Learning to Sail

By Rev. Elizabeth Rechter, Executive Director


If you had to choose an object today that described your spiritual life, what would it be?  This question, and our hearts response, help us find language for the great mystery of our life in God. As I ponder this question for my own life, the object I choose is a boat’s sail.  

I know the most wondrous moment on a sailboat: it is when the sails first find their wind. It happens when you have finished navigating by motor to get out into the open water. You put up the sails, turn off the motor, the wind finds the sail, and the boat responds. And now it is all sail-power. The noise and smell of the engine are gone. You feel part of the boat and the wind, as this vessel moves across the face of the deep.  

This experience is a teacher for my spiritual journey. With this knowing living in me, I find I am more likely to notice when I am navigating the world with only my motor, my own strength; when I feel it is all up to me and my efforts. Sometimes I forget about the Spirit’s part in my life. I forget about the partnership of Spirit. I forget that I am a vessel, and that this vessel has a sail.  

A term used for this kind of motor-only living is functional atheism. It is to believe in the power of God’s Spirit in my life, but to function as if I am on my own.

The journey is about surrendering to the mystery of God’s constant presence. And we are told from the beginning this wind has been forever blowing over the face of our depths, bringing forth life. 

So I carry my sail in my heart as a reminder. The sail with which I am most familiar, the one from my own boat, is thirty feet high, and at its base fifteen feet long! It is a reminder for me of how abundant and powerful this Spirit is.

Where can I go then from your Spirit? *
where can I flee from your presence?

If I climb up to heaven, you are there; *
if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.

If I take the wings of the morning *
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

Even there your hand will lead me *
and your right hand hold me fast.    

-- Psalm 139: 6-9

Still, I forget, and use my engine instead.  

I will never forget Fr. Michael Fish’s great humility as he shared a piece of his journey with those assembled the night before Stillpoint’s one day retreat last Spring. He confessed to us that every time he is scheduled to lead a retreat, a few days before, he is overcome by a dark countenance, a feeling that he has nothing to offer, nothing to say. 

We sat looking at him in disbelief, thinking to ourselves, “I know all about that! But you?!” He said it always happens, and yet it surprises each time. And in this place, he says his ego goes into high gear to fix it. It pushes him to his bookshelf in hopes of finding the fix there. It convinces him what he needs in order to be ready is more hours of work. This is what egos do. 

Then he remembers that he must wait for Spirit to come, and he begins instead to look expectantly for Her. When will She arrive? Sometimes the night before, sometimes as he speaks the first prayers or story of his retreat. He paused, and then he said,

"But She always comes. I have come to know that," he said. "She always comes."

But we forget. 

As I sit to write these words I wait for her to come. I listen and I surrender myself to the Source and Partnership of all wisdom. And I try to be compassionate to the part of me that forgets. 

It requires trust. It means having your sail up so the Spirit can fill her.

For me, meditation is a place I nurture this trust. Cynthia Bourgeault writes of Centering Prayer that we learn to let go of our thoughts in this meditation practice, “Not because thinking is bad, but because it pulls you back to the surface of yourself.”

I know engines are not bad, they just keep us at the surface of ourselves and on our own power. 

And it is here that companions are needed. We need those who help us remember, those who will listen with us to how it is with our vessel of the Holy Spirit. We benefit from any space and time that tends to the power of the Holy Spirit in which we live and move and have our being.

"Sister helps to trim the sail," the old spiritual goes, "Hallelujah!"

If you had to choose an object today that described your spiritual life what would it be?

Blessings for the Journey, 

Rev. Elizabeth I. Rechter  Executive Director, Stillpoint

Rev. Elizabeth I. Rechter
Executive Director, Stillpoint