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Spiritual Reflections

A River Runs Through It

by Joyce Tompkins

Joyce Tompkins

Joyce Tompkins is the Religious Advisor to the Campus Protestant Community. Other Spiritual Reflections are available on the Religious Advisor's page.

You can write to Joyce at

A river runs through it. That is far from an original phrase, being the title of a well-loved novella by Norman McClean. But I cannot get the phrase out of my mind, and I cannot come up with a better one as I sit, mesmerized, watching the Hudson glint and sparkle and flow. I am looking through the window of my room at Holy Cross Monastery, where I am in silent retreat with a group of students. I have been here many times before. I have seen this river in every season, and in many moods. It is always the same river. Or is it?

I was first here in the early 1970's as a teenager with my high school youth group. I came back ten years later for a retreat just before my ordination to the priesthood. And for the past four years, I have been here during Lent on a silent retreat with Swarthmore College students. I gaze at the river and reflect over my life in the church, my life in this skin. What would that giggling teenager think of the woman looking out over the river today, forty years later? I watch the river and wonder. The river shines and glistens in reply.

The river is always changing, yet the same. I could watch it for hours. This morning, I have indeed been watching it for hours as I pray and reflect and then pick up my pen to write. The river changes and is yet the same.

It is much the same with the Christian life, of which this monastery is one very deep reflection. For 1500 years men and women have lived in communities like this one, praying and working according to the Rule of St. Benedict. The faces have changed: the fresh faces growing old, then vanishing, to be replaced by youth again. The language has evolved from Latin to English to inclusive language liturgy. There are African brothers now, and a woman bishop celebrates at the altar some Sundays at Eucharist. The dark wooden crucifix over the altar has been replaced by a lovely warm icon in hues of white and gold.

Yet so much is the same. The ancient, antiphonal chanting of the psalms reflects the deep current of the life of God even as it is shaped by new voices, different lips. My favorite icon, a sorrowful Mary, gazes at me with the same eyes that heard my adolescent prayers, and, just last year, my prayers for my dying mother. And deep down, I realize, there is something in me that is the same as well, in spite of all the changes the years have brought. I see my life stretching behind me and before, a rich landscape of fertile valleys and rough peaks and long stretches that appear barren. And always, always, a river runs through it.