It was already dark. We were out on an autumn evening, maybe seven or eight o’clock. I was maybe fourteen, and my church youth group was on a scavenger hunt, a few of us packed into a car to compete against another team from the church to get the most on the list. On the list of items to find, along with things like a french fry from McDonald's and an ad insert from the newspaper, was “a bottle of river water.” The youth leader stopped the car near the boat launch and said, handing me an empty bottle, “Jason, you go get it.” I stepped out of the car, unscrewed the cap, and walked down the concrete ramp--the whole time wishing I were somewhere else--to the river’s edge. I leaned over--as scared as I was when I first jumped off the high dive at the city pool--and dipped the empty soda bottle into the dark, cold water. When it seemed like enough water, more than a few drops but nowhere near a full bottle, I stood up, turned around, shook the cold water from my hand and made a brisk walk back to the car.
My hometown is on the Missouri River, not far from its end where it empties into the Mississippi River, north of St. Louis. If I remember my childhood history lessons correctly, it was how far early travelers could go on a day’s trip up the river. The Missouri River isn’t enormous, but it’s bigger than most rivers, and in my youthful mind it was only a small step down from an ocean. I never liked getting close to it. All of that dark water slowly marching past, I didn’t want anything to do with it. It was pretty enough from a distance, but I didn’t like getting too close. I didn’t like going over the bridge. I had no urge to get on a boat out into the river. There was too much wildness there, too much mystery, too much dark and murky natural power for me. I’d rather be on dry ground than anywhere near the slow march of that big dark river. That night with the empty bottle, leaning in to get a few ounces of it, was as scary as facing any monster for me.
I had a dream a few years ago. In my dream I was there by the river again, walking on a path that only exists in my dream world. It was late at night, and I along with some others walked along this path. Away from the activity of the town, we were near the river’s edge. The river was out there; I knew it, but I couldn’t see it. It was so dark I could only look out and see a black void. I looked out into the thick darkness and said with wonder, “How beautiful.”
What was scary as a young teen so long ago became beautiful in my middle-aged dream. The darkness, the murkiness, the mystery I peered into, not able to see a thing, was beautiful. I couldn’t even see the river, in the same way we can’t see the monster under the bed, but the darkness wasn’t scary but beautiful. We usually call beautiful the things we can see, but the vision of the dream was only darkness, only unknowing and mystery, but it was lovely.
I used to want to be able to nail everything down, to understand everything and have every duck in a neat row. A person starting off in life wants to check off all the boxes: things, relationships, careers, a solid scheme of sure beliefs, etc. The firm ground of a younger man’s life--wanting life to be something that’s solid and sure and unmysterious, in the dream it wasn’t a needed refuge anymore. Wanting life to be this and this only, without any mystery to it, without any unanswered questions, without any unknowing, wasn’t what I found to be beautiful. The mystery with only the knowledge there was a big dark river there, that was what was beautiful. Not knowing can be beautiful. Mystery can be beautiful. The darkness can be beautiful.
Along that dream path sits a boat, at the river’s edge. I haven’t seen it, but somehow I know it’s there. It’s tied to the shore with a loose knot. You can step into the boat and untie the rope. It’s dark, but you don’t need to be afraid.
"In drawing up its regulations, we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome." - Rule of St. Benedict