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.
22 thoughts on “Walking a Labyrinth to Get to a Labyrinth, part 1 by Randy Thompson”
Dana, thank you for this.
I’ve heard of ‘believers’ who are cruel, petulant, and awful pieces of work.
And I’ve known non-believers who are kind, honest, and considerate.
If faced with a choice between the two and what they are as human beings, and if it pans out as in the above two examples, I’ll pick the non-believer every time.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
I’m sure I will. I have my whole life, done things quite apart from the desire to please you. I’d be lying to you, God, and to myself, if I said that from now on I would never do anything apart from the desire to please you. You know me better than that.
I’ve done it a couple of times, and my experience has been that, especially if it’s not “guided” in any way (which was a Thing for a while), it slows things down, particularly those thoughts that are the static noise in our brains. It’s about focus, and silence, and nepsis, and simply being in the present moment. Lots of people pray while walking the labyrinth, and some even pray the Jesus Prayer. If it helps you, great; if not, that’s ok too.
The manifestations are there; they just don’t look like typical Charismatic ones. Very common are weeping icons, or icons “showing up” in places where they haven’t been before, or arriving on your doorstep (the latter happened to me the very hour that our son-in-law phoned us to report that our daughter was home from the hospital after her motorcycle accident).
There are other prayers for healing besides the gathering of priests for the Unction service that lasts about 2 hours (and is for anyone with a serious illness, not only at the point of death). I had prayer at the end of Liturgy before a surgery I had for a bad skin cancer. We can anoint ourselves with olive oil that has burned in an oil lamp in front of a saint; things happen with that, too. We don’t broadcast these manifestations because 1) we don’t want to publicize something that may not be of God, so we take our time in discerning them, and 2) most of what happens is a gift within the Church, and those outside have difficulty understanding.
I’m sorry that priest was so discouraging for you. There’s actually a high awareness of the Holy Spirit in our prayers. Every service beings, “O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere present and filling all things, Treasury of Blessings and Giver of Life, come and abide in us and cleanse us from every impurity, and save our souls, O Good One.” We invoke all the Persons of the Trinity all over the place. I can’t imagine why the priest focused only on the healing service.
Even though in the West, Labyrinths have a long symbolic tradition; in Medieval cathedrals, walking the Labyrinth represented a Pilgrimage to those who could not go physically. And such “pattern walking” rituals go back a long way; even the Inca had a pattern-walking pilgrimage from peak to peak of the Andes and the going theory on their predecessors’ Nazca Lines was the figures were probably marked for pattern-walking in the manner of a Labyrinth.
I agree with you about the lack of discipline, generally, in Pentecostalism. I admire the spiritual experience and the presence of the Holy Spirit; I’m less enamored with the theology and have no time at all for the stage show aspects of healing services and the like. Too much like an old time medicine show.
That said, I still don’t understand the hostility to such manifestations within Orthodoxy. Given Orthodoxy’s liturgical depth and spiritual heritage (e.g., the Philokalia) , I should think such manifestations would fit right in safely.
It is probably because I have a strong anti-democratic streak I have less problem with this than you. Orthodoxy as it has evolved first under Byzantium and later under Muscovy, is definitely not where you want to go to hear the vox populi.
Now, I am not enamored of Pentecostalism. It has been a good thing in as much as it has, and is, re-enchanting Western Christianity to the point where you can openly talk about divine healing or demonic influence without being thought a kook or mentally ill, but the democratization of the spiritual gifts has been problematic. Mana, or the mandate of Heaven, has always been difficult for mere mortals to control. Having participated in a healing crusade with one of Benny Hinn’s apprentices, I saw firsthand the result of wielding spiritual power (real or attributed) without a corresponding level of purity and dispassion. This can very easily lead to spiritual abuse. In fact, given the level of Western aversion to asceticism and self-denial, to which I also am heir, it makes spiritual abuse all but inevitable.
So, I prefer the Orthodox way, which puts the charismatics into monasteries and purges them through prayer, fasting, and obedience. Quite often, when miraculous gifts begin to manifest in the life of a monastic or an ascetical struggler, it is treated as an additional burden, inimical to one’s own salvation, and only exercised out of compassion for others. Interestingly, Saint John the Wonderworker of San Francisco worked a number of very signal miracles, yet his disciple Father Seraphim Rose was one of the leading opponents of the Charismatic movement within Orthodoxy, and no miracles at all are attributed to him.
Well, I was chary of labyrinths too, and for the same reasons you describe. Yet, when I did it, there was no self-consciousness about liberal protestant trendy.
