I lived in a cabin on the river above the Tuckaseegee Gorge, near Dillsboro, North Carolina, in the suburbs of the Great Smokies.
The view from my favorite chair was of the river and the rocks that carved the river into rapids. There were tea roses growing among the rocks, dogwoods enough, and wild day lilies. It sounds more beautiful than it was. Next door was a junky little campground catering to Florida refugees. Farther along stood an industrial rock crusher and mounds of gravel a hundred feet tall, with dump trucks coming and going all day.
Sitting in my favorite chair, you saw no evidence of neighbors, only the river running east and a ridge line of poplar and hemlock trees. In my chair I drank coffee each morning, stared at the river, and sometimes read the King James Bible. Not to seek guidance or in fear of going to hell; I read scripture for the poetry of it, the sounds of the words, those towering verses that rang like bronze bells:
“ . . . Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow . . . Our father who art in heaven . . .”
I hoped to get some of that quality of bronze into my own writing, to replace the ring of tin. I had not been religious since learning that Santa Claus was a lie.
One morning I was browsing the New Testament, when coming upon the Lord’s Prayer, I set the book aside and gazed at the river, reciting the prayer from Presbyterian memory.
I hadn’t been inside a church in seventeen years. The last time had been the occasion my father’s funeral. Not that his sudden demise triggered a further loss of faith after Santa Claus went up in smoke. From the time I was twelve years old, I believed in nothing I could not see. Most days growing up, I did not see much of my father.
I recited the Lord’s Prayer, listening to the sounds, the music of the language, imbibing the rhythm,. “. . . thy kingdom come, thy will be done . . .”
Suddenly my attention, my line-of-sight, shifted to the interior wall of the cabin, the knotty pine paneling.
I focused on a single pine knot.
Suddenly the grain of the wood was magnified, such that I clearly saw the individual crevices of the grain, the play of light and shadow in minute relief. It looked as if the wood were breathing, pulsing. Dumbfounded, I stopped reciting, shook my head, and looked again.
The pine paneling was polka-dotted with knots. Now I couldn’t tell which one I’d been looking at. I chose another and recited again, wondering if another magnification would occur.
Like somebody flipped a switch, the pulsing started, my eyesight grew acute.
I sort of giggled, because along with enhanced vision came a pleasurable sensation of calm.
Again I recited the words, and again came a magnification of my senses, eyesight and hearing, also the pleasurable sensation of calm.
I could not let it happen without trying to understand. Reasoning with the experience brought it to an end.
I wondered if the rhythm of the words, the phonetics of the language, had brought it on. It felt good to repeat the prayer, the calming effect occurred consistently. I did not attach sentiments of Christian faith to the words. The cause and effect seemed to be purely mechanical.
Around town in public, I found myself repeating the prayer silently. Nobody could tell. I could do it all I wanted.
And in the woods, in the late afternoons, after writing, when I would take off alone and wander, the enhancement of eyesight and hearing gave me a leg a up among the other animals. Another strange thing was how my sense of direction improved. In the woods in the mountains sometimes it was easy to get turned around. But I did not get lost anymore when I repeated the words, and went the way instinct told me to go.
The sensation of calm certainty, when coming to a fork-in-the-road, and you decide. The way to go is the truth of the compass inside you.