Praying, Praising on the River

A reflection by Bishop Nicholas Knisely

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that I feel God’s presence most strongly when I’m outside and not, like most people would expect, when I’m in a church building. Don’t get me wrong. I often feel and know God is near in consecrated worship spaces – and particularly during the liturgies. But I feel that even more so, and more reliably, when I’m outside. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that I’ve spent my life as a student of the natural creation as well as of theology. Both are places where I seek God.

It was because of this dual aspect that I was initially so excited by the prospect of bringing the experience of the Connecticut River Pilgrimage to Rhode Island. My experience of last summer, paddling down the Connecticut to the sea, camping along the banks and being part of an intentional community, touched both aspects of my own spirituality. By the end, on the last day, paddling silently through the sunlit salt marshes of Griswold Point, listening to the chorus of nature and hearing the thunder of breakers crashing along the shore, I felt as close to the Kingdom of God as I had in years. At the end of the day I approached the leaders of that trip and asked if they would work with me to recreate a more compact version of the experience for Rhode Islanders.

Thus was born the two Wood-Pawcatuck River Pilgrimages that we held this summer.

While both trips followed the same course, they turned out to be different experiences, each fulfilling in its own way. The first was a smaller, more intimate experience of the southwest Rhode Island watershed. There were just seven of us on the trip. We paddled in pouring rain and beautiful sunny skies. We camped in the cold and gave thanks for warm hospitality. We saw eagles, turtles, alewives and a river returning to its natural beauty while still carrying the marks of the way we used it for industry over the centuries. We were an older group, all experienced paddlers and all active in church.

The second trip had 15 people in total and a couple more paddling with us on the last day on the little Narragansett Bay. Although there were a few older people like me on this journey, the majority were under the age of 30 – and we have a much more varied level of experience in camping and paddling. Pilgrims learn to expect nothing in advance and to be grateful for the gifts of the journey. This trip gave us things we didn’t expect and invited us to create a new form of community across age and experience that none of the other trips I had been a part of had done in quite the same way. We also saw how we as humans are altering the rivers to suit our particular needs as we watched one of the key portages of the paddle (at Alton Dam) being permanently closed off to paddlers and fisherman for reasons no one could really explain to us.

My greatest gift in the two Rhode Island journeys was to witness how quickly and profoundly a group of pilgrims becomes a community, and how quickly its members learn to care for one another. Even in a short three-day experience, we become something unanticipated as we journey, pray and open ourselves to the work of the Holy Spirit. I think the experience is as close as I can imagine I’ll get to the experience of living as part of a religious community committed to going deeper into relationship with each other as a way of drawing closer to the presence of God.

I plan to keep organizing these sorts of experiences. I’m hoping they will plant seeds in people for whom the traditional church experience isn’t working. I dream that they will have a chance to experience in this alternative way something of what most of us experience on a weekly basis in the life of the gathered community of the congregation we attend. Perhaps some people will connect with a congregation after their pilgrimage experience. Perhaps for some being a pilgrim will be enough. Either way, though, people will have a chance to know God’s presence in a new way, a way made by paddling through the wilderness and towns, praying and praising as we go.