I Went Down to the River to Pray… And Wound Up Going Swimming

At the very end of Ohio’s State Route 308, U.S. 36 spreads out on either side like a child’s arms when she says, “I love you THIS much.” Across from the stop sign is nothing but a field and a little white barn. Every evening in the summer and early fall, the sun turns the tips of the green grass gold, and the whole field seems to glow.

There is a feeling that comes in these moments, that feels like lavender tastes. It’s like sticking your face in a laundry basket of warm clothes, getting still enough to watch a rust-colored leaf twirl in the wind and land on your shoulder. It is a feeling to be savored, as if you could pour it into a mug, breathe in its aroma, smile, sip slowly, warm your chilly hands. It is this stockpile of sunshine-happiness and warm hugs that leaves you smiling on a cold, rainy morning a few days before November. I could call it gratitude, but even that falls short.

The truth is that I cannot explain this feeling, but I wake up in the morning bathed in the sunshine of knowing that I am loved. From that place, the chaos slows down and anxiety can knock at the door for hours before I answer. The shadows of self-doubt start to run out of places to hide, and the unwanted tenants of “I am not enough” and “I am too much” begin to find eviction notices in their mail.

The first Tuesday in October, I took the three girls in my Bible Study down to the edge of the Kokosing River to spend thirty minutes in silence. I told them, “it might be hard, it might be easy; both are normal.” I lied. I knew it would be hard, but I didn’t want them to be nervous.

After directions had been given, the time of silence had been prayed for, and a timer had been set, I stuck my foot into the chilly river and looked out over the water. In front of me, there was a tall concrete barrier, left over from some previous construction, covered in green overgrowth, cracking at the edges. Absolutely unremarkable when I looked straight at it. But in its reflection on the surface of the river, it became a boulder, much like the one upon which Lucy saw Aslan appear to her in Prince Caspian. I could almost see Him in the the river’s reflection. He was staring at me.

Aslan roars, “Well done.” I gasp. “Well done. Well done.” I squirm. “Have I done well?” my doubts brazenly retort. He does not answer them, but keeps staring with the same furious affection, shouting, “Well done.”

I do not know how to answer him. He comes closer. It is as if He is staring me in the face and shouting, “Well done! I am pleased! I delight in you! I delight in you! I DELIGHT IN YOU!” Eventually, I give in, and let Him be right. “I delight in you! I delight in you!”

It’s a common expression to say “my heart is full,” but in this moment, my heart was being filled. It was as though the river somehow rose up and poured its love into my heart as if it were a cup. Or a jar of clay.

It felt like sunshine-happiness, but deeper, and more solid. Like a foundation was being built, or the roots of love were reaching so far into the soil of my heart that they scraped the bedrock. It almost tickled.

Have you ever looked at yourself in the mirror and seen yourself the way someone who actually loves you would?

You see your smile, your glasses still dripping from having washed them with dish soap, your bright eyes, your comically sparse eyebrows, your hair sticking out in four directions, and think, “How cute. She’s kind of great.” You catch yourself, are surprised, and smile, because for a moment, you saw yourself through gentler eyes.

Of course you still see your face; there are so many things you could dissect, prod, and harass; for heaven’s sake, your hair is sticking out in four directions. But for once, you don’t. You just smile in a gentle sort of amazement, while, for a fleeting moment, there is a kind of magic transforming your reflection.

Suddenly, the reflection is broken up by the paddle of a kayaker. The meditative hush is shattered by “Beautiful day, isn’t it?” I smile back, not wanting to break the silence in order to inform the kayakers that we are practicing silence.

The kayakers pass, and I can still feel the rays of heaven’s smile shining on my cheeks. Later, I will write a song from the story: “In the quiet place/You look me in the face/And You say well done/And it takes my breath away.” I linger a few minutes longer, basking.

My timer buzzes, and once more, my trance abruptly ends. The sun is setting, and it is getting cold.

I turn to the others: “Congratulations. You just spent thirty minutes in silence. How did it go?” They admit that it was hard. I admit that I knew it would be. But the more you do it, the easier it gets.

