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Todd's Article,

"Headwaters of hope"
Published in
Presence Journal, Sep
tember 2023

One of the things that makes fly-fishing for trout so enjoyable is that the person doing it is always discovering and learning something new, if they are paying attention. The changing flow and shape of the river, the unique variety of fish, the mysterious insects coming to life from beneath the river rocks and many other forms of life in and around the river, the countless items of gear and how to use that gear, and much more, provide endless opportunities for a fisher-person to expand and grow in awareness and ability. And all of this in beautiful and wild places. The quiet graces of small high country headwater streams are especially endearing. In waters like that especially, fly-fishing is part sport and part meditation. After a while, a small trout stream transforms into the entire world for a playful meditator casting a fly-line. Paying attention to the smallest details of a stream and its surroundings opens one to the present moment as well as any activity available to an outdoors lover. 


Like fly-fishing, spiritual direction is an art-form about noticing the small, sometimes neglected aspects of life. A spiritual director can guide a directee into a slower, quieter flow of things and lovingly help the directee notice the movements of life and the Divine. This article is about how I came to fly-fishing and how fly-fishing is an apt metaphor for the practice of spiritual direction. 


When I was a young teenager growing up in northeast Oklahoma, I went with my father, oldest brother and a couple of family friends to a gorgeous trout stream in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. It was my first attempt to set aside bait and bobber fishing and try my hand at fly-fishing. I say attempt, because mostly I just enjoyed slowly wading through the cool river in solitude that hot summer day while getting my flies — the fly-fishing name for artificial lures — caught in trees above my head. There was definitely a good bit of cussing along the way, which was something I was quite proficient at by that time in my life. But the refreshing beauty I was surrounded by far outweighed the tangles. I spent most of the final hour of that afternoon enamored by 4 large carp — in my memory they were 4 feet long — held mid column in a clear, deep, shady bend of the river. As I tossed my sinking wooly bugger fly to these mysterious creatures, they hardly moved at all. I thought, “Those bastards,” and laughed. I even bumped the fly on their noses a couple of times, to which they only held completely still as their annoying intruder sank to the river’s floor. I caught nothing from the river that day, only the trees that seemed to be laughing at me. But I knew then that I would someday truly learn how to fly-fish. Even with all of the hang ups in the trees and foul language, it was just so peaceful. As well as engaging. There was movement to it and the feeling of being engulfed in something bigger than myself. 


Two decades later, my oldest brother, Robert — one of the finest fly-fishers I know — summoned his most patient disposition and taught me how to actually catch fish on the fly. It was summer, in the small headwaters of the Colorado River in Rocky Mountain National Park. That section of the river is just a creek really, a meadow stream. As we made our way, slowly wading up stream, we were each casting a dry-dropper set up, which means the top fly was a grasshopper, or other terrestrial look alike, that floated on the top of the water with a second fly, a sinking nymph, trailing behind, tied with a foot and a half of tippet line to the hook of the first fly. To my joy, I caught and released many fish that day! And once again, that something bigger and more mysterious, was surrounding me the whole time. 


At one point that day, I was casting a few feet up a small tributary that was feeding the main stream. As my flies began to drift out into the main stream, a trout took my dry fly so I set the hook. And to my delight, another trout immediately took my second fly as well! I couldn’t stop smiling and giggling as I gently brought them both to hand. Once I unhooked those beautiful creatures and set them free, I said to the trout, “Hey, thanks for playing, little buddies!” I turned around and there was Robert smiling as well, saying, “Hey! Two at once! Way to go.” 


That day was a game-changer. The draw of cool streams and beautiful trout, became as strong as ever. Once I got back home to Winston-Salem after that trip, I promptly bought my first fly rod and reel. And for the next many years, on as many days off as possible, I drove my little VW up to the small headwaters that flow down through the ancient and lush forests of the Blue Ridge Mountains. After many months of fine-tuning — read mostly failure —  it became an amusing activity of sneaking up on small, beautiful, easily spooked, brook trout. In my estimation, brookies are still the most delightfully colored trout around. And smaller waters are still my favorite places to get lost in time and beautiful space.