I’ve always wondered why the charismatic renewal never got off the ground within Orthodoxy. I was, at one point, very close to converting to Orthodoxy, but a lecture on healing by an Orthodox theologian broke the spell. It seemed that you needed a fair amount of liturgy and a priest or to pray for the sick. The presence of God was seemingly unwelcome in the lives of the laity. You see “gifts” at work in the lives of Orthodox saints, but they are discouraged elsewhere. Why is that, I wonder?
It seemed, that night, that to become an Orthodox layperson was to become spiritually useless. That’s probably not fair, but that’s what it looked like to me.
I’ve never shared this publicly, so I do so with some trepidation. I’d be very interested in your response.
“MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”
• Thomas Merton, “Thoughts in Solitude”
© Abbey of Gethsemani
Yeah, I go back to the partnership idea. I think we must take on the responsibility for acting and deciding. Otherwise it’s God or the Devil who made me do it. Just doing what I was told. Our role is large and we are accountable. I don’t think we give up on discernment but it’s not so mysterious as trying to read an unknown language. Openness of spirit and confidence to act responsibly. We are in part creators of that will that we are seeking. He puts pointers and roadblocks in numerous forms out there. Dreams are a biggie. Odd circumstances. The word of a spouse. The word of a child. A pastor. A book. Life is aiding and steering us if we are listening.
How very true is that.
–> “Should you marry an unbeliever? NO, that is clearly outside the will of God.”
Scripture surely agrees with you. But… but… He can also work around and through people who choose otherwise.
I won’t give you the full story, but about ten years ago I discovered my discernment was far from perfect when, after feeling God wanted me to push back against something, that something came to be, and ended up clearly in God’s will.
Lesson. Learned. Humility. Accepted.
I am way less eager to go all-in with my discernment meter any more…lol..
Seneca… best comment by you ever.
Garry Friesen: Decision Making and the Will of God. Great, great influential book.
[ No God has not limited you to only one person who could be THEE marital choice and The ONLY marital choice.]
Should you marry an unbeliever? NO, that is clearly outside the will of God.
Should you buy a Honda or a Toyota. Should it be black or red?
It’s good to seek God’s wisdom but then go out and buy your preference.
senecagriggs, I think ‘falling forward in the right direction’ counts also . . . . small steps, it’s the direction that matters
I’m a little chary of labyrinths. They don’t keep very salutatory company. As you suggested, the have an aroma of “hip, liberal Protestant trendiness”, which Pentecostals can participate in as well as any denizen of the UCC.
I have always been intrigued as to which denominations the Charismatic movement made inroads into, and which denominations resisted it. The PCUSA embraced it, the PCA not so much. The ELCA embraced it, but I don’t think it ever got off the ground in the Missouri Synod. I knew lots of Episcopal charismatics back in the day, but I never met any in the continuing churches. Most importantly, the Charismatic movement got a lot of traction in Roman Catholicism, even though most RC charismatics these days are a graying crowd. The youthful energy in the Latin Church seems to me to be among the traditionalists.
In the Orthodox church, the Charismatic movement never got off the ground. It was subjected to a treatment of benign neglect by the hierarchy and has had no influence at all. It is far more common to meet Orthodox practitioners of Transcendental Meditation (-something I don’t agree with, but I have to remember the Orthodox practice of minding what’s on your plate and not grumbling about your brother’s-) than it is to meet an Orthodox layman who speaks in tongues.
That aside, I’ve been concerned that doing a labyrinth will turn me into an egalitarian or a Democrat or worse.
(/sarc) What is the supposed benefit, and how does it differ from leaving my cell phone in the house and going out into the woods with my prayerbook and a Bible?
There is a fine line between discerning God‘s will and deciding to do something. A very fine line indeed. Scripture says to acknowledge the Lord in all our ways and he will make straight our paths. Both things have to happen, it seems to me. We must pray and humbly beseech the Lord for direction as well as reach a point where we make a decision and, as you said, live forward. I like that phrase. That moving forward is not always so plain to see as the absolute essence of God’s will for our lives at the time that we start it so it requires bravery and humble trust. It helps to consider oneself a ‘partner’ in the process, not simply a subject trying to decipher a complete unknown. Sometimes, perhaps at a crossroads, I imagine myself sitting at a board room table with the Lord and throwing out ideas. “Let’s take a look at this”. “I’ve been leaning in this direction…”. I let the whole scene play out with His response and some back and forth. Usually it all goes into my mental binder to further serve in the process but occasionally startling clarity will occur and I am imbued with the needed confidence to move ahead.
Randy, thank you very much for this story. More than you can imagine, this is what I needed to hear. I’m looking forward to the next part.
One step at a time – maybe not even that at times.