Pilgrimage: Endings & New Beginnings

The 40 day River of Life Pilgrimage concluded yesterday at Long Island Sound. Pilgrims paddled from the headwaters of the Connecticut River to the ocean – from the Source to the Sea. Led by Mark & Lisa, guides on the water and in prayer, people of all walks of life, ages, and religious affiliation joined a journey of prayer and transformation. As Mark & Lisa write in the concluding pages of the River of Life booklet:

“Our many thoughts, petitions, meditations, hopes, and intentions have woven together into a great river of prayer, flowing forth into the ocean of Divine love. Along the way, we’ve reconnected our individual lives to the great River of Life.

As we walk, as we paddle, as we listen and trust, we learn to see the presence of the Living Christ in our midst. And do our hearts not burn within us as he opens our souls to the mystery of his presence in all things?”

Where on the river did we encounter that mystery of presence? Where do we encounter it in the course of our daily lives? What will we carry with us from the river?

Below are reflections, observations, and photographs from the final days of the pilgrimage, exploring these questions.


Canon Heidi Shott of the Episcopal Diocese of Maine joined for a three-day segment, beginning in White River Junction. The pilgrimage prompted her to reflect on what it means to pray with our eyes open:



“Two elements of this pilgrimage were to pray and to paddle, and, at first, they seemed to be mutually exclusive. But since it’s impossible to paddle with our eyes closed, we were required to pray with our eyes wide open. We had to watch for rocks, the ripples that indicate fast water, and the boats of fellow pilgrims. There is no separating the praying and the paddling. For a long time I’ve kept my prayers sequestered from the daily business of living: working, parenting, mentoring, cooking, nagging, gardening, hiking — all the things I do, many of which I worry about constantly – instead of allowing prayer to infuse and, perhaps, defuse my daily routines.

As I drove across New Hampshire toward home, my trusty kayak firmly strapped to the roof, I vowed to live in closer, clear-eyed proximity to the surface of this gorgeous, complicated, fearsome, world.”

You can read Heidi’s full reflection here



The Hartford Courant produced an article and a video about the Pilgrimage:

“Pilgrims spend the first four hours of the day in what Connecticut Bishop Ian Douglas calls ‘the great silence.’ Then, at 10 a.m., he said they break the silence with a song.

“The practice is to clear our minds of all that is distracting,” he said. “The journey is inward just as much as it is down the river.”


“Along the way, Douglas said he has seen countless blue herons and bald eagles swooping overhead as he prays. He described the sights of the river as incredible.



“Though beautiful, Bishop Rob Hirschfeld said the journey wasn’t always easy. In the first 100 miles, there was still some snow on the ground, there was no cell service and the temperature dipped to 38 degrees. However, Hirschfeld said the trip was never unpleasant, even when the pack was caught in a storm in Vermont.


“It was raining and we were standing on our life preservers in the middle of a field in case lightning struck the ground and we were looking at each other in silence and we were utterly happy because we were connected with each other,” he said. “We’ve found that even without shelter, we are at home.”




Indeed, the journey began with plunges into downright cold weather. Over the course of the journey, winds brought heavy rain and high waters.

Below, Jo and Lisa share in a yoga pose — first in a late Spring chill and, 40 days later, at the height of summer warmth and sun. Notice the consistent joy on their faces.















The truly wonderful thing about pilgrimage is that reaching the final destination does not mark the end of the journey. If it has done its work, the end of a pilgrimage is only the beginning of something much greater and folded into Divine mystery.

May the joys and blessings of the winding and beautiful journeys ahead be with you, Pilgrims!

(Photos from: Jo Brooks, Heidi Shott, Bishop Tom Ely, Bishop Ian Douglas)

The Journey Continues

Over the past two weeks, the pilgrims entered the Upper Valley, on-shore celebrations of water took place in Hanover and then in Brattleboro — marking the journey southward — new pilgrims joined the pilgrimage and old friends departed the river. Such is the nature of a grand journey. Below are photos and reflections from pilgrims Jonathan Eden, Jo Brooks, Kathleen Moore, Mark Kutolowski, and Lisa Kutolowski!



