In our culture, it's tough to talk about spiritual things. You know the feeling...here comes the sermon...and no matter what I say, I can't win. My church crowd will feel I didn't say enough, and my canoe cronies will say, Well, we enjoyed the picture, but we could have done without the sermon, so, what are you going to do? -- Bill Mason, Waterwalker
Posted by Darren Bush on 4/15/2020
I can sympathize with Bill. Even with our most intimate friends, we are reluctant to bring up our innermost feelings when it comes to faith. I don't know why, since the vast majority of human beings believe in some sort of higher power.
What does this have to do with paddling? I'm going to take a bit of a risk by talking about spiritual things. Religious things are not necessarily spiritual, and spiritual things are not necessarily religious, though I believe that the two often can go well together. What I want to talk about is the function of a sanctuary.
Sanctuary is a good word, coming from Late Latin sanctuarium, meaning simply, "holy place." Webster defines sanctuary as "a consecrated place, a place for worship." It is also defined as a "place of refuge or protection as in a wildlife sanctuary."
Holy places are necessary for me to function in my life. I need sanctuary--a refuge--from many things. While I enjoy the sanctuary of my church, it is only one of the holy places I seek to restore my spirits. These days, I'm not even allowed there.
The shack behind my home is a sanctuary, a holy place, though there is no altar nor any religious symbols. It's quiet out there--no radio, no television, no hum of electric appliances. I love my shack, and it restores me when I need a quick pick-me-up. My children have noticed this as well and ask sheepishly, "Can I go out to the shack?"
The Wisconsin River is a sanctuary, though sometimes the personal watercraft disrupt the spirit of the place. It's hard to imagine a Jet Ski bombing down the middle of a chapel, but it happens frequently on the River. Still, there are times when I am all alone with the frogs and the fishes, and it's every bit as holy as any place I have been. Some of the best insights I've ever received were while paddling on the Wisconsin, usually in the off-season, where I get the sense of being the only person on the River for a hundred miles in either direction.
One of the most powerful spiritual experiences of my life was when I was paddling from Sorrento, Italy, out to the island of Capri. It was a ten- or twelve-mile crossing, and there was nothing around--the fishing boats were docked for the morning, and the water was an indescribable shade of turquoise. I was alone; the rest of the group had paddled father ahead, and I had let them. I wanted the solitude.
Back home, I had been rehearsing a wonderful a cappella piece with my choir at the University (they let us old fogies come and sing, too). It was a modern piece containing text from the 130th Psalm, the "De Profundis." As I looked down into the fathomless water, I could hear in my mind the words we were singing:
Out of the depths I cry to thee, O Lord!
Lord, hear my voice!
Let thy ears be attentive
to the voice of my pleading!
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for daybreak.
I paddled along slowly, listening to the Psalm in my head and feeling all the emotion and power of that poem. I half-paddled, half-drifted alone for an hour, and when we arrived at the island, I could have turned around and paddled back--I was completely refreshed. It was an amazing experience.
Irrespective of your faith, the point should not be lost that in order to live in the overly-stimulated world and to not be swallowed into the beehive of daily activity, it is necessary to have sanctuary, wherever you can find it. I have found mine most often in the seat of a canoe or kayak, usually outside, and usually alone.
On the mantle of my fireplace sits a small twisted piece of driftwood, from an olive tree, I think. It's less than a foot long and is twisted and beautiful. I found it floating halfway between Sorrento and Capri. Nothing else around, and the odds of me finding it were infinitesimal, yet there it was. Now when I see it or pick it up, I'm back in a sea kayak in the Tyrrhenian Sea.
These days we need sanctuary more than most. We're isolated geographically, to start with, but we're also isolated in a bigger sense. Time in a thoughtful sanctuary will help heal us from the barrage of nastiness coming at us from 24-hour news channels and screeching internet commentators. To quote the recently late John Prine, turn off your TV, throw away the paper. Find a sanctuary and feed your soul, please.