Finding Faith at the End of the Line

River_web

It was a Sunday morning on a crisp spring day in 1995, and I was standing waist-deep in the cold currents a river in southwestern Virginia. How I got there is the thing.

At the time, I was on cusp of major life transitions. At 25, I had just completed my masters degree in English and was in the midst of determining whether to pursue a Ph.D. As I was deciding whether to turn left or right at the fork in the road, I was rammed from behind. I learned my girlfriend had cheated on me. Not once, but for months.

As the shock gave way, the pain set in like realizing you’ve broken your arm several minutes after a violent collision. The next morning, the muscles in my face hurt from continuous crying. During the first few weeks, I felt paralyzed while waves of questions and doubt pounded me. I could focus only on the small and immediate: do the laundry, wash the dishes, buy milk, take the dog for a walk. Other questions stomped around in my head and demanded attention. Why wasn’t I enough? Why couldn’t she have just ended it? Why? But I could only look away and sweep the kitchen floor. Just do what’s next on the list.

In retrospect, the signs of infidelity seemed so obvious—the phone calls not returned, the excuses for not being available, the downcast eyes of her friends. I felt the fool and increasingly withdrew from the world fearing everyone else saw it, too.  

It took months before I allowed a friend to drag me out. It was one of those awkward evenings in an apartment with several couples drinking and making small talk. I ended up in a conversation with a guy who was going fly fishing the next day. After a few beers and some nudging, this fly fisherman agreed to take my friend and I with him.

On the river the next morning, our guide showed us the lifecycle of a trout’s diet. He talked through the mechanics of casting and showed us its art. He showed us how to read the water’s currents and where to look for trout feeding.  We spent hours fishing along the wide and beautiful river, but I was the one who was hooked.

On that Sunday morning in 1995, I found myself back on the water alone. I had retraced the route of our guide the previous day. I walked along the train tracks that followed the river and ambled down the footpath that led down to the water. I pulled line from my reel and began working my way up the river. My novice casting was as clumsy as my footing on the slick moss-covered rocks lining the riverbed.

Soon, I noticed a subtle dimple on the water that revealed the position of a trout feeding just ahead. I slowly positioned myself within casting range and worked my line back and forth above the water until it reached its target. The fly landed softly about six feet above the memory of the rippled surface and started its descent downstream. The noise of the broken water could barely be heard above the sound of the current, and a small bubble appeared where the fly once rested. I raised the rod and felt the heft of a connection on the other end. I watched the tip of the rod bouncing up and down.

As I held the fly line in my hand, I felt the tug and shake of life calling me back. It took a fish on the other end of my line to make me feel alive. I felt connected to the outside world again. It was a tangible relationship with another, albeit with a fish. But it was a start.

I pulled the 10-inch brown trout up to me and marveled at its beautiful bronze and gold body with orange spots. The sun had begun to peek over the trees and between the hills on either side of the river. I watched the trout slip easily from my hand and back into the mystery of the river knowing I would be back. I would be back again soon.

In the fly rod I found an instrument, and like a musician, I would spend countless hours that summer practicing my craft, exploring new beats, and harmonizing with the rhythm of old rivers.

Entering the water, casting a fly poised on the surface of the river, and waiting for a fish to rise became my ritual. To tempt a fish to rise from beneath the water is to tempt the mystery of all things to the surface of consciousness. For a moment, I could satisfy the questions continually cast out onto the currents.

Fly fishing requires a little knowledge, lots of practice, and faith that a fish will rise. It is a discipline of seeking and, on occasion, connecting with the wild and unpredictable. Fly fishing coaxed me out into the open to seek such connections both on and off the water.

It wasn’t answers I found on the river but a renewed strength to rely upon the mystery beneath the surface of what I could not see and what I could not control. It was a faith forged not from the pulpit or from a holy book but from working my way upstream. I didn’t find answers, but I did find new life calling me back. The anticipation of the next cast and the promise of a tight line.

Paul Grantham

Paul Grantham lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with his wife, Christine, and their two wondrously unique and beautiful daughters. His day job includes working in communications for a large private university. On the side, he dabbles in the exploration of the mystery of faith. Paul manages a blog called the Word of Life Project, which seeks to share personal stories that define our lives and form our faith.

