Photo of the author at the Trinity River, courtesy Eleanor Forfang-Brockman

The Mystery of the Trinity (River)

illustrated drop cap for the letter SSit a while here on the banks of the West Fork of the Trinity River and watch the water flow by on this late October morning. See how the slanting sunlight plays across the ripples in the reflection of the cottonwoods and hackberries and grapevines and elms that cluster along the banks. Feel the cool morning breeze as it rustles the leaves and shimmers the water’s surface. Small whirlpools form around half-submerged tree limbs, each whirlpool a tiny galaxy in a liquid universe. Here, the truest directions, the ones that matter, are not north/south or east/west, but upstream and downstream.

This river has become a place of pilgrimage for me. And I mean pilgrimage in the religious sense: a process in which, as Pope Benedict XVI writes, we “step out of ourselves in order to encounter God where [God] has revealed [Godself].” 

To leave behind the noisy, self-absorbed human world for a time and sit on the river’s bank is to open oneself to the presence of the divine. It is to immerse oneself in the numinous, what religion scholar Rudolf Otto called mysterium tremendum et fascinans. The Trinity is a mystery (mysterium) that inspires both awe (tremendum) and wonder (fascinans). In this, it reveals the life-giving majesty and profound otherness of the divine—and serves as a corrective to all-too-human conceptions of God.

The River as Mysterium

I’ll admit that the Trinity, as it meanders through my hometown of Fort Worth, is an unlikely candidate as a site of pilgrimage or encounter with the numinous. At first glance, it isn’t very spectacular. For those from wetter, lusher climes, the Trinity may seem like little more than a glorified creek—at any rate unlikely to inspire any kind of religious experience, let alone awe and wonder. It can’t match the grandeur of the Mississippi or the Ohio. It’s usually sluggish and murky. Indeed, some North Texans think of the Trinity River as “that dirty ditch between the levees.” At most road crossings it’s curtained off on both sides by a tree line, so you can’t see it until you’re directly over it—if you notice it at all in the couple of seconds it takes to cross. For much of my life, I didn’t pay much attention to it, even though I’ve often lived, as I do now, within a couple miles of its banks.

Yet the Trinity dominates the north Texas landscape. The river’s four forks and their tributaries have sculpted the land, and their waters made possible the cities and towns where I’ve spent my life. Both Fort Worth and Dallas were founded on its banks. 

And in recent years, I’ve found that to sit quietly for a while on the Trinity’s banks is to enter into a profound mystery of vastness and majesty far beyond mere human scale.

The water flowing past me now may have fallen as rain on land more than a hundred miles to the northwest. (I’m indebted to Roy Bedichek’s Karánkaway Country for insight into the flow of what he calls “little waters” on the landscape.) It would have trickled through blades of grass, down slopes into gullies and creeks that eventually fed into the West Fork and began its slow journey downstream. Skirting snags of fallen tree limbs, flowing over rock-strewn rapids, through various human-made lakes and over concrete spillways, it picked its way past discarded Whataburger cups and old tires and plastic bags. Along the way some of it was lost to evaporation under the Texas sun. The remainder eventually reached this spot, where I sit on the dirt bank, watching as it passes. It will travel hundreds more miles before it feeds into the Gulf of Mexico. There it may once again rise as vapor to form clouds that may move north and fall as rain once again.

This cycle has gone on for eons, long before humans first visited this land (a mere 10, maybe 20 thousand years ago  – a microscopic instant compared to the 4.5-billion-year history of our planet). It will likely continue for eons to come, whether we humans are here or not. It has nothing to do with us; we are but specks of dust in relation to it.

The numinous evokes a “feeling of personal nothingness and submergence before the awe-inspiring object,” Otto writes. He could just as well have been sitting on this bank, watching the river pass, thinking these thoughts.

The River as Fascinans 

The numinous “entrances,” Otto writes; it “captivates and transports…with a strange ravishment.” Here on the riverbank, there is much to captivate: the play of light across the water’s rippling skin, or the murmur of its constant, persistent motion. 

Of course, there’s something about water itself that fascinates, something that draws us to it, something that calms us. Perhaps it calls out to the sixty percent of us humans that is water. Perhaps it evokes distant memories of our fetal life floating in the amniotic fluid of the womb. Or perhaps it’s a matter of the negative ions water molecules produce.

But it isn’t just the river’s waters that fascinate. It’s the whole life-world, the microcosmos, that these waters and the nutrients they carry make possible. From the top of the steep slope thirty feet above, all the way down to where the land wets its muddy toes in the water, life takes root and thrives. 

High up the bank, tree roots protrude where the soil has fallen away, weakened by rain or perhaps some forgotten flood. Further down the bank, long-stem grasses grasp the earth and make it home for a profusion of star-shaped white asters and prolific cockleburs with their grape-like leaves. Here and there rises a young bur oak, offspring of its mother up top, who now shades the bank with her leafy limbs. A blue heron sweeps in from downstream and settles on the sand bar across the river. And out on the water’s surface, what look like miraculous raindrops on this cloudless morning are in fact the traces of dozens of tiny insects skimming the water. Just beneath, small fish dart this way and that.

Equally fascinating is the fact that life exists here at all, after the ways humans have abused the river over the past two centuries. Once treated with respect and even reverence by the original inhabitants of this land, the river became “that dirty ditch” at the hands of my “civilized” White forebears (many of whom, showing no sense of irony, considered those original inhabitants “savages”). In less than 200 years, my ancestors silted the river with topsoil eroded off cleared fields, dammed it to make lakes, straightjacketed it between earthen levees, and exploited it both as a source of drinking water and a convenient sewer. By 1925 the Trinity was known as a “river of death” because its polluted waters resulted in high mortality from typhoid fever.

