It had already been a long day.
But it was getting even longer.
As famed wilderness writer/explorer, Sigurd Olson, recalled, the scene was vivid. He and a small group of bone-tired canoers raced a relentlessly setting sun to find themselves short of the hopelessly out-of-reach landfall. As wave upon wave of unforgiving river buffeted their canoes, the inhospitable craggy shoreline taunted them. No shelter here, it seemed to say. Finally, as the river gave way to turbulent rapids, the beaten-up-canoes pulled aside and were forced to make evening camp. As a fire was lit and the tents were pitched, here is what happened,
After the meal, which was one of those rare affairs when everything happens to be just right, one by one, under the additional influence of good tobacco and dry moccasins, we began to notice what a truly marvelous spot we had stumbled into. The rapids tumbled down through a rocky gorge into a broad, placid pool below our camp. Tall spruces lined the shore, and where the rock was too steeply sloping for trees to secure a foothold it was covered by a carpet of varicolored mosses and lichen.Gone was the weariness, gone the memories of portaging and miles of paddling; nothing was left but a feeling of lazy contentment. We all sat smoking and drinking it in for what seemed like a long while. Finally Bill, who had cussed at the camp site more than anyone else, broke the silence. He had been sitting on a rock overlooking the river, watching the long streaks of foam float down from the rapids. When he spoke, it was from the bottom of his heart.“Boys,” he said slowly and with conviction, “this is one of the most beautiful places we have ever been in.”We all silently agreed with him, for it was as nearly perfect as anything could be.
How often has this been me?
Struggling, muttering, cussing at my plight – cursing my inconveniences – only to realize that, like a bolt out of the blue, I found myself in “one of the most beautiful places I had ever been in.” These are sacramental moments. These are the “thin places” that bring us closer to God. Now to be honest, if I had my way, I would craft easy paths to these moments of Grace. My canoe ride would have the wind at my back, a poem lilting through my mind and a smile on every face…but my easy paddle would also have bypassed this accidental treasure, landed at my chosen destination and sleepily, contentedly considered myself fortunate. Surely, my path would have been just fine. But it wouldn’t be glorious. Nor would it be a Grace.
Grace is appreciated by those who most feel they are undeserving. Mercy is best received by those who bitterly know suffering. Peter became The Rock only after emerging from his dark night of betrayal. Mary Magdalene grew into a most fervent disciple only after feeling her grave sins melt away. The Transfiguration was witnessed only after a rugged mountain climb. The Resurrection was embraced only after the Passion was endured. To experience true Grace, we often need to be humbled – to be knocked on our keister and rattled a bit, to be weary of our paddle – so as to be open to what God has in store for us. As creatures averse to pain and reform, we cobble together knock-off, imitation graces. Through faith and trial, God ushers us to the real thing.
Flannery O’Connor once noted,
I know what torment this is, but I can only see it, in myself anyway, as the process by which faith is deepened. A faith that just accepts is a child’s faith and all right for children, but eventually you have to grow religiously as every other way, though some never do. What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe. If you feel you can’t believe, you must at least do this: keep an open mind. Keep it open toward faith, keep wanting it, keep asking for it, and leave the rest to God…All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.
Sometimes, without that hard paddle, that gnawing hunger, that uncertainty that we will reach our planned destination and that fear of the unexplored alternative – without all of this, our souls may not be primed to receive the Grace that awaits us. Our dogged plans may blind us from seeing “one of the most beautiful places we could ever be.”
After years of guiding people on canoe trips through Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA), Sigurd Olson observed that what matters even more than what happens to us, is how we react to it…how receptive we are to Graces that await us.
Under ideal conditions, I have seen tourists entranced at the beauty of a heavily timbered rock point jutting out into a wilderness lake. Again, I have seen them curse roundly at the same point and at the waves breaking over it. A man’s point of view determines whether or not waves are “white-capped billows rolling in the sun” or just so much damned water to be paddled through.
Today, let us paddle a bit harder though our muscles burn. Let us pacify our hunger with thoughts of the meal soon to come. And let us dream, just a little, that our dogged, tired (even uncertain) efforts will – gracefully – lead us to the most beautiful place we could ever be.
Photo credit: Pixabay