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Paddleboarder in front of sunset

I’ve always loved the outdoors. Walks were a family thing, from the weekly stroll down the lane behind our house to the local duck feeding pond, to adventures up the Brecon Beacons on family holidays.

But being outside and by water, is something more, it feels like an almost spiritual connection. I remember 7 year old me arriving in Cornwall for the first time, walking onto a beach and feeling like I’d come home.

This year I’ve spent more time on or by the water than ever before, really for my own wellbeing, and I honestly think it has saved my sanity. Trying to describe why it has been so key though, has been really hard. I’ve sat down to write this post many times and just can’t put it into words.

Then I read about ‘the numinous effect’. In Freddy Hedley’s ‘The God of Page One’ which looks at creation theology. He notes: 

… being able to see God’s creation is one of the greatest joys available to us, and so often the ultimate evidence of Gods existence and handiwork. This is called the numinous effect: to be in awe of God’s creation and see God at work.

Freddy Hedley, ‘God of Page One’

Then I read this: Numinous, derived in the 17th C from the Latin numen, means ‘deity or spirit presiding over a thing or space’. How reminiscent of Gen 1:2:

…and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters

Genesis 1:2

I don’t know if Otto, Kant, Lewis and co, who used this idea in their work had this verse in their minds (more research required!) but in that moment of reading, it all seemed to make sense to me.

If God is creator then it makes perfect sense that spending time actively in that creation would enable us to feel God’s presence within God’s work. This also holds echoes of the theology of ‘immanence’ – the idea that God exists within something, namely here creation. Though I don’t subscribe wholly to that as a concept, with the idea of the numinous effect I do.

View of a river from the water. Flock of geese flying overhead and reflected in the water. South Downs in the distance.

This year, we bought a paddle board. I’ve wanted one for ages and I’m so glad we got one early this year as with the lockdowns they sold out everywhere! Every week, as often as possible, when lockdowns have allowed, I’ve got out on the water. In all seasons. I’ve paddled with fish and jellyfish alongside; with a kingfisher swooping ahead of me on the water; herons standing silently by waiting for a catch; and with geese gangs swooping overhead (though I’ve yet to see the local seal!). I’ve paddled in sunshine in a bikini, in minus temperatures & fully kitted out; in sunshine, in rain; in the mist, in blue skies; in the dry and in wading through knee deep mud. I’ve watched the changing of seasons on the water and the bank. I’ve learned more about tides and water flow than I ever have before.

In all that, no matter what I’m facing, or what’s on my mind, whenever I get out on the water I feel a sense of God’s presence, of an overwhelming peace, a stillness in my mind. It is in those moments that I truly feel those words from Psalm 46: be still & know that I am God, that I don’t at any other time. It’s not that I go out to seek God, or to pray, necessarily, or to think things through; it’s not that I go with an intention to draw closer to God, it just happens. There is a sense of God’s spirit hovering over the waters, travelling with me. 

There is a feeling of something approaching admiration, wonder, and awe, at all that I see. The simple beauty of a yellow leaf floating on the water in Autumn; the power or a rain soaked river washing whole trees down its flow; the rising and falling of a Spring tide; the tranquillity in a sunset over gently flowing water. 

View from the river, with autumn trees reflected in the water. One tree in the centre in deep copper tones.
Autumn on the river.

We talk a lot in the church about intentionality in what we do – whether it be prayer, action or life choices. Yet, feeling God revealed on the water is so effortless, it’s not intentional. It’s like a soul connection that happens when something in our inner being responds to the call of the creator through creation. A beautiful escape without a route plan.

Recently I’ve heard so many people talking about ongoing fatigue, the residual build up of anxiety, being in a transition we don’t know the end of, no break from it all… I think many of us need to reconnect to God and to ourselves, but we don’t know how. We don’t have the headspace to be intentional, to reflect, to plan or to take time out. But most of us can get outside. So I want to encourage you to get out in creation, whatever that looks like where you are. Head to the nearest park if you’re in a built up area, go for a walk, or just sit in the fresh air and breathe it in – whatever you can do – and just be still in God’s creation. Simple it may be but perhaps that’s the only way some of us can connect to God right now.

PS: If you’re at all interested, I started an Insta account to reflect on all this, you can find me & my watery pics @RevOnTheRiver

Stand up paddleboarder on a small river. Wearing bobble hat and sunglasses!
Paddling locally for ‘daily exercise’

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