Paths (part 35-kayaking)

One Friday afternoon I returned from working in Santa Rosa, and joined the others who were spending the week at a Christian Retreat Center in the woods south of Fort Bragg. It was a beautiful rustic campground with log cabins, outdoor fire-pits and other amenities situated beneath the redwoods. Among the activities available for our use were river kayaks. That evening I learned that we were all going to go kayaking the following morning in a nearby river. This sounded like a lot of fun although I was a little concerned because it was early spring and the river was still flowing fairly high and fast, it would be an unguided trip, and several of us had never been in a kayak before. I had taken kayaking lessons years earlier and knew how to roll, and the basics of navigating a river so I felt okay about the adventure for myself but still had a foreboding feeling about the event.

Apparently a conversation earlier in the day between S and MD had spawned our impending kayaking challenge. In this conversation S and J had both addressed our world with a certain prideful disdain and had underestimated the power of nature, and overestimated the ability of humans in relation to the cosmos. MD devised this event as a means of educating us all firsthand of the awesome power of water, even a river which appeared to be relatively small and seemingly innocuous. Perhaps we would gain a healthy respect for the power of nature and maybe learn a little humility as well, and hopefully not sink along the way.

The next morning, as we gathered the kayaks and other gear into our trailer the idea of sinking seemed much more likely to me. I had always used a fabric skirt that covered the cockpit and kept water out of the kayak, so when I learned we wouldn’t be using these I was surprised, but then I figured since most of us hadn’t used a kayak before, it would likely be safer without them, and easier to get out quickly if needed. Even so, I wondered about water getting into the boats and how that would work out. Each of us was also going to be wearing large rubber boots as we navigated in our kayaks. These boots certainly offered excellent protection against sharp rocks so I was glad of that, but I could only picture them filling with water and transforming into big rubber anchors in the event we fell out of our kayaks and into the river. These boots became my biggest concern and I determined not to fall out of my kayak no matter what.

The seven of us took off from shore with little difficulty and a lot of hilarity. Shrubs and trees hanging over the margins created thickets which managed to trap several of us right from the start. Getting untangled from the overgrowth became our first obstacle as the current pressed us deeper into the branches and spun our kayaks. I managed to avoid this hazard but was unable to work my way upstream again to offer any assistance to the others. Not long though, all of us had worked our way out and were traveling together at a nice clip downstream.

There is something thrilling about a river adventure: the wild, rushing water, the beautiful and varied nature one passes as they, in a sense, fly past it; the joyful, almost childlike enthusiasm that is drawn out of one as they rise and fall on the currents, and as the cold water splashes them in the face. It is simply exhilarating. We were having a great time and everyone was staying upright and afloat. I supposed I had overreacted earlier and had been too concerned as I had imagined dangers that perhaps weren’t there. The fact that the river was still swollen actually had the benefit that many of the boulders which could have threatened us were deeply submerged and posed less of a threat, and were one of us to capsize there was a smaller chance of hitting our head on one of these submerged obstacles.

About midway through our river adventure we began to hit more frequent and longer stretches of whitewater, which became more difficult to navigate, and required greater finesse, or greater brute strength to get through. Because of this, our group began to get stretched out and greater distance grew between us, leaving us to fight our way downstream in smaller groups or alone. It wasn’t long before we began to lose each other around bends, in eddies, or finally underwater. One by one the currents began to claim the members of our expedition; toppling us over, carrying us submerged, or pulling us over rock-strewn shallows. Occasionally I saw an unmanned kayak float past me, or one or two of my friends pulling themselves, bedraggled, up out of the water and casting themselves, half-drowned onto the dry rocks at the river’s edge. We began our journey that morning, like children, joyfully laughing and giddy with the excitement of the day’s coming surprises and were ending it that afternoon in a struggle for survival.

My day on the river ended with me launching over a large submerged boulder, taking some air, and losing control when I reentered the water further downstream. To my relief when I fell out of the kayak my rubber garden boots didn’t turn into two large anchors as they filled with water because the river was shallow enough that I was able to scramble across the bottom, out of the main flow and into a calmer area near the river’s edge.

In a sense this river trip was a microcosm of our years together in the community; it began in pure joy, coupled with an overwhelming sense of anticipation, adventure and hope, and as the journey continued it grew more and more difficult, so that one-by-one each of us found ourselves in a struggle for survival. By the grace of God no one was lost, or seriously injured. However, we were all taxed physically, emotionally and mentally.

As the evening approached we somehow managed to collect all of the kayaks and gear into our trailer, and all of the members of our group into our van, and drive back to the retreat center. By nightfall we were all back in our cabins and ready to sleep. It was a quintessentially MD kind of day; a complex and complicated mixture of delight, adventure, thrilling fun and laughter interwoven with struggle, danger, tension, difficulty and fear. In short it was just another day at the office, so to speak; the kind of day I had grown accustomed to, and one that yielded an abundance of food for thought, a bounty of personal growth, and copious material for either a good story, or a cautionary tale—or perhaps a little of both.

