The labyrinth started to breathe. As those gathered for a sunset walk made their way into the center, into circles expanding and contracting, it became the very image of a pulsing heart. The crunching of measured footfalls, step after slowed step, sounded the beats. Walkers fell into rhythm, on a journey alone but as part of a living, breathing organism. A chrysalis.
The Outdoor Chaplain, Rev. Cairn Neely, was our labyrinth walk guide. A frequent presenter at Alignment: Interfaith Contemplative Practices, he has led retreatants through the running waters of the Brandywine, in meditative prayer on kayaks in Lake Nockamixon, on Shinrin Yoku (forest bathing) walks in the woods of Broad Run in Chester County, and on multiple explorations of labyrinths. This most recent session was a Chrysalis Walk in the Labyrinth at Bournelyf. The meditative practice of walking into the labyrinth resembled the wrapping of the chrysalis, enveloped in possibility. The reflective act of walking out of the labyrinth resembled the release of the chrysalis, renewed in transformation. Wrapped in the layers of this experience, the walkers were witness to the changes happening, within and beyond themselves.
The Labyrinth at Bournelyf
This particular labyrinth was the vision and creation of Rev. John Woodcock, labyrinth leader and long-time pastor of the Church of the Loving Shepherd. Woodcock has been an advocate of interfaith engagement for his more than 50-year ministry. His life’s work centered on creating a sanctuary from a converted barn in West Chester on the grounds of Bournelyf. A sanctuary for those seeking communion with spirit, regardless of the way in which they find their way to that center. It is sanctuary to an ecumenical Christian congregation, a Buddhist sangha, and launched the Jewish community of Beth Chaim. Chaim, the Hebrew word for life, the very life that flows from Bournelyf, the Stream of Life. The labyrinth was wrapped into the landscape, enveloping the trees and melting into the folds that roll towards the stream. And during the Chrysalis walk, it began to breathe.
Entering into Conversation
The Outdoor Chaplain gathered the walkers before they began their contemplative practice, encouraging them to still their thoughts, their pace, their breath – not by giving instructions, but simply by modeling a close attunement with the creation into which they were stepping. He was already in conversation with the land around us, with the labyrinth itself. He walked it before everyone else arrived, letting it know of our plan. Asking it for guidance. Sharing in its conversation. Belden Lane, theologian and professor of environmentally-centered spirituality and author of the Great Conversation: Nature and the Care of the Soul writes:
We’re surrounded by a world that talks, but we don’t listen. We’re part of a community engaged in a vast conversation, but we deny our role in it… The Earth yearns to teach us languages we didn’t even know existed.
Neely listens. Neely is already part of the conversation. And he welcomes the labyrinth walkers into it too.
Before entering, Neely shared an image with the group. In its metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly, the pupa in its chrysalis stage becomes soup. A soup of proteins that reorganize into the beings that they are to become. He encouraged us not to focus on any transformation we might hope for, any expectations that we might hold, but just to become the soup. It was astounding how quickly the dissolving happened. The power of the labyrinth pulls you into its whispered conversation where expectations dissolve. With every footstep landing only in front of the last one, there is no way of telling how far into the journey you are. Concentric circles take you close to the middle and then out to the edge again and again, with no hint of measuring the path. Soup. A golden soup, as the name chrysalis takes from the Greek. Pure. Present. Pulsing.
When we landed in the center, all having walked our own path with our own thoughts and our weights dissolving, we stopped there. Unplanned and unexplained, we craved that moment of connection in the middle. Not to speak or even look at each other, but just to breathe together for a few minutes before one by one we headed back out. Proteins aligning.
Releasing the Chrysalis
As we unwound, each releasing our chrysalis, the sun was dipping below the horizon, shedding its golden glow. Our faces lifted to the west for its blessing, each time we rounded in that direction. Gold met gold.
Neely had shared with us before we embarked the Indigenous Prayer to the Four Direction from Chief Si’ahl. Calling spirit into each direction that we faced as we walked the labyrinth that mirrored creation, we exited to the west.
Great Life-Giving Spirit, I face the West (black), the direction of sundown. Let me remember everyday that the moment will come when my sun will go down. Never let me forget that I must fade into you. Give me a beautiful color, give me a great sky for setting, so that when it is my time to meet you, I can come with glory.
The silence of the conversation was rich with shared experience. No words needed. A fox stood at a distance and nobody needed to point to it or exclaim that there was a fox to which we should all turn. We were all now in conversation without words. We were part of a community engaged in a vast conversation. And we were listening. As we parted, Neely shared his vision of watching us engaged in the walk, individuals on our own journeys of transformative practice. We were the breath that made the labyrinth expand and contract. The labyrinth became a beating heart, the lungs of the earth, the teacher of a language we didn’t even know existed.