READY: We all have to cross the River Styx

Staff Writer
The Destin Log
Mary Ready

I wish I could take credit for this topic, but the truth is my friend Rev. Thomas Butts wrote something like this for his weekly column in the Monroeville paper several years ago. He kindly gave me permission to paraphrase some of his thoughts. I also found a similar treatment in a 1992 Easter sermon by Dr. James Baird for First Presbyterian Church of Jackson, Miss. The theme for both pieces is that river we are all going to cross someday from this life into the next.

Along with four other Styx Rivers, two in Michigan and one each in Georgia and Ohio, the two pastors reference the one in Alabama, remembering that many years ago, when you traveled east from Mobile to Pensacola, there was a road sign proclaiming “The River Styx. Charon Retired.” Baird recalls that on one occasion, the handwritten addition attached to the highway department’s sign read “Charon — Retired by Jesus Christ.” The next time he passed over the bridge, that particular message had been removed. From time to time, the “Charon Retired” part kept showing up, affixed to the official sign, until the responsible party either gave up or died. 

In Greek mythology, the River Styx is the River of Death. Charon was the ferryman who took the dead across into the world of the dead, ruled over by Hades. For ancient Greeks, the underworld had places for good folks (Elysian Fields) and bad folks (Tartarus). If a living person attempted to board his boat, he would yell at them and lash out at the individual with a long paddle. Otherwise, he is reputed to be a kindly old gentleman who navigated the Netherworld’s five-river system with skill and great compassion for the souls he transported into eternity. 

Rev. Butts tells a story of a woman who came to the River Styx and asked to be taken across into that dark land. Charon reminded her that the dead were offered the option of drinking from the River Lethe, whose waters removed all memory of previous existence.

She wanted to know, “Will I forget how I have suffered?” Charon replied, “Yes, but you will forget how you have rejoiced.” Then she asked, “Will I forget my failures?” Patiently, Charon responded, “Yes, and your victories as well.” Finally, she wanted to know, “Will I forget how I have been hated?” “Yes,” said Charon, “but also you will forget how you have been loved.” After a few moments of reflection, the woman decided to leave the waters of Lethe untasted.

Now, if I believed Greek mythological characters were real, I’d conclude that Charon would never retire. Spiritually speaking, that river gets crossed into the afterlife every day by legions of souls. The Bible says, “It is appointed unto man once to die.”

Then comes the everlasting part. Like Charon’s passengers, we go forever to one of two destinations. And the choices we have made while alive determine which one. Don’t forget, this world is not our home. We’re just pilgrims passing through on our way to that river some call Jordan.

And, yep, that’s what John Wayne was alluding to when he referred to people as “pilgrims.”

Another message from the Charon story is that we should refuse to drink from the River Lethe. Granted, there are many things in my life I would love to forget, especially the times involving the grief of loss, but those painful memories are threads in the tapestry of who I am. If I eliminated a single embarrassing, sad, or wicked moment, the fabric would not be the same. Besides, it’s often those regrettable events in our lives that eventually turn into a blessing or bring us to a greater — and more sober — wisdom

So, I don’t think I would choose to drink from Lethe, the River of Forgetfulness. I want to be sharp at the time of my crossing, not missing a single minute of the trip. Those waters, whose name gives us the term lethargic, might render me numb to past pain, but I’m afraid it would also dull the indescribable joy I expect to have on my way to Paradise. 

As Tennyson said, “I hope to see my Pilot face to face when I have crossed the bar.” 

What the poet was referring to is that symbolic boat ride we’re all going to take some day. My Frank, who loved nothing more than being on a boat in this life, has made that final crossing. Charon was not his charter captain, and when my time comes, he also won’t be the one to take me over. I’ll be looking for that Pilot Who promises to be with me through this life and into the next.

Mary Ready of Destin is a twice-retired English teacher and long-time area resident. Her columns are published on Saturdays.