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Watching the River Flow

Ethical and religious discussion.

John McCarthy explores the therapeutic benefits of watching the river flow and assesses the spiritual significance of rivers as sites of ritual and prayer.

The power of rivers to cleanse not just the body but the soul too is a common religious theme. John examines the baptism of Jesus and the centrality of the River Ganges to the Hindus.

John marvels at a river's ability to detach us from the hectic world around us and from the churning of inner thoughts and concerns. He notes that, when staring into the water, even a monolithic city building becomes broken up into a collage of dancing reflected shapes, at once beautiful and emotionally manageable.

Rivers are constantly moving, alive almost, forever changing and developing. Like us, they are on a journey - perhaps, John wonders, that's why it's easy to see something of our own lives in theirs.

In order to tell his story, John draws upon the music of Johnny Flynn and Laura Marling, Bassekou Kouyaté and Ngoni Ba, and Joni Mitchell. Readings include historian Peter Ackroyd's homage to the Thames, Robert Southey's stunning poetic depiction of the Ganges and Mary Kienholz poetic reminder that, like all great rivers, the Columbia River is a wild and untamed beast at heart.

Presenter: John McCarthy
Producer: Max O'Brien
A TBI Media production for BBC Radio 4.

30 minutes

Music Played

  • Johnny Flynn and Laura Marling

    The Water

  • Ngoni ba

    The River Tune

  • Joni Mitchell


  • Lonnie Johnson

    Broken Levee Blues

  • Alison Krauss

    Down To The River To Pray

  • London Regency Choir

    Guide Me Oh Thou Great Redeemer

  • Bob Dylan

    Watching the River Flow


Title: The Prelude (excerpt)

Author: William Wordsworth

Publisher: Penguin Classics


Title: This is All (The Dance Sequence)

Author: Aidan Chambers

Publisher: Definitions


Title: Columbia River

Author: Mary Keinholz

Publisher: iUniverse


Title: The Song of the River

Author: Somerset Maugham’s

Publisher: Doubleday


Title: Mount Meru

Author: Robert Southey

Publisher: Leopold Classic Library


Title: Charon

Author: Edward Sapir

Publisher: Poetry Foundation


Title: Siddhartha

Author: Hermann Hesse

Publisher: Penguin Modern Classics


Title: Thames – Sacred River

Author: Peter Ackroyd

Publisher: Chatto and Windus