Row Your Boat: A Nursery Rhyme and Metaphor for Life

From time to time, the Benedictine Center invites guest writers to reflect on their own spiritual journeys in ways that might be of encouragement to others. This reflection is written by Jim Dawson, an Oblate and friend of St. Paul’s Monastery. Having told this story many times in person, he now offers his version of its meaning in writing for the first time.

Row, Row Your Boat:
a nursery rhyme and a metaphor for life

Whence "Row, Row, Row"?  Jim and Judy Dawson were helping St. Scholastica Monastery (Duluth, MN) to host the 2017 North American Association of Benedictine Oblate Directors conference. A miscommunication about the program left me with 24 hours to organize a panel of oblates to share the inspirations and ways they live the oblate life. Five generous oblates agreed. Judy and Jim were bookends. Judy opened the panel by sharing the beautiful simplicity of living the Rule day by day. Jim closed the panel with his moving lectio of this simple children's song. It brought down the house. (S. Edith Bogue OSB, St. Scholastica Monastery, Duluth)

Row Your Boat

This simple song is sung in the round, which reminds us from the beginning that we need to keep life simple and involve others in our lives. We "row, row, row," working at all the important things: family, health, education and the spiritual life. But before we can row we need to untie the boat and get moving.

Did you know that wooden row boats rot much quicker tied to the dock or to shore than if they are out moving? Work must be good for us and, as St. Paul said, "if you want to eat, you need to work".

At some point we must learn how to row from a guide and a few helpful instructions. Then, as Benedict says from the opening of his Rule, we have to listen. From a Benedictine perspective, the Bible and the Rule are the guides that offer instruction in how we need to live.

Over time we learn to row in balance with both oars in the water. Otherwise, pulling one oar alone will leave our boat moving in circles. Similarly, we put balanced effort into our family life and our work life, what we read and eat, how we work and play, for the sake of a healthy spiritual life.

The song also teaches us something about perspective. When we row a boat we sit in the middle, looking back at where we have been. While we might learn from our past, we need to live our life in the present and not worry.  Simply look over your shoulder, now and then, to make sure you are heading in the direction of your goal. Pay more attention to developing a rhythm in your stroke. Practice makes perfect!

This life is "your boat"! You are the captain of your ship and you give it direction and meaning. You choose where it goes and how it affects others. There will be winds, of course, sometimes blowing onto the rocks and sometimes blowing safely toward shore. In the face of these winds, keep life simple and focused. God has provided many things on earth for us to enjoy, diamonds, cars, boats, gold and much else to deter our focus. But the more we try to put it all in our boat (or try to please too many people), the harder it is to navigate the winds. Way too much and we sink.

Gently Down the Stream

We need to row our boat "gently" down the stream. That tells me we need to be gentle with others and ourselves. Practice lifting people up rather than tearing them down. Become a fountain not a drain. Compliment people for work well done. Build on their strengths and help them manage their weaknesses. Be loving, caring, give to the poor, be compassionate, serve one another—gentle in all that we do.

Gently "down" the stream says to me that we should go with the flow of life. Don't fight everything that is said and done but work with others to make it right as we move together downstream. The "stream" sometimes flows fast and straight, sometimes slow with many bends and obstacles. Accordingly we need to practice relaxing in some moments and pulling hard in others. Let us be ready. Practice, prepare and pray!

Merrily, Merrily

"Merrily, merrily" says to me that we should go through life searching for and being happy. Isn't that our goal? That can only be done through practice and, like St. Theresa of Lisieux, we can focus on the little things in life. Smile, for example! It’s the simplest gift we can give in any language because it’s something everyone understands. It warms our hearts and invites a sense of God’s presence! Surround yourself with people who contribute to your joy. When I once responded to my son’s question by telling him, “I’m great!”, my son said to me, “Why don't you tell your face?” (Just kidding! My son wouldn't say that). SMILE and be HAPPY! There are days I wish that humans had an gauge like airplanes that tells the pilot when the nose of the plane is down or up. Maybe that’s what our smile is—and attitude gauge!

Life Is But A Dream

"Life" in the song is something God gave us to share with others. What a boring world that would be if we were all just the same. Instead, life is a vessel to fill with many diverse gifts. We might choose love or hatred because God gives us full freedom to be lovers or fighters. I recommend choosing loving things and ways so that we can practice sharing our lives with others. That is returning your thanks to God with your time, talent and treasure.  He will not be outdone in generosity and we are called to place our hearts with God, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mathew 6:21).

"But A Dream" . . . we dream of better things to come—heaven!  And along the way of our dreaming, we plan and act, setting goals and rowing our course. In my view, God is the architect of our life and has shared his Word through the teachings of the prophets and his son Jesus. I encourage you to spend time in prayer and to contemplate God’s dream for you in this world. Ask that God’s will might be done through us all.

God is present in our lives, guiding and directing us as we row. He is there waiting with us in the journey and waiting for us in the arrival. As you row your boat, give God honor, glory and thanks, being bold enough to ask for the help God is eager to give. Amen, so be it!

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