Esther and a Rising River

How do you find a still point in the river? If you’re in the right spot you may see a stone or two jutting out of the water, cutting a path in the water’s flow, but if the water is running high even these stones may be covered.

Last week I went to Cummins Falls in Tennessee. It’s listed as one of the top swimming holes in the country. I hiked two miles to the base of the falls to join several hundred people for a refreshing swim. As I waded into the cool waters edging closer to the base of the falls some of the people around me were splashing and others were simply admiring the beauty of the scene. A small group of women in front of me were ducking in and out of the lowest part of the falls, disappearing behind the cascade. Of course I had to investigate. I swam over so the force of water was inches from my face, held my breath and ducked in.

When I opened my eyes I was underneath the falls protected by a long ledge covered in green moss and tiny ferns, perhaps 20 feet long, 4 feet deep, and 3 feet above the water line. From behind the water I could barely make out the women who had just left the space, who were only a few feet from me, otherwise I was completely alone with the sound of water crashing around me.

The scene was beautiful except I couldn’t catch my breath, my heart was racing and my breath was shallow. I couldn’t hear anything really. I tried to notice the moss and the ferns but after only a few minutes I had to leave ducking back through the cascade into the full light. Finally slowing my breath and heartbeat again.

The designers of Japanese Zen rock gardens knew what I had experienced under the falls, that nearness to flowing water has incredible impacts on the human body and mind.  They knew that having a still mind is easier when your environment is also still. When you try to meditate next to crashing waves, or roaring falls the stillness comes not from within but from the roar of water. In Zen Buddhism a goal of meditation is to still the mind in all situations, to quiet or make friends with the monkey mind. Next to these sand pools the student can practice this stillness in anticipation of crashing waves. These gardens are a place to practice this befriending and stillness.

Just two days before the visit to the falls I reheard the story of Esther, a Biblical heroine everyone should know, who was caught in a rapidly rising river where her still points were disappearing. An orphan cared for by her uncle,  Mordecai, who was taken from her Jewish community as a prize for the king and made queen because of her beauty. She was quickly confronted with news of impending genocide for her community. At first, it seems from the text, that having hidden her Jewishness from the king, she would escape death but her uncle quickly reminded her that no distance could protect her. Her uncle pleaded with her to approach the king and reverse the edict meant to eradicate the entire Jewish community.

Faced with death for approaching the king without invitation, Esther was staring at rapids rising over the riverbanks. She did what she had been taught:

Esther 4:15 Then Esther sent this reply to Mordecai: 16 “Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.”17 So Mordecai went away and carried out all of Esther’s instructions.

She did what she hoped would bring her inner stillness and guidance. Many prophets retreat for prayer in times of turmoil. She was seeking a still point, a quiet that would allow the voice of God to be heard. The small voice in the roaring. From this stillness and from her love, she found the strength, courage and wisdom to know how to navigate and negotiate her identities as a woman, a queen, and a religious minority. She did not back away or ignore her communities cries. She gathered her attendants and confidants in the royal court around her to find stillness, to find God’s voice.

This is just one small point that emerged from Esther’s story for me this week. I am learning from these stories and teachers how to find stillness, to find connection while finding courage and wisdom to act in just and courageous ways. Part of this practice is surrounding myself with a community willing to seek courage and love and act together. People who feel and know the urgency of action. People who feel transformative love coursing through their veins erasing fear of the unknown, without erasing the weight of the moment. We know death waits for all of us, how we chose to act in the face of deathly moments shapes our stories.