“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.”
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 God.
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.
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 to 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.
I can promise you that spending time in your sanctuary, wherever it might be, will enrich your life in ways that cannot be quantified. But then again, as Albert Einstein said, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”
With deepest respect,