In just four weeks I’ll be on my way to the Jerusalem Half Marathon.
I thought this would be the perfect time to share an essay I wrote back in August 2007 called “I’ve Got Peace Like a River.” I was one month into training for my first marathon—the New York City Marathon—and at the end of a religion reporting fellowship. I’d spent the previous eight months immersing myself in the world of belief, traveling to India and across the U.S. to uncover stories of faith.
Near the end of the fellowship, my colleagues and I went on retreat at an Anglican monastery that observes complete silence for 12 hours every day, from 8:30 p.m. to 8:30 a.m. It was a unique experience to play Scrabble in silence and eat breakfast at communal tables in quietude.
But it gave me a chance for reflection; I think that was the point. In the stillness, I found that running, rowing, and swimming—the exercise of my life—have been the conduits of my own spirituality.
I’ve Got Peace Like a River
Floating. The sun stares down, turning the inside of my eyelids red. The water feels warm, but a cold current tickles my fingers, rolling over them in tiny waves. My arms above my head, my toes pointed, I stretch as long as I can, tensing all my muscles, then relaxing. Little splashes of water wash over my face as the wake of a boat crosses the river toward me.
I float downstream. I am all alone. Just me and my river.
The Hudson runs past my home in Manhattan. But here, at the Holy Cross Monastery in upstate New York, it’s a retreat. A retreat from my work-a-day world into the inner sanctum of my own being.
As a child in Chicago, swimming was my life. I spent nearly every day in the water. I’d have a lot of time to think while clocking laps. Sometimes I’d sing songs in my head, sometimes I’d think about my technique. But most of the time, I’d just let my mind wander. At the end of my cool down, I’d quiet my breath as much as I could and just float. I’d take off my cap and let my long hair drift around my face like a mermaid, using only the slightest motion to keep me afloat. That’s when I’d do my best thinking.
In college, I switched to crew. Most of my friends thought I was crazy for waking up at 5 a.m. on cold New England mornings to row a boat. But for me, it was like going to church. I’d get into the rhythm of the stroke, listening to the tick and swoosh of the oars moving in and through and out of the water, and once again my mind would wander. It’s a motion so monotonous, like swimming, that it has the same effect as reciting a mantra. And once more I’d be alone in my head. After a time, the sun would rise. Then the river came alive. The amber sun washed the autumnal trees in a filtered haze. The gold and titian hues reflected on the river, sparkling and bright. When we’d pause, I’d stick my hand in the water and watch it turn the same color as the sky. That was my church. My sanctuary.
Now, as a runner—slow and steady as I go—I’m once again alone with my thoughts. The monotony of running, of marathon training, is perfectly conducive to meditation. Call it meditation in motion.
After a long jog in the July sun, the Hudson River calls to me. Down a steep, wooded path from the brick monastery on the hill above, a slate stone beach waits for me through a little clearing. A friend and colleague sits reading a book, after going for a swim herself.
I kick my sneakers aside, throw off my shirt and wade into the water in my shorts and sports bra. At home in the city, I neither have a pool nor belong to a gym that has a pool. So my swimming days are numbered—but I take every opportunity I get. I swam in the freezing cold, pigeon infested water of a hotel pool in New Delhi, India. I splashed around the penthouse pool at my hotel in Seattle while reporting a story. And here, at the monastery, the Hudson River beckons.
After a brief respite dangling from a tire swing on the riverfront, I go for another swim. My colleague joins me and we have a notion to attempt a swim to the other side. We nearly reach the halfway point when we realize the current has picked up, and the river is swiftly carrying us downstream. So we turn back to the shore. It is a long and slow trudge, but we laugh at our foolishness most of the way. The river, of course, has a mind of its own.
The next morning, I return for a farewell dip. The water and the air are colder, but calmer. And just as welcoming. I float again, this time barely moving downstream, and say goodbye to my river.
It reminds me of my childhood, when I’d run loose in the neighborhood until my mother rang the bell—a curiously loud, clanging hand bell—to call me home. Most of the time I was somewhere around the duck pond behind my house. The bell meant time to eat, time to sleep, time to go.
Floating down the mighty Hudson, I could hear the bells of the monastery calling the monks to prayer. Time to go, they said.
But I couldn’t imagine removing myself from this spot to sit in an austere church. More than any building built by the hands of men, this river is sacred. If you believe the Book of Genesis, it was built by the hands of God. What better place could there possibly be to pray, to meditate, or lose oneself completely? Afterall, in my days as a pool rat, I used to wear a pin that read “And on the 8th day, God created the Swimmer.”
As a religion major in college, and now as a religion reporter, I dove into the world of temples, mosques, churches and meeting halls. Through our travels from India to the shores of the Hudson, so many of the places we’ve been have had an aura, a certain something that makes them feel holy. The Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, where Sikh pilgrims fed me rice and hot tea after a pre-dawn ceremony in the cold north Indian rain. The Sacred Heart Cathedral in New Delhi, where I lit a series of candles in honor of my family. At the Bruderhof in upstate New York, where community members sing songs of praise in a circle on a lush green common.
So many of these places, and the religious communities in them, have been warm and welcoming. I have been to mosques, synagogues, temples, and churches; I’ve met Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, Baha’ists, Zoroastrians, Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Protestants and more. I have been moved and honored, flabbergasted and awed, tickled and amused, heartbroken and humbled.
But floating down that river, with the submerged sound of water in my ears, was, for me, the closest thing nearest to God. Maybe I’m a mystic. Maybe I’m a transcendentalist. Maybe I’m a heathen. But as Popeye once so wisely said, “I yam what I yam…”
Om, shanti, shanti, shanti.