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River Vow: Keys to Aging and Joy

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SKAGWAY ALASKA
Ronnie Wiggin via Getty Images

The summer I turned 65, I vowed to sit by the river that runs behind my house in search of transcendent joy every day until God answered my call. I chronicled my journey and my progress towards a deeper understanding of both aging and the true nature of joy, in River Diary: My Summer of Grace, Solitude and 35 Geese.

What I wanted was no less than to embody the words of this wonderful prayer by John O'Donohue: To "come alive today to the invisible geography that invites me to new frontiers, to break the dead shell of yesterdays, to risk being disturbed and changed. May I have the courage today to live the life that I would love, to postpone my dream no longer. But do at last what I came here for and waste my heart on fear no more."

Accompanying me on my pilgrimage were the readings of mystics, saints and wise elders from a variety of spiritual and religious traditions, including Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, May Sarton, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and many more. But it was the river, itself, that proved to be my greatest teacher.

I embarked upon my summer's quest hoping for -- and experiencing -- miracles and visions. I wasn't disappointed. On Day One, I encountered hidden fountains in the depths of the river, portals to enchanted landscapes. Another day, 35 geese descended, circling before me in loving salute. But these ecstatic encounters, as it turned out, were but an all too brief respite from the challenges of everyday life at 65, with all that entails.

Happily, over the course of the summer, by simply sitting by the river day after day, I learned that the experience for which I yearned would not come out of the quest for mastery of my circumstances, nor displays of strength, either in the material or spiritual realm. I stopped trying to make miraculous things happen, and began telling the truth about who I am at this moment of my life, embracing both my own and life's limitations.

There was a grace, a simplicity, to the river's ever-changing ripples, waves and current that shows us not only why, but how to let go of the past and embrace change. What the river does so well is accommodate. It accommodates the gentle breeze and the cutting prow of the barge equally. It does not judge. It lets.

In the on-going release of the status quo, it is ironic that the losses that come about
with advancing age -- that which so many of us resist -- can turn out to be the very means of deliverance. As John C. Robinson writes in The Three Secrets of Aging: Seeking Enlightenment in the New Aging:

As we move into old age, our familiar identity loses its importance. It is fading or long gone... Exploring this experience, we discover, as the mystics before us, that consciousness is not 'mine' but rather part of the vast and all-inclusive consciousness we call Divinity pervading the cosmos. When we experience consciousness directly, free of thought, we are literally experiencing Divinity, and a door to eternity opens in the human psyche.

Writer Evelyn Underhill notes that the culminating experience for which I yearned does not occur despite the challenges we face, but because of them. Transcendent joy is something that comes about in all our imperfection and restlessness: in "the groaning and travailing of creation" we can perceive Life's urge to transcend the mundane to allow higher meaning and purpose to break through.

As I write this close to a year after summer's end, I am reluctant to place any judgment at all on the subtle heartbeat of my life on the river which has proven to be no less both a culmination and a beginning. But I have achieved my goal -- the initiation of a new phase that, paraphrasing Aldous Huxley, has shaken me out of the ruts of ordinary perception to view the world, my priorities and my life with fresh eyes.

Honestly, this is at once too subtle for my taste, but more grace than I could have ever hoped to experience. I thank God for my summer of grace, solitude and 35 geese, and for every day to come.