From Christian Meditation by James Finley, pages 64-71
As I write this chapter I am listening to a Gospel hymn, “Down to the River to Pray.” The refrain of the hymn is: “As I went down in the river to pray, studying about that good old way, and who shall wear the robe and crown. Good Lord, show me the way.” The good old way is the way of those who follow Christ, who began his public ministry by entering the River Jordan to be baptized. The event occasioned a spiritual awakening. As Christ came up out of the water, God’s voice was heard: “Behold my beloved son in whom I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). Perhaps because of hearing this hymn playing away as I write, I feel moved to conclude this chapter by recasting its centra! message in a parable about entering a river.
The parable provides a way of sharing how my journey through Yoga, Taoist, and Buddhist meditation practices has brought me back full circle to an enriched understanding and appreciation of the mystical heritage of my Own Christian tradition. I hope that those of you in the Christian tradition whose spiritual odyssey has been expanded and enriched in opening yourself to other religious traditions will relate to this parable. I hope you might find in it truths that relate to the experience of coming back full circle to be consoled and reassured by following the universal path of spiritual self-transformation in the mystical legacy of your own Christian faith. .
The first and most basic thing that happens when you enter a river is that you get completely wet. It does not matter whether you have entered the river after a great deal of deliberation or you have fallen in accidentally off the end of a pier. Either way, you get completely wet. It does not matter whether you are entering the river for the first time or whether you have entered it countless times before. You get completely wet either way. No matter how many times you enter the river, the river never says you are running out of turns, allowing you to get only slightly damp. No matter how many times you go down into the river, you are as completely wet as the first time you entered it.
It also does not matter whether you enter the river alone in the middle of the night, so as to have the river all to yourself* or whether you enter in broad daylight along with thousands of other people. You get completely wet either way.
Nor does it matter whether you enter the river for only a brief moment or linger there for a long time. You get completely wet either way! Even in the briefest of forays into the river, you get completely wet.
It doesn’t matter whether you have lived on the banks of the river all your life or whether you had to travel a great distance to arrive at its shores. You get completely wet either way. There is no bonus package of extra wetness granted to those who travel a great distance to get to the river. Everyone, whether coming from near or far, gets completely wet.
It doesn’t matter whether you are a man or a woman, or whether you are old or young. It doesn’t matter whether you are a great saint or a scoundrel. It doesn’t matter what you believe. It does not matter whether you have accumulated great wealth or are as poor as poor can be. When you enter the river, you get completely wet.
We might call this the graciousness of the river. She accepts all who come to her. Jesus taught that we are completely drenched through and through with God’s love. In the parable of the prodigal son, in his miracles of healing, in his love for everyone he encountered, his message rang out to one and all: you are drenched through and through with a divine benevolence that gives itself to you whole and complete in and as your very life. The fact that you do not see this unitive mystery is the source of all sorrow. Your incremental degrees of awareness of this mystery are incremental stages of realizing what is from all eternity the brimming-over fullness of your true and everlasting life.
This is just what moments of spontaneous meditative experience disclose to us. In a fleeting flash we realize there is nothing missing anywhere. Our very life is manifesting the fullness of life itself. The reality of everything around us is manifesting the fullness of reality itself. Moments of spontaneous meditative experience give witness to the anarchy of the ineffable. For these moments come to whom they come; they are granted to whom they are granted. Anyone, at any time, might find himself or herself falling into the river, becoming completely drenched in a graced and childlike clarity.
What must be dealt with, of course, is the way in which the clarity granted in moments of meditative awakenings tends to dissipate. It is in this awareness of how unaware we tend to be of the mystery to which we have been made aware that we experience the desire to be a river enterer. That is, anyone at any time might be interiorly drawn to enter the river intentionally as a conscious act—a choice to be awakened. Any one of us at any time might be interiorly drawn to become a river enterer, choosing to enter the river, day by day, until we remain, even in the scorching sun, drenched through and through with sustained, clear-eyed awareness of the divinity of our lives. Any of us might be drawn to seek this habitual awareness and to give witness to this clarity by the honest, vulnerable, and loving way in which we seek to live our life. That is, any of us might be drawn to commit ourself to daily meditation, in which the meditative experience of oneness with God might become the habitual way in which we experience and respond to God’s presence in our daily life.
Now, if you are going to be a river enterer, it is wise to seek out the wise counsel of a seasoned river enterer. For there are drop-offs and undertows and other hazards to be aware of. It is best not to drown if you can at all help it. But even if you do drown, it is not that you did not get completely wet. It is just that you were not careful. This is what spiritual teachers are for: to help us not drown in the deep waters in which we, in entering the river, find ourselves. Be patient, be compassionate, be humble, be careful, the teacher tells us, so that we can get acclimated to living a life beyond our powers to grasp, control, or sustain.
Now imagine that you are a river enterer. Imagine, too, that you have learned to be a river enterer in the religious tradition that traces its roots back to Jesus. Jesus is the great river enterer, who calls others down into the river that they might discover that they are created in God’s image and likeness, that they are God’s children, in whom God is well pleased.
