A River Flows Through Usby Susan Wittig Albert
Many rivers flow through us. We have just heard some of them celebrated in the readings-streams of joy, the stream of birth and death, the life-throb of ages that dances in our blood to a restless, rapid music. As the poet Tagore says, so unforgettably: "The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs through the world…" Many tributaries, many streams, many rivers, flowing through all life, flowing through each of us, through you, through me.
Yes, there are many rivers, but the one I want us to think about together just now is the river of sacred memory-the memory of things holy to us, as humans, as a culture, as a community of faith, as individuals.
This holy river arose into the consciousness of the first woman or man who named and worshipped a divine power, and has coursed through all human life. This profound force is like a vast subterranean aquifer. It is always there, an infinite resource that bubbles us, refreshing and renewing each of us as it has refreshed and renewed all humans from the beginning of human time. The river of sacred memory is like the blood that flows through our veins, the breath that fills our lungs. It is a part of our very human being and an aspect of our divine nature.
But the river of sacred memory is nurtured in us, as well. It arises out of human culture, rich, flowing and full of symbols of what each culture holds holy: its sacred cities and mountains, its places of worship, its ritual tools, its words for the sacred, its liturgies, its sacred texts, its sacred art, its saints. This river is rich with cultural history, with traditions that have nourished the culture for centuries.
Within the culture, this river also flows through all communities of worship. These, like the community in which we gather today, give expression to the sacred in our own moment of time, in our own place on earth. In this sense, we reshape the river. We choose the language and texts that best express our beliefs. We develop a liturgy that speaks to each of us. We create an art whose symbols speak for all of us. Each community of worship, each faith community, is like a fountain, articulating and expressing the powerful flow of sacred memory, giving it shape and form, making it accessible, making it understandable.
But this river of sacred memory also arises in each of us, as persons, as individuals, and for the next few moments I would like us to think together about its course through our own lives.
Do you remember your first introduction to religious experience? My own first understanding of the Sacred was shaped in my mother's small fundamentalist church, in an Illinois town not far from here. I can still recall that plain building, with no decorations, no altar, no ritual tools, not even a cross. The only visual symbol in this spare, simple place of worship was a tank filled with water-the baptistry-which was built into the floor behind the podium, to immerse those who wished to enter this little community. On the wall behind the baptistry was a picture of the River Jordan, painted by a member of the congregation. In recent years, as I have thought back on this, I have thought about the power of that simple painting of the river, the importance of baptism as a ritual act, and the extent to which that faith community's definition of baptism defined my own earliest understanding of the Sacred.
Now, think for a moment about the very first place in which you can recall worshipping. Where was it? . . . When? . . . How old were you? . . . Who took you there? . . . What words were used to refer to the Sacred? . . . Who was able to speak those words? . . . through what rituals . . . ? Can you recall one image that stands out in your mind from all the others? Your earliest ideas about the sacred were shaped by this symbol, and by the beliefs and teachings of this faith community. You still bear its imprint in some unconscious ways, although your conscious path has taken you in a different direction.
I am a writer, and I know the power of written expression. I know how helpful it is for us to put down our personal histories in writing. All of us are shaped in powerful ways by these earliest memories of personal religious experience, and I believe it is helpful for us to write them down, both as a record of our own personal spiritual history and as a tool for understanding how our spiritual lives have changed. So I encourage you to take the time to sit down in a quiet place and record these early memories. Write about your first experience of "church," about the congregation and its practices, about the way these practices influenced your family's life, the way they shaped your childhood. Write, also about your feelings, your childhood fears, your hopes, your desires--for these things are the earliest beginnings of our spiritual path.
But while the god of our fathers and mothers is of crucial importance in forming our concept of the Sacred, that god may not be the god of the rest of our lives. We may have to leave our father's house in order to set off on our own journey of faith, to drink from different places along the shore of the river of sacred memory. When I left my mother's fundamentalist church, it was a painful separation, for I had to reject much of what I had been taught about the Sacred in order to find my own faith, and that rejection caused my mother a great deal of sadness. The process of finding my own faith has involved visiting many different worship communities, participating in other cultural traditions, learning many other ways of seeking the Sacred, of experiencing the river that flows through me.
Think for a moment now about your own spiritual history, the course of the sacred in your life. Have you stayed in the faith of your father and mother? . . . If you left it, why did you leave? . . . Was it a painful process or relatively easy? What did you have to give up? . . . What did you gain? . . . What communities of worship have you participated in during your adult life? . . . What did you learn from these? . . . What have you learned from the religions of other cultures? Can you see how your experience of the Sacred has been shaped by each of these past experiences? If you take the time to explore these questions in writing, they may help you to see and understand the developing stages of your own faith.
But of course religious experience is not the only way in which the sacred river rises up in our lives, for we know that the Sacred is everywhere. It does not have to be mediated by a particular liturgy or text or teacher, and we aren't required to be in a church to receive its blessing. Indeed, many of us are in closest touch with the Sacred in a natural setting, on a mountain or a seashore, in a forest or a prairie, where we are deeply in touch with All That Is, with the river that flows through us.
The experience of beauty sometimes pulls us into the river. I recall with wonder and awe standing alone in the evening on the rim of Bryce Canyon, painted golden by the magical colors of sunset. And then I heard, as if it rose up out of the landscape, the sound of a flute playing a haunting melody from Borodin's opera, Prince Igor, a melody that was known at the time as Stranger in Paradise. The Sacred flowed through me at that moment, I was in paradise, and although this event occurred over thirty years ago, I recall it as one of the most profound and touching spiritual experiences of my life.
And what about you? Have there been moments in your life when the river of sacred memory rose up in you, catching you by surprise, sweeping you off your feet, perhaps even leaving you gasping, floundering, despairing? These may have been moments of birth, as you witnessed Life taking its first jubilant breath, or moments of death, as you sat beside a loved one, taking the last breath. They may have been the despairing moments of the dark night of the soul, when we seem to be pulled into purgatory.
The Sacred lives richly in us when we are at our most human. I hope that, if you do take the time to write about the experiences of your spiritual life-your spiritual history, as it were-you will include these moment, as well. They are all part of your spiritual story.
Yes, the river of sacred memory does indeed flow through us: through every human culture, through every faith community, and through our individual religious and spiritual lives. It is there at every moment, refreshing and renewing, whether we are conscious of it or not.
But if we can become conscious, if we can become aware of and attentive to its power and its force, how much more refreshed and renewed we might be. And if the Sacred truly is within each of us, as we say we believe, then the most sacred text is the text of our own lives, and the pen is a vital, indispensable tool of sacred ritual, helping us to record the flow of the Sacred through our daily experiences, helping us to see that the Sacred arises in us each day in the daily sacraments of making and doing.
As Rilke reminds us in the poem we heard earlier this morning, the deep parts of our lives pour onward, as the river shores open out, and our river-the river that is the Spirit in us-flows back to its constant, nurturing Source.
Susan Wittig Albert's latest China Bayles mystery is entitled Mistletoe Man. Under the pseudonym of Robin Paige, she and her husband Bill Albert also write a series of Victorian mysteries. Look for Death at Whitechapel, available now.
Copyright Susan Wittig Albert, 2001. May not be used without permission.
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Last updated: 02/04/01