“We are called to immerse ourselves in this divine source which is everywhere, and only available to us right here. And as we rest in the source of all life, we become ourselves a spring of this source,  of this living water. And not only us, but all of creation becomes a spring. An access point of this livng water. Sister Fawn becomes a spring, Brother Raven becomes a spring.” — Lisa & Mark Kutowski


Native American petroglyphs in Bellows Falls.






“I have just returned from the only week long segment I will be able to participate in.  During that time we traveled from Littleton, NH to Hanover, NH, but it was not so much the miles, but the spiritual practice and community that made this journey so amazing.  Each day we would practice “functional silence” from rising, through breakfast, and for our first hour of paddling.  The silence was briefly interrupted for morning prayer, when we would read scripture and sing a hymn together. Most days, we would stop somewhere along the way, for a special recognition: maybe to mourn the loss of sacred native site, or to honor the work of those who now use the land for agriculture, or just to appreciate a beautiful waterfall.  In the evenings we would again, after reading scripture and singing, practice another 20 minutes of silence.  Silence has never been an easy part of my spiritual life, indeed silent retreats are just frightening to me, but somehow, out in the wilderness, this changed for me. That first hour of paddling, often along the glassiest of water, was magical for me.  It was a restorative time, a time of deep connection with God, and a time when I felt my creativity kindled. My prayer is that I can continue to embrace some version of this practice back home!

Each day, one of us was asked to contribute to a journal.  On the day I volunteered to write, the words that echoed through my head all day, as I took in God’s creation all around, seemed to take the form of a prayer, and so what follows in my entry for day 15 of the pilgrimage.  It was a meaningful exercise for me to write a prayer in this way, and I hope that it might provide a taste of what those days on the water were like. 

“The are many things I don’t understand”:

O God, there are many things I don’t understand, though they’ve been explained to me … I’ve probably even explained a few, but I still don’t understand them.  I don’t understand the magic of mixing cornmeal, water, cheese, and butter, but I’m glad it works. I don’t understand the power of the place where the water meets the land, or why 11 gathering there to feel the morning sun moves me so. I don’t understand why Nicodemus, who came to see Jesus at night, but was also there at the very end, tears such a hole in my heart.  I don’t understand why finding a paddling rhythm with someone I’ve just met is so joyful.  I’ll never understand the currents of air and water the way the birds and the fish do, and I can’t fathom how the swallows decide where exactly they need to dig a hole in the side of the bank that must be ready to crumble.  I don’t understand why the sharp edges of concrete and steel look like scars out here, or why we sometimes need the scars that stitch us together in ways that didn’t work before, or why I never understood the real cost of flipping the switch, until I was in this place where there is no opportunity to do so.  I don’t understand the patience of water, the sculptor of mountains … or why the glistening of the setting sun across the waters speeds and slows as you stare at it over time.  I don’t understand how, as you were trying to put a soul into a pile of mud, as the days of creation were coming to an end, you were, even then, calling us to the river, imagining a world where this journey could happen.  O God, help us not so much to understand as to appreciate and in appreciating to be thankful.  Thank you for the blessing of this day, for these people, and for the gift of water. Amen.”
                                    – Rev. Jonathan Eden


We hope you’ll continue to follow this journey, whether on the water or in prayer!

Grace & The River of God

From June 4-10, pilgrims embarked on the second leg of the journey down the Connecticut River: “Water, Grace, & The River of God.”

“All God asks of us is to come – dams, stagnation, obstacles, all of it. Bring it to the constant, ever-flowing wonderful stream. God will wash it all away, revealing the beautiful, good, loving creature formed and loved by the divine.”




It was a week of both joys and tears, rejoicing in the beauty of the water and grieving the damage and pain we as humans have wrought upon it. It was a week of remembering where in our own hearts and spirits God’s love flows through us, strongly and ceaselessly, and where in us there are blockages and dams, places where we feel stuck or stagnant.


We portaged around the Gilman Dam on Saturday, June 10th. Dams like this one were added along the Connecticut River to control annual flooding and to protect riverside towns. Despite the human benefit, damming rivers does not come without great consequences for the river, for its inhabitants, and for its neighbors. The Moore and Comerford Reservoirs cover what was 15-mile falls, the longest consecutive stretch of falls on the east coast, and a sacred site to the Abenaki. As we paddled near the shore, we could see traces of what the sunlight once touched – huge rocks, built stone walls – all of which are now submerged beneath these still waters which no longer tumble and froth.