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  • “Fly fishing requires a little knowledge, lots of practice, and faith that a fish will rise.” – THIS to me is where I am in life. I have the knowledge after 20 years of faith, need to press into the practice and the faith part. It takes all three in life, like in fishing. You gave such beautiful analogies of faith. I can say I have never been fly fishing but have always thought it looked like it would lend itself to peace and I can absolutely see how you would find God there. Thank you for lending your words to this place today.

    • Nicole, I feel the same. The practice and faith parts are the most difficult; it’s certainly where I continually struggle the most. Knowledge seems to be the area where I feel more in control, until life intercedes to remind me i’m not. I’m still a work-in-progress, and God keeps giving me opportunities to try again.

  • Joanne Peterson

    Sometimes we need the isolation to lick our wounds, and then re-emerge to live once again with some coaxing. I am in the re-emerging stage right now after some life altering situations. I am ready, hopeful and in expectation. Jesus is so sweet to keep pursuing to bring us back to the land of the living when the time is right. You have a beautiful word picture of this process.

    • Joanne, so true. Your comment reminds me of an interview I recently heard about how we are made in the image of God and how we use various methods – from writing, art and even flyfishing – to “re-create” ourselves after a trauma and emerge with a new identity. The paths are many, but the process is similar. I hope you find peace and strength through your journey.

  • Jo-Ann Sassone

    This piece perfectly captures the feelings of being adrift that often follows a betrayal. It takes time and a lot of self-care to get our feet under us again. I love how God touches us in unexpected ways. “To tempt a fish to rise from beneath the water is to tempt the mystery of all things to the surface of consciousness” is just beautiful and so true. Thank you for writing about how faithful God is when we stay open and receptive.

    • Thanks, Jo-Ann. It is interesting how God finds us in the most peculiar places … in the middle of a river or the middle of our commute. Betrayal in big and little ways is such a common experience for so many of us. I wish it wasn’t so, but I’m also grateful (not exactly the right word, but I don’t have one) for what I learned and the faith that grew through the experience.

  • I really love the analogies you used from the fly fishing experiences. “It wasn’t answers I found on the river but a renewed strength to rely upon the mystery beneath the surface of what I could not see and what I could not control.” There is a lot of truth here. There is so much we can’t see or control. We can choose to fall apart and worry or we can choose to trust and move forward gaining strength as we go. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts in such a creative way. Blessings!

    • Gayl, I think you touch on the core of experiences such as this with the word “trust.” It’s a delicate and sacred thing and so susceptible to injury in our relationships with others. And I agree with you that it is a choice, and by making that choice we open ourselves up to learn and grow from those experiences. If only it wasn’t so damn difficult to wade through them to get to the other side.

      • I know what you mean. Sometimes we wish we could just stay on the bank and not get our feet wet. It can be a very hard choice to make, esp. when we make ourselves vulnerable by trusting others. I do know that God can be trusted. My faith in God is what has gotten me through many difficult circumstances and is helping me in a difficult one even now. Thanks again for your encouraging words.

  • Paul, I love that there is such stillness in this piece. Thank you for teaching us all the lessons of the river.

    • I’m just glad that I had you for an editor through this process. You were patient, insightful and constructive in helping me tell this story more compellingly. Let’s just agree not to talk about the multiple drafts. These words … they are just so difficult to shape to our will sometimes.

      • There’s a reason Anne Lamott calls them “shitty first drafts.” 🙂 (By the way yours wasn’t shitty). It’s like a sculptor getting further down to the essence of what he’s trying to pull out of stone and most of the time, we need more eyes than our own. I hear you on words’ unwieldiness. Happy to work with you Paul.

        • Love Lamott’s SFD approach. So much less pressure to get something down on paper first, and then begin to work with it. The hardest part for most writers is to get beyond the ego to see that it wasn’t the inspired word of God in its first iteration. Having an objective outside perspective is invaluable.

  • pastordt

    This is lovely in every possible way. Thank you so much.

  • Not answers but renewed strength! My soul soaked this one right up. A great piece Paul!

    • Thanks, Traci. “Soaked up” – great choice of words given the context for the piece.

  • Beautiful writing and great message!