In recent years humans have made some attempt to mend our relationship with the river. Local governments have converted parts of the floodplain into parkland complete with recreation features like paved bicycle/jogging paths and launch sites for canoes and kayaks. The 1972 Clean Water Act remedied some problems with water quality, but in recent decades high levels of bacteria in the river prompted further government efforts to reduce pollution. Yet these efforts to clean up the river have been at best incomplete. (Witness the discarded tires, styrofoam cups, plastic bottles.)

Yet it remains, despite us, and continues to support life—including our own. In its obstinacy it signals that its ways are not our ways, that our notions of how the river can “serve” us have nothing to do with the inexorable flow of a life-force far greater than mere humans.

The River as Tremendum

But what of Otto’s third characteristic of the numinous, its power to inspire awe, even terror? At first glance, there’s little to arouse either response here on the riverbank. On this dry mid-autumn morning, the river is narrow—no more than 40 feet across. The banks rise 30, in some places 50 feet above the water.

But notice the plastic sacks and other refuse snagged in foliage high up the banks, evidence that the river occasionally rises far above this morning’s surface. And consider the wide flood plain stretching out on either side of the river channel. These are portents of the river’s hidden power and destructiveness.

In fact, I’ve seen this typically lethargic Trinity grow truly fearsome. In May 1989, I was living in an apartment complex near the West Fork in north Arlington. Several days of rain peaked on May 17, when some 12 inches fell in a single 24-hour period—about a third of the normal total rainfall for an entire year. Drivers were stranded in rising waters; homes and businesses were flooded; three Metroplex residents died. Area lakes on the West Fork and its tributaries topped their spillways. All that water had to go somewhere, and where it went was the Trinity.

Less than a block from my apartment complex, the police closed FM 157, a main thoroughfare, just south of where it crosses the West Fork. After the rains had stopped, the river was still a raging torrent, and folks from around the neighborhood, myself included, walked down to take a look. The cops stood by while we strolled past, down a roadway now barren of traffic, and out onto the concrete highway bridge. Waters normally a good 30 feet below the railing now boiled and churned just a few feet beneath and spilled out onto the flood plain. The pasture on the west side of the road and the farmland on the east were inundated. Fed by all that rainwater runoff from lakes, creeks, streets, and storm drains upstream, the West Fork had grown to at least three quarters of a mile wide and its waters were pouring across the roadway.

A squad car was parked near the water’s edge to keep the foolish from wading into the torrent and being swept away. Dozens of us stood there on the last patch of dry pavement, like onlookers at a car accident or a house fire, speechless before the spectacle. We watched the water stream across the road, dragging broken tree limbs, old tires, and other debris along with it.

I remember the cool of the evening as the sun sank behind the tree line. For some reason, I don’t recall the sound of the water, which must have made a tremendous, rushing noise. Instead, what’s etched in my memory is watching, dumbstruck, as a large, broken, uprooted tree washed slowly across the highway and settled in the drowned field on the other side, its branches still in full leaf from the instant the flood waters tore it out of the dirt, its roots dangling weirdly and helplessly in air as if still reaching for the lost soil.

The 1989 flood, and earlier, more destructive floods in 1908 and 1949, are periodic reminders that the river does not exist to suit us. It is no mere “resource” for human consumption and recreation. It remains stubbornly other, an awesome, fascinating mystery. It is, as Otto writes of the numinous, “beyond our apprehension and comprehension…because in it we come upon something inherently ‘wholly other,’ whose kind and character are incommensurable with our own, and before which we therefore recoil in a wonder that strikes us chill and numb.”

It’s this inherent otherness of the river that I find particularly revelatory of the divine. As I’ve written elsewhere, “As the transcendent source of all being, God is qualitatively different from humans and other beings” and “remains beyond whatever finite humans can conceive or imagine.” Perhaps theologian Karl Barth—whose sense of God as “Wholly Other” was an early theological influence on me—had much the same in mind when he wrote that “It is…of the very nature of…God to be inscrutable to man.” The transcendence, mystery, and otherness of the divine are also recognized beyond the bounds of Christian tradition—for instance, in Daoism and Judaism.

The God revealed in the mystery and otherness of the Trinity is not the anthropomorphic God of popular Christianity: the Sistine Chapel’s bearded patriarch-god, or Christ imagined as the spuriously White Good Shepherd, and certainly not the muscle-bound, tatted Jesus of macho Christianity. Though it’s understandable that we humans would seek to picture the infinite as something we can wrap our finite minds around, such ways of envisioning God can blinds us to the radical otherness of the divine. Worse, they can leave us with nothing more than a scaled-up version of our human selves, complete with our flaws and failings, our prejudices and hatreds, our sheer, stubborn self-centeredness. In the process we elevate ourselves and lose sight of the awesome, even terrifying mystery at the heart of everything. We see that happening today as God and religion are co-opted for political causes like Trumpian Christian nationalism and opposition to critical race theory.

Perhaps at no time has it been more crucial to recognize our own profound unimportance in the face of the natural world and the divine which both transcends it and is revealed in it. And so I return, again and again, to the river. If to encounter God we must “step out of ourselves,” then sitting here on its bank, watching the water flow by, watching how the morning sunlight plays across the ripples, mindful of my own insignificance before it all, is to take that step.