I tell them about Aslan. They know me, their wild, mystic Bible Study leader, well enough that they are unsurprised. It’s not that I’ve seen Aslan before, or even that I saw him, but this is hardly the strangest thing that’s happened to me, hardly the strangest story I’ve told.

I don’t see visions so often as the term mystic might imply, and when I do, they are painted on my mind rather than my corneas. But I talk to God, and He talks back. I usually hear Him in what 1 Kings 19 describes as a still, small voice. A thought appears with such a resonant weightiness that I just know. God’s voice radiates warmth and buzzes with the electricity of something absolutely true.

Sometimes, His voice comes as an interruption, loud enough to be heard over the noise of my soul. Other times, it is so soft that I can only hear it when I get very quiet and still. That day, keeping silence with my Bible Study, it seemed like He was just waiting for me to get still. The moment I became a captive audience, He started to speak.

But before the silence, and before the wandering around looking for a place to sit, even before the leaves — now scattered across the rocks — had started to fall, I had another wonder-filled moment in this exact same place. I did not tell my Bible Study, because I did not want them picturing it while they were supposed to be praying, but this exact spot was where, about a week before, I went skinny dipping.

Inspiration struck on a Friday afternoon in late September. I had gone to spend time with God and write a song, and I guess God had some extra plans He hadn’t thought to let me in on, because I wound up going swimming in my clothes and getting my favorite jean shorts soaked and smelling like river water. Walking back to my car sopping wet, I texted my friends, “wanna go skinny dipping this weekend?” I took a selfie of my dripping, beaming face. I captioned it, “I went down to the river to pray… and wound up going swimming.”

The whole week had been unseasonably warm. It should have been well into fall, but instead, it was too hot to even wear long sleeves. I was thrilled. The sunshine felt like a blanket on my bare arms, the heat like a warm bath. I had waited excitedly all week for Friday afternoon, when I would walk down to the river, sit with God, and write a song.

I arrived at my usual spot on the covered bridge, guitar on my back and journal in hand, with an excitement like driving down the dusty lane that leads to your summer camp. The moment felt like a luxury, and yet, like coming home.

I set everything down, took off my sandals, opened my journal, and wrote, “playful, adj. |play•ful|.” I looked up the definition (“happy and full of energy: eager to play, showing that you are having fun and not being serious”) I copied it onto the page, savoring the words. Then, I placed a leaf on the other page and took a picture.

In the photo, the wood of the bridge looks like a boardwalk, a fitting backdrop to my meditation on playfulness. Behind my journal are my sandals: a reminder to “remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground;” to slow down, not to let the holy moments slip from your grasp unnoticed. My guitar waits in the space between my journal and sandals, ready to help me translate the holy stillness. I pick up my guitar and begin to strum.

A little later, I leave the suspended space between river banks and climb down the steep slope to reach the water. I set down my journal and guitar on the pebbly shore. They are my instruments of remembrance, but some things cannot be mediated, they just have to be experienced. I leave my sandals at the very edge of the shore and wade in.

The stones beneath my feet are slippery, uneven, some a bit sharp. I cannot see them clearly through the clouded water, but soon I abandon all caution and give in to the current of playfulness that sweeps me away. I skip stones, splash, giggle, dance. Eventually, I go all-in: I make sure to dunk every part of my body in the shallow water.

My hair drips and the leaves glow with the delight of early-evening sunshine. The moment is saturated with a holy presence, but there is a levity to it. It feels like Jesus is splashing and playing in the river alongside me. My friend Jesus is not so serious that He minds getting a little wet. In fact, I think when He looks back on this moment, He smiles and laughs at the ridiculousness of the scene.

Suddenly, an idea appears: I had always wanted to go skinny dipping in the Kokosing. Was this not the perfect weekend for it? I ask God, “Can I really do this?” He seems to smile back, as if to laugh at me, then give His blessing.