A river’s headwaters tend to be refreshingly wild and quiet. They are small yet surprisingly full of life and a fair amount of mystery. Having lived in Colorado for most of two decades now, I’ve fished numerous larger and wider stretches of rivers. But my first love for fly-fishing are still those smaller streams. It’s those upper reaches of small tributaries, the headwaters, that still hold the strongest allure. Fewer humans tend to make a point to go to these out-of-the-way places in the mountains. If you hear someone say they went to fly-fish in Colorado, rarely would you hear them go on and on about small streams. That’s mostly because when the average person spends lots of money on gas and or plane tickets to get here, most imagine going home with photos of themselves holding really large trout surrounded by large rivers.  But, for me, the allure of smallish and medium-ish fish — 10 to 17 inches in length — caught and released in wild, quiet places, is still more than enough. Okay, to be honest, maybe part of that is because I rarely catch large trout, even on large bodies of water. But small streams always take me into their kinship with a deep welcome.  


What does any of this have to do with the spiritual life or spiritual direction? To start, entering the presence of quiet headwaters is an apt metaphor for what spiritual direction is like. Some of what I enjoy the most about leading a session with a directee is guiding him or her into some shared slowing down in the quiet, off of the beaten path of a world often gone frantic. It’s like slowing down to fish small streams in high altitude. You don’t go fast and you don’t go big. At least, if you want the best experience. 


For someone new to spiritual direction, this can feel strange, even wild, in its vulnerability. I say wild to say that when a directee is not acquainted with experiences of guided, intentional quiet, the person might get the sense of something hidden arising out of the woods of their inner being. I like how author Lisa Colon Delay refers to a person’s unseen interior life as “the wild land within.” In the slowing down, there can be memories, thoughts, doubts, wonderments, some good and some not so much in our wild within. These are often the kinds of things that are hard to talk about in a busy workplace, home, or even sanctuary, for that matter. But they belong in the territory of spiritual direction. It’s part meditation and part adventure. 


It’s a joy to help a person discover that they are indeed safe and can trust the moment, themselves, me, and most importantly, trust the Present One of Love. They can finally stop and breathe and go easy for a while and notice that even small sources of meaning can bring with them refreshment and hope. With shared silence and kind promptings, persons can allow a more humane kind of vulnerability to come to the surface. Experiencing spiritual direction is like allowing small, forgotten sources of life, the headwaters, to surface and then discovering how God can use all of it to nourish and change everything downstream. As Richard Rohr likes to remind us, all of it belongs, all of our real reality is the substance for our growth and expanding joy, not just our abilities to produce, persuade, please, accomplish more faster. As a spiritual director, it’s my job to guide persons into the presence of headwaters of hope. 


Many years ago, a fishing buddy took a mutual friend and me to a hidden stream few folks know about, way up in the mountains. We now affectionately call the place “Rattlesnake Canyon” in case anyone overhears us talking about it. In effort to keep this gem of a stream more of a secret, we might smile and say to someone, “Oh, you don’t want to go there. Rattlesnakes everywhere. Really dangerous.” Part of this stream’s allure is that it only looks to be a gloppy mud hole at the very top of it, near the barely traveled dirt road you take to get there. There are no road signs in this high back country of the Colorado mountains. As far as you can see, it’s truly the epitome of wild Rocky Mountain landscape, far from civilization. That first time I was there, we got out of the truck, geared up and started walking in the mud next to a tiny trickle of water. “Are you sure this it?” I asked my friend. He laughed quietly and said, “This is it. Just keep hiking.” 


Pretty soon, we entered a canyon. As we hiked and scrambled between boulders, one small fresh water spring after another fed the main stream. Within a mile, the flow was plentiful and clear and we started seeing trout in the pools between boulders — some of them even large-ish. We hiked through the canyon for a long time and came to a beautiful meadow, kept hiking and then, before the stream flowed back into another canyon, we began fishing, slowly working our way back up stream. Between the three of us, we caught and released more than 50 fish that day. It was glorious. This headwater holds many discoveries. One simply has to pay attention and keep hiking and trusting that small doesn’t necessarily mean inferior. 


Over time, as trust is built between spiritual director and directee, the directee begins to relax into finding that some of the most meaningful touch points of their spiritual life arise out of small, easily overlooked parts of their lived experience. What might at first appear to be just a mud hole of sorts, or so tiny it seems negligible  — relationships broken, disappointments at work, brief moments of mystery or awe —  can very well lead to springs of fresh and thriving life. River biologists know that, when it comes to the life and health of a river, upstream changes everything downstream. Likewise, spiritual directors know that, when it comes to discovering holy Presence, stepping off the beaten path into the realms of quiet and small, might be what brings hope to even the most weary journey-takers. “Just keep hiking,” we say, “I am with you, God is with you, on this river of life.”

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