(The first part was posted Tuesday)
Walking a labyrinth is a microcosm of life lived as a disciple of Jesus, a recapitulation of the Christian life as walked between hedges. It is an exercise in faith, trusting that the labyrinth’s designer has seen to it that the obscured pathway through the hedges will indeed arrive at the center, and an exercise of hope that this walk will somehow be meaningful. It is to be reminded that we now do indeed “see in a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
The path of the labyrinth to its center is sure but unseen. In a tangible way, it can be an experience of “the cloud of unknowing” when done prayerfully and attentively. As in the cloud of unknowing, one’s mind cannot know and one’s vision cannot see the way ahead. It is to “fly blind,” as when pilots are completely dependent on their instruments when flying in zero or near zero visibility.
The labyrinthine story of my getting from New Hampshire to Prince Edward Island (PEI) and walking a labyrinth was a story that began with a desire for rest, quiet and God’s love, random daydreams about revisiting PEI, a “chance” comment over dinner about a retreat for pastors on PEI, and ended with a trip to Canada. It was a story that moved unknowingly from random inner experiences to real life, with the Spirit of God weaving it all together. [See yesterday’s post for details.]
That there was a labyrinth at Healing Presence Christian Retreat seemed at first incidental, but, as my story unfolded, I came to realize that if God was the inspiration for this journey, then I needed to take a labyrinth at the journey’s end seriously. All the more so, as Healing Presence didn’t strike me as the kind of place that was into trendy spiritual practices.
The labyrinth consisted of two acres of waist high shrubs surrounded by English oak trees forming a Star of David. At the center was a large wooden cross surrounded by flowers in the shape of a heart, laid flat on the ground. It symbolized the heart of God the Father. The shape and construction of the labyrinth had special meaning for our hosts, Jim and Barbara. Of particular importance for me was the hope that to enter the labyrinth was to journey into the heart of the Father’s love.
Pausing to get a general sense of the whole, I entered the labyrinth. I was immediately struck by how quiet this place was, and that it was appropriate to walk slowly. Since you can’t clearly see where you’re going, it made sense to walk slowly and patiently. I was reminded of the words of Dallas Willard: “Hurry is the enemy of spiritual life.” If nothing else, walking a labyrinth is an exercise in slowing down, and in slowing down, I discovered, comes peace and the rest that accompanies peace.
Curiously, as I proceeded inward, I became aware of the many weeds sending out vines over the shrubbery—vetch. Being a compulsive weeder, I began to pull out handfuls of the stuff as I walked and tossed it outside the labyrinth. As I progressed, I realized that my progress didn’t seem like progress at all. I walked, seemingly getting ever closer to the center, but just as it seemed I would enter the center, the pathway took a turn, and I found myself getting further and further from it. I realized that this too was part of the spiritual journey. Drawing near to God often seemed to end not in some lasting, emotional embrace of Divine love, but in wandering away. Feeling God’s presence often led either back into the cloud of unknowing or into a dark night of the soul. Yet, this too is part of the pathway to the heart of God. A path that seems to take us away from intimacy toward absence is part of a greater journey where Divine absence serves a greater, future intimacy.
Slowly I made my way to the center, the path wandering away from it before returning to it. Once there, I didn’t know what to expect. Was I supposed to feel something? Was there some insight I was supposed to have? Nothing dramatic happened, and there was no voice from heaven and no grand inner enlightenment. I had arrived at the center, in the heart of God, and so all was well. I made my way out of the labyrinth, exiting by means of the shortcut, glad I had walked the labyrinth and having a clear sense that I needed to do it again.
I returned the next day, again pausing prayerfully before entering. Aware that vetch was everywhere, I began pulling its tendrils off the hedge by the handful and again threw them outside. It felt good to be doing something useful, or at least what seemed useful to me. Somehow, though, being useful didn’t seem to be an appropriate attitude for walking a labyrinth, so I began to see my weeding as a metaphor for dealing with my sins.
However, as I walked, I soon saw that my “sin weeding” was merely a justification for being distracted. This hit home, for distraction is a regular part of my prayer life. This isn’t a minor problem either, for I find myself often looking for distractions, even to the point of going outdoors and weeding the garden by our backdoor. This always feels good to me, as I feel like I’m doing something useful. After all, didn’t the Lord say that weeds were bad in the Parable of the Sower and the Seeds? That weeds choked the seedlings, rendering them fruitless? I tended to get lost in the metaphor and used it to justify my distractibility, and in so doing too often chose usefulness over God. My weeding had spiritual significance, as did my ripping out vetch from the labyrinth. Like the disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration, I was missing the point through my “usefulness.” God is present, but I am busy building booths. A distorted memory of weeds in a parable gave way to deeper memories of Mary and Martha, and that I was Martha, missing out on things deeper than mere usefulness.
The next day I returned to the labyrinth for the third and last time, and found that I was able to ignore whatever vetch I had failed to pull out previously. I walked slowly, my mind being drawn to the qualities of faith and hope, as it occurred to me that walking a labyrinth was, in a small way, an exercise of faith and hope that what I was doing was meaningfully assisting me to enter further into the love relationship that is the Trinity, a partaker of the Divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).
I again entered the center of the labyrinth, the heart of God in the shape of a large cross spread out across the ground. Unsure of what I should be doing or feeling, it suddenly seemed appropriate to lay myself down on the cross. A well-known verse came quickly to mind with greater depth than ever before: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me an gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20, ESV).
I lay there quietly, spread out on the cross, waiting. But, for what? What else could I wait for? How much further into the love of God can I get than I am now? The labyrinth left me there, embracing a love that embraced me. Whatever other stories there may be for me, they all proceed from and return to this one.
The sun was warm and I was getting hot. It was time to leave. This time, I chose not to take the short cut back to the entrance. I walked the whole thing, weaving my way in and, finally, out, with the words “who loved me and gave himself for me” going through my mind.
Sooner or later, we must leave the labyrinth like we will leave this life. Our wandering will be over. We will know and see as we have been known and seen. We will see beyond the obscurity of the labyrinth and be at home in a place prepared for us from the beginning of time. We will remember our labyrinthine lives as training in faith and hope, empowered by a love that that draws us homeward.
To walk in a labyrinth is a catch a glimpse of a greater journey, ending not in a metaphorical center but in the real one. It’s a reminder that “now I know in part; but then shall I know even as I also am known” (1 Corinthians 13:12, KJV).