About 700 years ago (give or take) my partner, Linda had a conference in San Francisco. It was pre-boys, and I got to tag along. I remember learning that our hotel was a less than a mile from Grace Cathedral. I was thrilled. I planned my days around my walks to and from the Cathedral. What I didn’t think through though, was that sometimes in San Francisco,you have to walk uphill both ways. Oh. My. Goodness.
So why Grace Cathedral? Grace is an Episcopal Church on San Fran’s Nob Hill. From it’s website you can learn that, “Grace Cathedral is home to two labyrinths. Labyrinths have appeared in many cultures since ancient times and in Christian spirituality since the fourth century.” The site goes on to talk a bit about the significance of labyrinths. “The labyrinth is an archetype, a divine imprint, found in all religious traditions in various forms around the world. By walking a replica of the Chartres labyrinth, laid in the floor of Chartres Cathedral in France around 1220, we are rediscovering a long-forgotten mystical tradition.”
I’ve been walking labyrinths now for over a third of my life. I’ve been asked before if it’s “just walking around in circles”? No, it’s not. “Is it just an elaborate maze.?” No, it’s not. What is it then? For me it’s a path that is always just long enough to slow me down, each time. It’s a series of turns and turn-backs that lead me unpredictably forward, each time. It's a pathway traveled where countless others before me have also slowed down, each time.
When I enter a labyrinth often I carry a question in with me. Some question or concern about something that is troubling me. As I’m walking the labyrinth, I am intentional about "unpacking it." I listen as it rattles around in my head. I try to push my way through it as I move into the labyrinth. And somehow, somewhere along the path in, toward the center of the labyrinth, there is a shift. Something happens that moves what was into what may be. As I continue walking toward the center, the question that I brought in with me, most often melts away. Several times, when I come to the center my heart slows and I physically stop. I stop and look around. And I pray. What I brought into the circle shifts into something else. Several times with this shifting comes the feeling of a warm blanket covering me, I become mindful of something else. Several times, this something else becomes the heart of my journey.
I remember the first time I walked the labyrinth at the Retreat Center in Kunuga (NC). We were encouraged to `carry a question in, and see what happens.’ My question was about a dog we had to put to sleep the week before. As I walked the labyrinth I thought of Nessie’s death. I wondered about her and was feeling my grief about her. Many minutes later when I got to the center, my thoughts about Nessie fell away. Instead, what I understood to be right in front of me was my grief about my father. Dad was ten years into his struggle with Alzheimer’s. I remember standing in the center with my heart overflowing with grief and sadness about him. And after a little bit, I realized that my next step would be following a path out. Literally and figuratively, I was going to be moving from my first understanding of this deep grief. Each step meant that I wasn’t where I had been (just minutes before). Each step represented that this path ahead was not going to be a straight line, that it would not be possible to see the end from where I was standing. Instead, I would have to follow the path that was ahead of me. As hard and as easy as that.
It’s the slowing down, I think. It’s all about left foot, right foot and the strength that comes when you keep going. Because of the way the path is set up, you really can’t go fast. At least I can’t. The turns and the winding back and forward invite, encourage, insist on going slower. Not in the way that you feel hampered at all. Instead for me, there is an intentionally about the walking. The course has been put before me, all I need to do is continue on. It’s not up to me to decide where I’m going, it is up to me to take the next step.