Until recently, labyrinths weren’t for me. From what I could make out, they were for people seeking that emotional warming oven known as “spirituality,” which may indeed warm but too often only leaves one half-baked. For the life of me, I couldn’t see the point of labyrinths and certainly couldn’t imagine myself ever walking through one.
Until a month ago.
Labyrinths, for those of you who don’t pay attention to such things, are meant to be “done.” That is, they’re a circular, maze-like pathway either painted on the ground or consisting of a a twisty-turny pathway through shrubbery leading to a center point. It looks like a maze, but, unlike a maze, it’s not designed to confuse you or get you lost. You can’t see where the labyrinth will take you, but, if you patiently follow the pathway, it will lead you in time to the center of it. You follow the twisty-turny pathway until it ends in the center, which, for me, is the love of God. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
The path that led me to a labyrinth on Prince Edward Island was something of a labyrinth walk in and of itself.
It began late last spring. I found myself exhausted and not a little depressed. My wife and I operate a small retreat for pastors, missionaries and their spouses called Forest Haven. We live in a quiet, wooded part of New Hampshire, a beautifully perfect place to come away on a retreat. “Perfect,” that is, for everyone except my wife and I. The place of rest we offer to pastors requires a lot of work; we work here so pastors can rest here. So, what do you do and where do you go when you need to get away for rest?
Besides Forest Haven, I am also the part-time pastor of a warm, welcoming little church in Concord, about forty-five minutes away. My wife and I love the church to pieces, but the drive to get there gets longer and longer as we get older. And, as getting older might suggest, I am looking at my retirement from pastoral ministry in nine months or so, an event that is both a source of relief and depression.
Late last spring, I became increasingly aware that I needed rest and relaxation, but how? Where? This awareness was the beginning of the pathway into the labyrinth. Self-awareness gave rise to prayer, and as I prayed I found myself thinking a lot about Prince Edward Island (PEI), the smallest of Canada’s Provinces, which we had visited the year before. It is a quietly beautiful place of rolling hills of potato fields, reddish brown beaches and cliffs, and small fishing harbors; it has “peaceful and quiet” written all over it.
Of course, daydreaming about a return visit to PEI and paying for it are two different things. I was keenly aware of my desire to go back there, but equally aware that the little money we had available wasn’t going to get us there. At the time, I saw no correlation between what I was praying and my daydreams of PEI. After all, I daydream about visiting other places too, like China, France, Switzerland. Still, though, PEI daydreams seemed different, more real.
The weeks went by. Our Forest Haven guests came and went. The daydreams continued. Then, one evening over dinner, our guests casually mentioned that they had discovered a retreat like Forest Haven on PEI, but it was too far away from them to consider. Needless to say, their casual comment was not at all casual for me. Eagerly, I asked them if they had any contact information, and, perhaps a bit surprised at my interest, told me they did.
My need to get away and my love for PEI now moved from daydreams to a real possibility. I began to see my PEI daydreams in light of my prayers. “Healing Presence Christian Retreat” looked exactly like the kind of place we wanted—a simple place to stay at a spacious Christian retreat on the secluded shore of Murray River Basin. It was affordable, too. We contacted them, and, happily discovered that they had an opening for the time we wanted to get away in mid-August.
At this point, let’s pause a moment. Why am I telling a story that many would consider rather trite? Why am I going on and on about something as trivial as a retreat and a vacation? And what about the labyrinth for heaven’s sake?!
We’ll get to the labyrinth in a bit. Suffice it to say that Healing Presence Christian Retreat has a labyrinth, and an impressive one at that, consisting of hedges three or four feet tall. And, since our Pentecostal hosts, Jim and Barbara, had designed and grown the labyrinth themselves, I couldn’t write it off as some sort of hip, liberal Protestant trendiness. Since it seemed clear to me that God had led us there, I felt I needed to take their labyrinth seriously and do it.
As promised, we’ll get to the actual labyrinth in the next section of this labyrinthine ramble. But, now, I’d like to pause and reflect on the fact that our return to PEI wasn’t just my desire for a vacation and a retreat; it was God’s doing.
God does indeed involve himself in our lives when momentous things are at stake, when we reach life’s crossroads where what we decide shapes the future. But, God also involves himself in the small, trivial things in our lives as well, such as a need for rest. Because of this, it is always worthwhile to pause and reflect on how God’s grace and our lives intersect, how at some moments we find ourselves unwittingly drawn into a thread within the grand tapestry of God’s will.
The road to PEI began with simple self-awareness, that I was physically and mentally tired and not a little depressed over my upcoming retirement. Nothing spiritual here, seemingly, but self-awareness became the fuel for prayer, as praying is to speak the truth about ourselves to God as best we can. Initially, I didn’t expect anything to come of this confession. The daydreams about PEI began after I started praying about in this way, but I didn’t make that connection at the time. As far as I was concerned, they were still merely daydreams. It wasn’t until our Forest Haven guests told us about a place like Forest Haven on PEI that I realized my daydreams had a source outside of myself.
I have found that prayer affects my decision-making and discernment by making me aware of things I might otherwise have missed or misunderstood. Praying for some time away also pre-disposed me to share parts of my life with our Canadian hosts that I would not have otherwise shared. And, I certainly would never have walked a labyrinth there, had I not, by this time, become convinced that God was in this whole journey—this labyrinth—even when early on I didn’t know that.
We follow Christ through life not always knowing what we’re doing or where he’s going. We know our ultimate resting place, the center of the labyrinth if you will, but can’t see the way there. “The Cloud of Unknowing” tells us, “God, the master of time, never gives the future. He gives only the present, moment by moment, for this is the law of the created order, and God will not contradict himself in his creation.”
God only gives us the present moment in which His Spirit meets us to speak and guide. To enter into the presence of God and into God’s future is to enter a “Cloud of Unknowing” where we are known beyond our ability to know. These present moments take us step by step into God’s future, each step building on the previous one so that, in hindsight, we see an order and pattern in our life that we previously couldn’t see.
This is what it is to walk a labyrinth. It is to live forward with confidence into a way that is fundamentally safe though unseen, at least initially. Yet, although the way forward is shrouded in unknowing, at the center of it is a person who is The Way, who leads us home to the household of a Father who embraces his adoptee prodigals in welcome.
Part 2 on Friday: Walking an actual labyrinth as a way of experiencing and entering into the presence of the Father through the love of the Son who is the way, the truth, and the life.
 This was taken from “A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants” (Nashville: The Upper Room). I do not know which translation of “The Cloud of Unknowing” was used here.