(to be continued)


May 16

Nor let us suppose that the outward fast from visible food will suffice to secure perfection of heart and purity of body, unless it have conjoined with it a fast of the soul as well. For the soul too has kinds of diet that do it harm, sated werewith–even without indulgence in material food–it can run down the steep places of licentiousness.

Slander is a food of the soul, and very sweet to its taste. And anger, too, though no mild one, feeding the soul for a moment with evil meat, and laying it low at the same time with its deadly savor. Envy is a food of the mind, corrupting it with poisonous juices, and ceasing not to torment it miserably with the thought of a neighbor’s happy success.

…vainglory can be its food, soothing it for a time with sweet meats, then leaving it empty, bereft of all virtues and bare, abandoning it barren of all spiritual fruits and void…all unruly desires and wanderings of an unquiet heart can be a kind of food for the soul which feeds it on poisoned meats, and then abandons it, never more to taste the Bread of Heaven or true nutriment.

~St John Cassian

May 15

We have to root out from the inner recesses of our souls the deadly poison of anger. For so long as anger remains in our hearts and blinds the eye of the mind with baleful darkness, we shall never be able either to acquire the judgment of prudence or the insight of right contemplation, or ripeness of counsel, nor can we participate in life, nor lay hold on justice, or even be able to receive spiritual and true light…we shall not, again, be able to share in wisdom, although we may appear to be held wise in all men’s estimation, for ‘anger rests in the bosom of a fool’ (Ecclesiastes 7:10)….

We have heard of some who attempt to excuse this most deadly disease of the soul…they say that anger does no harm if we are angry with erring brothers, alleging that God Himself is said to rage and be wrathful against those who refuse to know Him…not perceiving that, while they wish to allow to man the occasion of a deadly sin, they are introducing into the Divine immensity…the evil of a carnal passion…when we read of the anger or of the wrath of God, we must not understand [this] after the manner of our unworthy human passions, but in a sense worthy of God, Who is far removed from our unquiet passions.

~St John Cassian

May 14

No one, however fervent, however desirous, can have a will so disciplined, a course so ordered, that in spite of the flesh warring against the spirit he can still attain to so great a prize of perfection and to such a reward of sinless purity, unless he be protected by the divine mercy to enable him to have the merit to arrive at last at that which he so greatly desires and runs to reach. For ‘every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights (James 1:17). And, ‘what hast thou that thou didst not receive? But if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it?’ (1 Corinthians 4:7).

~St John Cassian

May 13

Our last contest is against the spirit of pride. Albeit it is the last disease we have to fight and the closing member of the list, yet in time and origin it is first of all. It is a beast most savage, and fiercer than all the others: its worst temptations attack the perfect, and it devours with its most deadly bite those who have all but reached the crown and sum of all virtues.

Of this disease there are two kinds: one, which attacks the spiritual and the most advanced, and another, that throws its toils over even beginners and the carnal minded. And, although either kind of pride is induced by an evil spirit of arrogance, as well towards God as towards man, yet the first kind has specially to to with God, and the second is more properly referred to our fellow men.

There is no other vice which in this sort renders all the virtues of none effect, and so strips a man of every kind of justice and holiness as this disease of pride….it corrupts the whole man….gluttony corrupts the integrity of temperance, lust defiles chastity, anger ravages the virtue of patience…but this vice, when it has got a hold on the unhappy mind of its victim, like some wild and raging tyrant captures the topmost citadel of the virtues, and brings them to dust, and utterly lays low the whole edifice….it permits henceforth no single sign of liberty to remain in the soul that it has subdued.

~St John Cassian


May 12

…St Isaac says, “Do not hate the sinner; we are all sinners and deserve condemnation. If you are moved for God’s sake, weep over him. Why should you hate him? Hate his sins and pray for him and you will resemble Christ Who was not angry with sinners but prayed for them. Do you not see how He wept over Jerusalem? But in many cases we become a laughingstock for the devil. Why should we hate those who are mocked like ourselves by the very devil who mocks us? Why, O man, do you hate the sinner? Because he is not so righteous as you are. But where is your righteousness when you have no love? And if you have love, why do you not weep for him instead of persecuting him? Some people, thinking that they have sound judgment in regard to the deeds of sinners, get angry with them; they act like this out of ignorance.”

Self-opinion, presumption, or conceit is a great calamity. Refusal of humility is a great calamity.

~Ignatius Brianchaninov

May 11

…let us avoid vainglory and love of notoriety as denial of the cross of Christ. Denial of Christ’s cross is at the same time denial of Christ; “Whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple,” said the Lord. Fallen men! We cannot know and confess Christ sincerely and practically except from our cross, having first learned and confessed our fall and the necessity of the way of the cross for the attainment of heaven and eternal beatitude. Let us avoid all occasions of vainglory and human glory, as the holy Fathers avoided them, so as not to lose interest in the teachings of Christ and become white-washed sepulchers–Christians in appearance, but in reality apostates.

~Ignatius Brianchaninov