Labyrinths: A Confession

Labyrinths: A Confession April 1, 2011

I find that it’s a constant personal struggle to feel holy. 

This can be somewhat problematic, as I have a job that usually causes people (who don’t know me) to assume that I am more holy than the general public—thus upping the ante and imposing even more pressure on this poor, unholy pastor. 

I want to feel holy—I want to be holy, in fact, but I confess that sometimes it just doesn’t come too naturally to me.

Take for example, walking the labyrinth.  I think labyrinths are really beautiful.  I love the idea of walking the labyrinth, and how that activity connects us to thousands of years of Christians who have struggled to know God.  I also get that walking the labyrinth is, for some, a very quiet, prayerful, meditative experience that allows them to feel close to God.  Further, I understand that walking the labyrinth is currently a very trendy thing to do at spiritual-type events.

However:

Along with not being too holy, it seems I am also not such a great labyrinth walker.  In fact, my heart usually sinks when I hear we’ll be walking a labyrinth as part of a spiritual retreat or exercise. 

The reasons for this are varied, including but not limited to my own constant need to complete things neatly and correctly at all times, preferably first. 

(You mean SAT tests are not competitions to see who puts their pencil down first?  What??!?)  

I can walk the labyrinth—and look relatively prayerful and holy while walking—but inside my head I am thinking things like: Am I staying in the lines?  Did I go the right way?  How close am I to the finish line?  Did I do it right?  Damn!  I thought I was almost finished—what am I doing here out on the edge again??

Turns out the goal of labyrinth walking is not so much neat completion, or doing it right, or even getting to the end before everyone else.

Sigh.

I had, until recently, just resigned myself to the fact that I just don’t do labyrinths well, and that I will just have to find and claim whatever holiness I can in other ways.  But a friend explained to me just the other day why labyrinth walking means so much to her, and now I am anxious to give it another shot.  It seems that I may, shockingly, have been missing the point all this time.

First, she explained, there’s no right way to walk the labyrinth.  In fact, it’s laid out so very simply and straightforwardly so that there is no need for “figuring out.”  You just follow the path where it leads you, not thinking too far ahead because, really—what’s the use?  You can’t really figure out the whole thing—it’s too curvy and hard to see.  One foot in front of the other, just move in the space laid out before you and don’t worry about the rest.

Then, she told me that the path of a labyrinth, while always heading toward the middle, leads the labyrinth-walker in a path that sometimes seems like it’s approaching the middle—almost there, so close!…and then, all of the sudden, takes the walker out to the very edge of the labyrinth, skating on the rim, as far away from the center as possible.  Just when you think you are there—the path winds around to the outer edges where, sometimes, you can’t even see the middle.

And last, she explained that a labyrinth is a self-contained circle.  That is, while the path of the labyrinth winds around in sometimes frustrating ways that make the future path hard to see, the entire labyrinth is contained in a circle.  That is, no matter how close to the middle you get or how far out on the edge you wobble, the path set out for you is always held in the grace and safety of that circle.  You can never, ever get lost, fall off, or fail.  Never.

What my friend said about labyrinths has got me thinking in a whole new way about what it might mean to walk the labyrinth. 

Now that I know, for example, that there is no “right” way to walk a labyrinth, that my job is to put one foot in front of the other on the path that emerges in front of me, I think the whole labyrinth-walking experience may not be as anxiety-provoking.  After all, if I am being honest, that’s what life feels like quite a lot.  One of the hardest lessons to learn in my life so far, in fact, is the very truth that life is not a game to be won but a journey to be traveled.  There is great freedom to be had in laying aside the constant, desperate need to know the future, to plan for what’s next, and just…put one foot in front of the other, look at the beauty of the stones lining the ground, pray fleeting prayers of gratitude and grace, and not worry…not worry one single bit about what’s up ahead just around the corner.

And, I was so glad to hear about the strange places the pathway of the labyrinth takes the walker, because one of my continued frustrations with labyrinth-walking has been this sensation of being so close of the middle—so close you almost feel right there—and then, in the next moment—almost without you even realizing it, finding yourself out on the very edge of the labyrinth, as far away from the middle as you could possibly get.  That experience finally, finally made sense to me as I heard my friend talk.  I don’t know about everybody else, but I certainly understand those feelings—of knowing in your deepest self that God is very close, that your life is in tune with God’s greatest hopes for you and for the world, that all shall be well—and then, in the very next little while, suddenly feeling the desolation of God’s distance, that God is so far away you definitely can’t feel God and, in fact, you hardly remember at all what it was like when you were close (Were you ever, really, you wonder?).

And most of all, I loved the part about the labyrinth being contained.  It’s a confusing journey, for sure, but no matter where you go in the circle, you can’t fall off—the whole thing is held within an outer edge.  Maybe the spiritual discipline of the labyrinth is a good reminder that no matter where our wandering might take us, our whole lives are held in the very hands of God.  We will never fall off.  We will never wander out of God’s loving care and embrace—no matter how lost we feel sometimes.

I need to know and remember these things.  Very much.  So next time I walk a labyrinth I’ll try to remember.

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