Folks say you can walk across, even jump across, the Mississippi River at Itasca State Park a couple hundred miles north of here. In fact, you’d have a few places to choose from — seems the actual headwaters of the river is a matter of serious civic pride and a cause for some dispute. There are at least three rival claims to the source of the Mississippi. Who’s to know?
Back in grad school in St. Louis — where there was absolutely no dispute about the size or source of the Great River — we tinkered with a silly but intriguing riddle: Can you step in the same river twice? Think about it… the current is constantly moving; the water you step in first is not the water you step in the second time. Even the fish and undergrowth are constantly awash, shifting, changing. Or, when those disputed waters in Itasca are frozen solid in a Minnesota winter, are they still the origins of the Mississippi?
Such mind-benders have intrigued mystics and confounded students for thousands of years. But they are important. Like a metaphysical crossword puzzle they tease us into looking at how something can be the same when everything about it changes. Does anything ever remain the same? What is the “same”? What, if anything, remains?
Forget about rivers! Are you the same person you were twenty years ago? We want to believe so but there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. Even the cellular make-up of our physical bodies is said to turn-over entirely numerous times during our lifetime? Who or what is the “me” amid all this flux and change?
Back in St Louis during the early 1980s I learned that Heraclitus, a resident of Ephesus during the 6th century BC, was the source of this riddle about stepping into a river twice. I remember him being portrayed as pretty much of a fall-guy or foyle for later philosophers — mentioned only to introduce the question which future thinkers would then be given the distinction for resolving.
In self-defense you need to know that I don’t think of Heraclitus very often. In fact, years go by! However, he made a surprise appearance recently in something I was reading about Thomas Merton. What Merton wrote stopped me in my tracks — something you cannot do with a river, by the way! I really liked it!
I like it so much that I’m willing to risk family once again telling me, “Read your blog… don’t know what the hell you were talking about.” Aware of the risk, here’s what Merton wrote that hit me up-side the head:
This is the tragedy which most concerns Heraclitus — and which should concern us more than it did him: the fact that a majority of [people] think they see, and do not. They believe they listen, but they do not hear. They are “absent when present” because in the act of seeing and hearing they substitute the clichés of familiar prejudice for the new and unexpected truth that is being offered to them. They complacently imagine they are receiving a new light, but in the very moment of apprehension they renew their obsession with the old darkness, which is so familiar that it, and it alone, appears to them to be the light.
We live only a few miles from the Mississippi. Jeb the Dog takes me for a daily walk along a creek that empties into that river. This afternoon, as Jeb leaps into the creek to tease and torment Mother Mallard with her five ducklings, I will remember Heraclitus. His riddle, his question, this nudge toward deeper conversion, transformation, change will remain with me for a while.
Wherever you are, whatever river invites you this summer, be like Jeb the Dog — leap boldly into its free-flowing current. Savor what it means to be fluid, alive, changing. Stay with the flow!
The Merton quote is from his 1960 article in the September issue of Jubilee, “Herakleitus the Obscure”, paragraphs 264-65. My source is from In the School of Prophets: The Formation of Thomas Merton’s Prophetic Spirituality by Ephrem Arcement, OSB. Liturgical Press: Collegeville, 2015., pp. 67-68.