May we remember to temper our appetite for control, efficiency, and power, especially when such drives permit us to forget that the earth is alive and thriving, not an inanimate object for our desired use and purpose.










“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,

And do not return there until they have watered the earth,

making it bring forth and sprout,

giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,

so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;

it shall not return to me empty,

but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,

And succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” — Isaiah 55:1-13

Pilgrims have now begun the next stage: “Baptism and Immersion in God.”

May they receive many blessings on their journey!


The Headwaters

A small group of pilgrims began paddling south from the headwaters of the Connecticut River at Fourth Connecticut Lake this week — the start of the 40 day journey of the River of Life pilgrimage.

They began with a Pilgrimage Blessing:

Dear pilgrim,

As you go into the wilderness of the land and of your heart –

May you experience the ever-flowing grace of God’s presence!

May you be immersed so fully in God’s love that you learn to let go and swim!

May you engage deeply and radically with the natural world, as steward, co-creator, and friend!

May you drink anew from the divine source, the stream of living water!

And may you be transformed, may the stagnant waters of your spirit begin to flow, and may all which is dead in you rise again!

God is here. The river awaits. Let the adventure begin.






The first four days of the pilgrimage were a call into the wilderness, “a place of radical encounter with God.” IMG_1823



Bishop Rob Hirschfeld writes, “This pilgrimage will be a time when we are asked to be face-to-face with the source of our Existence, the Being that flows through our days, our bodies, our personal and collective histories. Some of us may have been asked, ‘What’s the purpose of a pilgrimage? What are your goals?’ I wonder if Moses felt the same hesitancy if people asked him questions when he came down from Mt. Horeb? I want to be unprotected in my encounter with God, the IS WHO IS AND WILL BE, stripped of the cushions that keep me from fully BEING WHO I AM. I want to see if, apart from my doing in this world, can I live in God’s presence and not be consumed? I want deliverance, which the Bible tells me happens, so often, through water. That people look at me askance when I say these things may be an indication that we are indeed on a pilgrimage with God.” IMG_1797

As Mark and Lisa, the trusted and joyful river guides, reflected, “the wilderness…is the place where our ordinary human confines fall away – our routines, our physical comforts, our habitual thought patterns and our cultural conditioning are disrupted. God invites us to let go, to be broken down and broken open, so that God’s own wild presence can speak to us freshly. To bring something new into our hearts and into the world, God needs to first lead us into a place of wilderness and freedom.”IMG_1789




Stay tuned for the next phase of the adventure!

The Place of Humans

Two weeks ago, I was high in the mountains of Switzerland. In the valleys below, flowers were blooming, trees were leafing out, and birds were singing — a glorious, gentle spring was in full swing. Life was easy. Where I was, though, all was bleak. Sheer walls of rock rose a thousand feet above me. Snow and ice covered the land and gusts of wind up to 50 mph knocked me off my feet. Ahead, I watched a small line of ski mountaineers, heads down, trudging into the storm. Puny human creatures, dwarfed and diminished by the wild, raw, fierce landscape around them.

I love being in such wild places in part because they help me remember how puny I am, how puny all human creatures are. Such places — mountains, wild forests, deserts, vast plains — are reminders that, despite all our obsessions, conceits, and capabilities, we are not the center of all existence. There is Much Bigger Existence all around us, though we are not aware of it most of the time.

What happens, I wonder, when we lose sight of this? When we forget where we fit in the world? When we forget about the other forms of Existence, Being, Beauty, Power that also inhabit the world? When we forget that we are puny?

Last week, we celebrated Earth Day at Church of the Woods. We sang. We restored a gravel bank with new soil and seedlings, we transplanted some day lilies into the sunlight. We mourned the myriad harms that we puny people manage to inflict upon this beautiful Earth that we are privileged to inhabit. We celebrated the gifts of light, of life, of love.

There is a paradox here, of course. As individual creatures of flesh and bone, we are puny, vulnerable, fragile. Together, we have enormous power — power to destroy so much of what seems to dwarf us. How do we handle this vast power? What are the responsibilities that come with such power? How do we put limits on our own capabilities? Where do we draw the line?