We didn’t want to get caught, and we wanted to be the only ones there, so my friends and I decided to go in the quiet of the night after all the parties had ended and the world was asleep. We all went to bed early Saturday night to get a few hours’ sleep before our 3 a.m. adventure. I could hardly sleep I was so excited. When it was finally time to get up, I skipped all the way to our meeting-place, like a child on Christmas morning. My boisterous excitement interrupted the still, dark night.

We piled into a car, drove down to the river, and wandered out just far enough that we couldn’t be seen from the street. Early in the planning process, we had made a rule that no guys were allowed; we didn’t want to be nervous when we stripped. We turned off our flashlights, took off our clothes, and waded into the chilly water.

It took a little while to get used to the cold and the vulnerability, and to stop panicking every time a car passed by on the highway above. But no one could see us; it’s too dark.

I am the first to float on my back and look up. Framed by the dark woods, the stars fill every inch of the sky. They are so bright. They spread across the sky like a freckled smile. Heaven is laughing at us. I stare, momentarily silenced by Heaven’s smile.

“You guys. Look at the sky.” We all look up, and peace spreads through the group; the nervousness of “what if we get caught?” and “oh my gosh I’m naked,” are no longer as bright as Heaven’s twinkling laughter.

As the spell fades, we frolick, swim, and dunk our heads under the water, comfortable in nothing but our skin. Finally, someone says, “It’s cold,” and someone else says, “it’s late,” and we giggle, find our clothes, and return to the normalcy of being covered up and warm.

Celtic Christians wrote of “thin places,” where the fabric between Heaven and Earth grows so slight that they almost meet. It’s in thin places, thin moments, that the stars become overwhelmingly bright, and the voice of God becomes a near-audible whisper, and the story that undergirds it all— the cosmic love-letter written in the sky, and in the dirt, and in the eyes of everyone you meet — becomes so real you can reach out and touch it.

To find a thin place, people will do almost anything — take pilgrimages halfway across the globe, wait all year for that moment on Christmas Eve when the whole church is lit by just one candle, spend weeks fasting and praying in a monastery — all for that one ephemeral moment when life itself glows like a field at sunset.

Thin places are like bridges suspended between the shores of the world we occupy and the shore of the one where God is. My favorite explanation that I’ve read comes from Eric Weiner in the New York Times: “Travel to thin places… disorient[s you]. It confuses. We lose our bearings, and find new ones. Or not. Either way, we are jolted out of old ways of seeing the world… Thin places relax us, yes, but they also transform us — or, more accurately, unmask us. In thin places, we become our more essential selves.”

In Weiner’s mind, unmasking is a more accurate description of transformation. To me, they are two separate steps, but they belong together: you cannot have one without the other. Thin places remove the heavy clothing of everyday life. They take away everything we use to hide ourselves. In thin places, we are ultimately and essentially vulnerable. We can be caught naked. God can choose not to show up. We could spend thirty minutes in silence only to find that we’ve done nothing but stare at meaningless leaves. But without vulnerability, there is no transformation.

In thin places, we find our hearts stripped bare: every artifice is stripped away, and there is nowhere to hide. It’s a disorienting experience, as for a little while, we are no longer the ones in control. It’s like a dream, but we wake up new. There’s a magic at work.

The Kokosing Farewell, a song essential to Kenyon College lore, attributes the Kokosing with “some strange spell,” and it keeps shifting, and I remain its captive. The pages of my journal are filled with spells that worked only once: glimpses beyond what is seen that unmask me, disorient me, and when I wake up, something in me is new.

In my journal is a notecard, glued to one of the pages, its yellow shining on the thick journal paper. It is an apology note from a classmate. It had surprised me, because I didn’t know how much she cared. Above it in my journal, I penned the words, “That’s the great surprise, isn’t it? That it’s all a gift.”

In the thin places, I can see.

This post was originally published on February 14, 2018.

1 thought on “I Went Down to the River to Pray… And Wound Up Going Swimming

  1. Mike Farley

    What a glorious – using the word advisedly! – piece of writing. Thank you, Alex. So glad I found you on Twitter, and thence your blog! Hope you’re doing OK in these strange days…

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