by Heidi Shott
Canon for Communication and Advocacy
Until two weeks ago, I didn’t own a kayak rack so my kayaking adventures, over the years, have been limited to paddling from my dock on the millpond at the southern end of Damariscotta Lake to Bryant Island – about a four mile round trip. No sweat, literally.
Then this spring, the opportunity arose to represent the Diocese of Maine on a three-day segment of the River of Life Pilgrimage, a 40-day, 400-mile paddling journey spanning the length of the Connecticut River, from its headwaters at the Canadian border to its mouth at Long Island Sound.
Sponsored by the seven Episcopal Dioceses of New England, the New England Lutheran Synod, and Kairos Earth, each segment of the journey included a dozen pilgrims paddling 12 or so miles a day then camping on shore or sleeping in local churches at night.
It all sounded like fun until I fell into my default worry mode: Would I have the stamina for paddling that far each day? Could I carry my kayak over the rough terrain of a 200-yard portage? Was I skilled enough to handle the possibly tricky current on a big river? How could I stage a car at the end without hugely inconveniencing my husband? What if we ran into bad weather? What if the pesky bursitis in my left shoulder flared up while underway?
Awash in worry, I forgot the trip was meant to be a pilgrimage – a journey of mind, body, and soul. As a world-class worrier, I’m apt to forget, at any given time, what it is I’m meant to be about.
My group of 12 pilgrims gathered on a Sunday evening at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in White River Junction, Vermont, for orientation to the next three days of paddling, a supper of sausages and potatoes, and evening prayer. We ranged in age from 11 to early 70s and hailed from many walks of life: teacher and farmer, priest and bishop, as well as roles less easy to define.
At the close of worship, we formed a circle and each shared our prayerful intention for the trip. Mine was to listen carefully for what is next, a fairly predictable intention for a middle-aged empty-nester whose been engaged in the same work and ministry for many years.
Of course, by the time I was driving home to Maine on Wednesday evening, it was clear that God had other news to impart. Pilgrimages are tricky that way.
Each morning from rising through the first hour of paddling we kept, if not quite silence, a withdrawal from nonessential conversation. That silence allowed the bird song and the rhythmic splash of our paddles in the river to fill the gap we so often fill with chitchat. The routine and silence also invited an engagement with our other senses throughout the day. Wind sweeping across the river brushed our arms, and the slightly acrid scent of the silty river mud plastered on our feet and clothes filled our noses. We savored the taste of good, simple food because we were truly hungry from the work of paddling. And on all sides, at each bend in the river, there was something new to see: ducklings trailing behind their adults, the sweep of blue sky over our heads, the play of light on the water, the yellow irises along the bank, the swallows darting low across the water in search of dinner.
How different the river looked from our vantage point on the water. A fellow pilgrim mentioned one evening that she thought she knew what the river was like from driving across a bridge and looking down. “It’s nothing like that,” she said. And she’s right. At kayak level, the river is so much more vibrant and complex and unpredictable. It’s so much more beautiful. Her comment also recalled to me something I knew once but forgot. The ninth-century theologian, John Scotus Eriugena, taught us that we can look to creation just as we look to the Scriptures to receive the living Word of God. Eriugena called Scripture the “little book” and creation the “big book,” which by reading we can divine the grace of God that surrounds us, its type as tall as trees.
Two elements of this pilgrimage were to pray and to paddle, and, at first, they seemed to be mutually exclusive. But since it’s impossible to paddle with our eyes closed, we were required to pray with our eyes wide open. We had to watch for rocks, the ripples that indicate fast water, and the boats of fellow pilgrims. There is no separating the praying and the paddling. For a long time I’ve kept my prayers sequestered from the daily business of living: working, parenting, mentoring, cooking, nagging, gardening, hiking — all the things I do, many of which I worry about constantly – instead of allowing prayer to infuse and, perhaps, defuse my daily routines.
As I drove across New Hampshire toward home, my trusty kayak firmly strapped to the roof, I vowed to live in closer, clear-eyed proximity to the surface of this gorgeous, complicated, fearsome, world.
— More news of the River of Life Pilgrimage