocean where they will become very much a part of a larger whole.

Somehow this sense of unity with a greater whole makes me feel not small or insignificant, but rather a meaningful part of God’s great, interdependent web of life. I am grateful for the blessing of this reminder, and for every companion – literal and vicarious – on this journey.

All photos by Bishop Alan Gates.