On the Saturday afternoon of my long weekend at the monastery, NurseFriend and I grabbed water bottles and headed for the trail that leads down to the river. We had perfect weather for a walk: cool and sunny. The leaves on the trees were just starting to turn yellow, some edged with gold and orange. A gorgeous fall day.
The first part of the trail is steep, dropping about 800 feet in less than half a mile. We hiked down through a hardwood forest into a valley created by glaciers, a gorge older than ourselves, older than the monastery, older than Christianity. I love the services at the monastery - the incense, the chanting, the music of the harp, the row of monks in their dark robes - but my spiritual life needs this kind of prayer too, a descent into a landscape that can make me feel small and humble.
At the bottom of the trail, we walked from the cool shade of the woods onto piles of flat rocks, a river bank in the sun. The monastery river is a quiet, sleepy river with a gentle current that moves a leaf slowly down stream. Parts were so calm that I could see the reflection of the sky, the trees. Using my fleece as a pillow, I curled up in the sun, nestled onto warm rocks, and took a nap. I couldn't help but think of the two weeks I spent this summer on the Colorado River, listening to the river day and night, living on its banks. Few things in life are more relaxing than napping on a river bank in the sun of a fall day.
When shade from the woods moved across me, I woke up and moved over to the sunny spot where NurseFriend was sitting with her feet in the water. "I'm thinking of taking a swim," she said.
The cool green water was tempting. I find a river hard to resist. Quickly, I kicked off my shoes, then pulled off my pants, my shirt, my underwear. NurseFriend hesitated for just a moment and then started taking her clothes off too.
The water was cool at first, but once my whole body was in, it felt wonderful. After the icy, churning Colorado River and the deep cold Saint Lawrence River, it felt soothing to surrender my body to this sleepy sun-warmed river that pulled me along with only the gentlest of motions. We swum to the middle, and let the current pull our floating bodies along. I tried to keep my limbs stretched out in the warm top layer of water. We talked as we floated along lazily, swimming upstream once in a while, keeping even with the pile of clothes on the river bank.
NurseFriend joked about how she was going to react if a monk or one of the monastery guests suddenly appeared on the path. I argued that what we were doing was a spiritual practice: stripping off layers, all the petty annoyances and obsessions, the temptations and jealousies, the zippers that get stuck, the buttons that cause me to fumble. I like myself best naked -- the river touching my bare skin, warm water soothing sore spots, the landscape of shale and trees rising about me, my limbs drifting across the reflection of sky.