But there is something missing, something that is not right. Seeking to sort out just what the difficulty is, you study the history of your river-entering community. You discover that at first it was very simple. At first, men and women simply entered the river. Soon a path began to form leading down to the water’s edge. Word got out, and a growing number of people began showing up to use the path.
One day someone observed that river entering is so important it seemed only fitting there should be a ceremony celebrating the admission of new members into the river-entering community. Someone else suggested it might also be nice to have a ceremony to reconcile wayward river enterers back into the community. And before long there arose rituals with hymns and candles as people gathered at the river.
Then one day someone observed that river entering is so special that there should be some kind of little tent over the path that goes down into the river. Others agreed. And a festive, brightly colored tent was built over the path. Then someone observed that river entering is so special that a tent was hardly a suitable way to honor all the ways that river entering enriched their lives. Others agreed. And so there was the first fund drive to raise money to build a large and beautiful building over the tent that covered the path that went into the river. And everyone agreed that it was an inspiring and uplifting building indeed.
Then someone wrote a book titled The Meaning of River Entering. Someone read the book, did not agree with its premise, and so wrote another book refuting the teachings of the first book. Someone read both books, disagreed with both; and wrote a third. Soon there was a proliferation of books on the meaning of river entering. A second fund drive was required to build a library; adjoining the building over the tent that was over the path going down into the river. And everyone agreed what a fine library it was.
Then someone suggested that a school be build to promote the study of riverology and the granting of degrees to learned riverologists. Another fund drive raised the moneys to build a fine school, a seminary of sorts, next to the library, next to the building that was over the tent that was over the path that went down into the river.
Then someone observed that it was getting so crowded, it might be best if everyone did not enter the river. It might be better if only certain members of the community entered the river, and then distributed river water to the others. And who would be better suited to do so than the riverologists who held degrees in river entering? The decision was made to create a new ritual to celebrate authority invested in the riverologists to distribute river water to the community.
Somewhere along the way, the riverologists tended not to enter the river nearly as much as they used to. At some point they began to pipe river water into the building. And there were rumors that the water was actually shipped in from undisclosed sources. This is the situation that has developed in the river-entering community in which you find yourself. It seems that most everyone is content to sip bottled river water, read books on river entering, attend river-entering ceremonies, and agree and disagree with each other about the meaning of river entering.
Disheartened, you walk alone one day down by the river, trying to grasp just how everyone got into this predicament. As you are walking along, you slip and fall into the water. In doing so, you discover that the river is so gracious as to accept you completely in your solitary mishap. All alone, unplanned— with no building, no teaching, no ceremony—you get completely wet.
You come out of the river and start walking down the shore, and you are surprised to come upon a group of people who have built a large building over a tent that is over a path that goes down into the river. You are inclined at first to tell them they can’t do what they are doing. You are tempted to tell them they are not even really getting wet. They only think they are getting wet. You are tempted at first to tell them that if they want to really get wet they are going to have to travel with you to join the river-entering community from which you came. Or perhaps some riverologists from your community could come to show them the correct and truly effective way to get wet.
But then, in recalling the personal journey that has brought you to this place, you decide instead to ask if they would mind if you used their path that goes down into the river. In doing so, you get completely wet. Relieved and grateful, you venture farther down shore to discover other buildings where river enterers gather. You use their path that goes down into the river and, in doing so, discover how completely wet you get, regardless of the color of the tent that is over the path, the architecture of the building, the teachings in all the books about the meaning of river entering. For what you discover is that although the teachings regarding the meaning of river entering vary greatly, one thing remains clear: each time you enter the river you get completely wet. Everyone who enters the river gets completely wet. And in each community you discern the presence of seasoned river enterers, men and women who even in the scorching sun remain drenched in the graciousness of the river.
In venturing on still farther down the shore you eventually come to the point at which the river empties into the sea. As you wade out into the water, there is only water as far as you can see. Silenced by the vastness of it all, you realize that you and the river have come to rest in the vast depths toward which all reality and all of life ceaselessly flows.
Taking all this in, you are surprised to discover yourself being interiorly drawn back to the river-entering community from which your journey first began. As you arrive back at your origins, you enter the large building and head straight for the path that goes down into the river. You are touched by the sincerity and devotion that went into setting up the festive little tent that covers the path. You are touched, too, by the depth of religious feeling and commitment that went into each detail of the building. You see all these things not as diversions from river entering, but as sincere efforts of men and women attempting to honor and reverence a grace and mystery they hold dear. You realize that perhaps you were a tad too judgmental. Perhaps, had you humbly done more river entering yourself, you would have realized that more river entering was going on than you had realized.
As you stand at the water’s edge, the spirit of God blows over the water. You enter the river, and in doing so you become completely wet. Coming up out of the water, you hear the words that Christ heard as he came up out of the water, now spoken directly to you: “Behold my beloved child in whom I am well pleased.”
As those standing about see how completely drenched you are as you come up out of the water, they are moved to enter the river as well. In doing so they, too, become completely wet. You, together with them, rediscover the origins of your own tradition of river entering. Together you seek to give witness to the good news that we are, from all eternity, completely wet. We are all drenched, through and through, with that oneness with God that Jesus, the one who calls us down into the river, proclaimed to be the very fullness of life itself.