Have you ever watched the Disney animated movie “Pocahontas”? It’s a delightful recounting of the famous historical legend involving Captain John Smith and the native Americans who helped him establish one of the first English settlements in America. In the movie, Pocahontas, the chief’s daughter, sings a song titled “Just Around the Riverbend.” It’s a profound picture of the challenge surrounding change and choices we face in life, using the river as a powerful symbol. Here’s the clip.
Most spiritual traditions see the river as a metaphor for spirituality. For example, the Judaeo-Christian scriptures (in Genesis) begin earth history in a Garden as the first product of God’s creative work. In the middle of the Garden is a river, flowing between two trees—the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The river flows from the Garden, watering it, and then as it leaves the Garden it divides into four branches that flow into the four points of the compass—a symbol of the river as a source of life and vitality for the whole world.
These same scriptures (in Revelation) end in a City—the City of God—at the heart of which is God’s throne. Flowing from that throne is a river whose water is the water of life, pure, clear as crystal. The river courses down the center of the main street. On each side of the river grows a tree of life, each bearing 12 crops of fruit, a fresh crop every month. And the leaves of those trees are used as medicine to heal the nations. There’s no splitting or dividing of the river this time because all of the world is now encompassed by the City of God, with the residents along the banks of this river enjoying constant access to its life-giving energy.
So in Scripture, these Rivers are powerful symbols of the divine life, the energy and power of God to nourish all of life. And in-between these beginning and ending stories, every time rivers are mentioned, there is always spiritual significance. Rivers have great meaning for spirituality, growth, health and vitality.
THE JOURNEY OF THE RIVER
So as we think about the spiritual metaphor of rivers, let’s first notice the complete journey of a river. It begins as a spring of water high up in the mountains. In all kinds of mythologies, legends, and religious stories mountains symbolize the higher realms of consciousness. They are the home of Gods and Wisdom, between the realms of Heaven and Earth.
For example, in the Bible, there ‘s a Hebrew poem (Psalm 121) which begins, “I will lift up my eyes to the mountains; does my help come from there? My help comes from the LORD who made heaven and earth.” The poet, echoing the religious traditions of his contemporary cultures, recognizes the sacred nature of the mountaintop, the home of the gods. But unlike his religious competitors, he sees his God, Yahweh, ruling the mountaintops—Yahweh, Creator of heaven and earth.
The highest mountain in the Holy Land is Mt. Hermon, about 9200 ft. All of the region’s religions viewed Mt. Hermon as a sacred mountain. Because of its height it captures a great deal of precipitation in a very dry area of the world. Mount Hermon has seasonal winter and spring snow falls which cover all three of its peaks for most of the year. Melt water from the snow-covered western and southern slopes seeps into the rock channels and pores, feeding springs at the base of the mountain, which form streams and rivers. These merge to become the Jordan River, in which many sacred activities took place.
Mount Hermon is most likely the site of the Transfiguration, where Jesus, according to the New Testament, took three of his disciples, Peter, James, and John, up on a high mountain for prayer during which he became radiantly white with divine glory and was spoken to by God and conversed with Moses and Elijah who had appeared beside him.
So mountaintops have been seen as sacred places, the home of the gods. And rivers find their source in those places. This high mountain spring of water is water which has been filtered and cleansed by way of a multi-year (and perhaps, multi-century) journey through the womb of Mother Earth. When this water finally emerges from Mother Earth it is Sacred, Pure and Life-Giving (as the many spiritual traditions believe).
After leaving its mountain spring, these waters join with other waters from other mountain springs to eventually form a river. A river does not flow in a straight line, it has many twists and turns. There are periods when the river experiences turbulent, chaotic and disturbing times (rapids); there are periods when it experiences twists, turns and pauses; and then there are periods when the river flows peacefully, smoothly and calmly; there are sections where the river expands into lakes with an inlet and an outlet and then passes on. Significantly enough, the twists and turns are Nature’s way of keeping her life-giving waters healthy: they create the eddies that aerate the water which is so vital to the nourishment and preservation of all the people, animals and vegetation which rely on the river for sustenance.
Think of all the diverse kinds of eco-systems that flourish along the miles and miles of River banks: water fowl, birds, fish, animals, trees, plants, flowers, human beings in cities and villages. Almost every life form imaginable. And with the ebb and flow of the river goes the ebb and flow of these lives.
Once the river has completed all of the twists and turns of its long journey it finally empties into the sea. The point at which the river enters the sea is called it’s delta. The delta is a triangular area which forms at the mouth of the river. The word delta is derived from a Greek symbol, also in the shape of a triangle, which means “Change.” Upon passing through its delta the river “changes.” Its individuality comes to an end as it merges with all of the other rivers which have also ended their long journeys, to become part of the one great sea.
With such a rich and diverse path, is it any wonder that the river has become a deep metaphor for the spiritual life. In my next post, I’ll suggest four secrets the river whispers to us about what it means to experience a healthy spirituality. Stay tuned.