Canoeing the Mountains: Spiritual Reorientation


“You don’t have a purpose in life.”  My students shifted in their seats. I could tell that a few weren’t paying attention because with them there had been no reaction.  I said it again, slowly, to let it sink in, putting more emphasis on the “a” before purpose.

“You don’t have A purpose in life.  You have purpose, and you bring it to life.”  

“Mr. Bishop, are you saying that life has no meaning?”  The furrow on the 9th grader’s brow was genuine.  

“Precisely.  Each of us has meaning, and we bring it to life.  All your life, people have acted like you have exactly one way, one chance to get your life right, and if you miss that calling, purpose, or meaning, then your life ceases to have value, ceases to matter.  I’m here to tell you that you have calling, meaning, purpose. You matter. You have value. And if you look at life the right way, you have thousands of chances to bring it to life wherever you are, whoever you’re with, whatever job you’re doing.  You just have to have the right perspective because if you ‘change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.’” (quote from Wayne Dyer’s Blog)

The bell rang, and they hurried off to whatever Spanish quiz or math test was stressing them out that day.  But I bowed and prayed that something from that discussion had sunk in.

I hate Charles Dickens.  Probably more than my students did.  But sometimes, on a trip down the path you fear to trod, you find a treasure.  I found truth. And I’m not sure I was looking for it. It was my first year teaching A Tale of Two Cities, and I wasn’t doing a very good job.  I had never read it, and I was keeping up with the homework at the same pace as the class.  Sometimes I had more questions than they did, and I definitely did not have any answers. But somehow we made it through, and somehow I came up with a good final exam question:  Is meaning in life possible without sacrifice? I’m not sure what I expected in their essays, but there it was in the first one I graded, a truth I’m still trying to live by:

“Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer.” ~Joseph Campbell

I had read Joseph Campbell in seminary.  I had taught his model of the hero’s journey. But I had never seen this truth blazing off the page at me before.  And here it was, quoted in a 9th grade final exam essay.

I wonder if we fall into this same trap in our spiritual lives.  Do we get stuck? When it comes to our faith, have you ever wondered:  Where did I go wrong? Is this all there is? There’s got to be more!

When Lewis and Clark got to the headwaters of the Missouri River and the water stopped, they stood on top of a ridge where they expected to find another stream on the other side that would carry them all the way to the Pacific.  What they found was the Rocky Mountains. Miles of them. They had to change plans. What had worked to this point, what got them to where they were--it wasn’t going to work any more. After all, you can’t canoe the mountains. They had to reorient themselves.  They had to adapt.  

Sometimes we think we’re not making progress because we’re not trying hard enough.  But in reality we need an entirely new approach, a new way of looking at things before we can take the next step.  We need a spiritual reorientation. We all need allies and mentors to help us along the way. We all need healthy habits to transform us into the best version of ourselves.  Faith is a journey. Are you ready to cross the threshold of adventure?