What would it mean for humans to willingly relinquish some of our power, to accept the mantle of puniness, in order that other forms of Existence — other forms of life and love — have room to live? Can we reign ourselves in voluntarily? Or must we wait till Much Bigger Existence reminds us, once again, that we remain, despite it all, puny?


— Steve Blackmer

Earth Day at Church of the Woods

We enjoyed a beautiful afternoon of Earth Day activities: tree planting, water meditations, signing, picnicking and being in good company with each other and with this beautiful planet!

Enjoy some photos below:



DSC_0072 Water meditations

DSC_0073 Vernal pool at Church of the Woods




DSC_0090Getting a look at the tiny living creatures in the water

DSC_0093 Let the planting begin!

DSC_0095Transplanting Day Lilies

DSC_0099 Transplanting white pines and hemlocks




DSC_0119The altar after services

Goldfinch Resurrection

I was away a few days last week and when I came back to New Hampshire, the male goldfinches had started to turn color. Perching in the sugar maple between zips to the feeder, their newly golden forms flashed like living, breathing photons.

They are glorious little creatures, bright and shiny, full of new life — each one a perfect sign of spring, of Easter, of resurrection.

And then it snowed. The temperature dropped to 12 degrees. Ponds froze up again. Winter returned. The finches’ gold again muted as courtships were shelved. Spring stopped.

It was so fitting that just as the cold blast arrived, we came to the story of doubting Thomas who declares that he won’t believe in Jesus’s resurrection unless he can see the marks of the nails in his hands and put his fingers in the wound. “If my senses can’t verify it,” he suggests, “I won’t believe it.”

If we read the text closely, though, there is no indication that Thomas actually touches Jesus. Jesus appears in a closed room, unconstrained by walls and doors. He is simply there. And, somehow, Thomas knows himself to be in that presence.

This has led me to consider several questions for reflection in this post-resurrection season.

Where do we (you) encounter the presence of Christ (which we know is within and around all things)?

How can we know we are in that presence?

How can we become more aware of being in that presence?

What happens to us when we are in that presence?

What happens to the world around us when we are in that presence?

Like goldfinches in the spring, being in the presence of Christ fills us with light. I pray that in that light we, too, may be beacons of love, hope, and caritas.

— Rev. Steve Blackmer


The Magic of Maple Syrup

We love our maple syrup here in New England — and all of the processes that go along with it! There are only three places in the world where maple syrup is produced: Canada, the Northeast, and the Upper Midwest. From Minnesota, Emily writes about “the magic of maple syruping” and whether “it will be something that future generations will also be able to enjoy.”

You can read her full piece, ‘Maple Syrup and Climate Change: Not So Sweet?,’ HERE.

For the Birds

I woke up early this morning with an urge to take my morning prayer outdoors. With just a hint of light behind the clouds speeding overhead, a strong north wind heralding the coming cold front, a quick cup of coffee warming my insides, and my blue windbreaker over a ratty sweatshirt warming my outsides, I headed into the pre-dawn woods. To pray. To be. Among the creatures.

The core of my prayer life — long before I called it “prayer” — has always been outdoors. Walking or running through the woods. Just being there, surrounded by the tree beings. Or in the mountains. Or in my canoe on the river. Prayer in this kind of place needs no words — it is enough simply to be there. Though a word of thanks never hurts.

In about 30 minutes, I arrived at the clearing. Pausing for a few minutes to say Thank You, I was startled by an explosion from the red maple across from me. Pow! Then again: Pow! Pow! In the dim light, I could see huge projectiles launching from the treetops into the sky.

It startles me every time. Turkeys! It is amazing to see such large birds — a male can weigh up to 25 or 30 pounds — flying to and from the trees. Fantastic!

It was as though the turkeys were echoing Psalm 148 that we sang at Church of the Woods on Sunday, for Easter.

… Praise God, sun and moon;

praise God, all you shining stars!

Praise God, you highest heavens,

and you waters above the heavens! …

Praise the Lord from the earth,

you sea monsters and all deeps,

fire and hail, snow and frost,

stormy wind fulfilling God’s command!

Mountains and all hills,

fruit trees and all cedars!

Wild animals and all cattle,

creeping things and flying birds! …

When I go out into the woods, this is all that is really needed — to sing the praises of this glorious, magnificent world. And to give thanks — which is where words do come in handy.

Happy Easter!