I walked my first labyrinth in San Diego, California, over a decade ago. It was a conference for pastors and I’ll never forget the impact of hearing Anne Lamott speak, eating at PF Changs for the first time, and experiencing prayer stations and the labyrinth. Powerful stuff.
Since then, I’ve come across this unique opportunity for contemplative walking several times. Once, in San Antonio, behind a beautiful church where I spent a few nights with some of the most fascinating women I’ve ever met; that was an intense time of personal peace. At Richmond Hill there’s a beautiful labyrinth, where I’ve wandered through the turns of an inlaid trail, concerned with whether or not I was doing it ‘right’.
At our recent residency in the Spiritual Direction cohort, one of the leaders shared a bit about the power of walking a labyrinth as a tool for prayer. While there are no hard and fast rules, we were encouraged to approach this opportunity as one in which we could release, receive, and rest. These are good words for multiple applications, for sure. Applied to a solitary walk in circular motion, they offer some definitive guiding principles.
My heart and mind were full, and I felt no imminent burden that needed to be released. But I was drawn to this ancient practice, and so I entered the dimly lit room where we had spent three days studying and learning, now rearranged with a hand-painted canvas in the center. I slipped out of my shoes and started to walk.
A labyrinth is not a maze; there is one way to the center and one way back out. You don’t get lost; but you do get confused, as short turns double-back and lead to longer arcs. You walk and believe that you’ll end up in the center, because you trust what you’ve been told.
I began to walk and contemplate what it was that I might need to release, and it wasn’t long – like a split second – before a boulder buried deep in my heart began to rise up; up into my chest and my throat until it choked a cry out of my mouth and I felt the enormity of a grief that I had pushed down, out of necessity, for several weeks. Long enough that I’d forgotten to pay attention; long enough that I’d believed I was past the worst of the pain. Just long enough for it to hide, and fester, and maybe even grow a little bit.
Those things we keep in the dark…unfortunately the darkness seems to grow pain like the summer sun grows weeds.
Each step became hesitant, plodding. I slowed down and thought; I slowed down and prayed, meaning that I began a dialogue with the Divine presence that I believe is aware of my conscious thoughts and is the source of love and light.
I talked to God.
I told him I didn’t want to release this – because the pain was wrapped around loss, and the loss was wrapped around love, and the love was for a person dear to my heart, precious to me like one of my own children. I walked, slowly; arguing, fighting, clinging.
Basically, saying NO, I DON’T WANT TO DO THIS! DON’T MAKE ME LET GO! I NEED TO HOLD ON; I NEED TO FIX THIS! THERE IS MORE FOR ME TO DO!
YOU CAN’T MAKE ME DO THIS!
Ironic, how much like children we are. I suspect there’s more behind that statement Jesus made about coming to him like children than we fully understand.
I kept walking, and here’s the thing; every step around this maze-like, tangled pathway gave me time. I trusted the direction – all I had to do was walk. I knew where I was headed – I just had to keep moving. And it was within that movement that I could wrestle with all the emotion buried inside of me, all of this stuff that had come bubbling up to the surface. In that space – simply time and motion – I had a very real encounter with God. Authentic to my legitimate, raw, vulnerable emotions; encompassed in the simple process of walking.
I cried. I sobbed, actually. But as I got closer to the center, the sense of presence grew stronger and stronger. More of my pain surfaced – all the fear and grief and sorrow – while, at the same time, something else surfaced as well. Something outside of myself. A presence of comfort and peace and reassurance sort of moved into my soul and expanded into those hurt places.
I kept walking, and I literally felt enveloped by this presence.
I made the final turn and saw a larger circle. In the center, I bent down and rested my hands in the open space.
I don’t want to do this.
Rather than the defiance I spouted earlier in my walk, this was simply a raw, honest admission. I did not want to release this – because to release it all meant relinquishing the opportunity to control, or manipulate, or fix, or help, or explain, or convince.
All things I am good at.
All things that I knew I could do in order to achieve the outcome I believed was best for this situation, in spite of the fact that I’d had to admit that my efforts were to no avail.
All things that I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that God was telling me I must release.
Not because I was wrong.
But because in order to receive, I have to let go.
I have to stop.
Stop muddying up the waters. Stop chasing after ways to avoid my own pain. Stop trying to save people.
While still crouched in the center, I traced a name on the canvas with my finger.
I left the center and walked the pathway out of the circle; I confess, it was not easy. It seemed I was leaving something – someone – behind, abandoning something that I needed to keep close and protect. Yet I couldn’t deny the power of the emotions I had experienced and the supernatural presence I had encountered.
I found my shoes and made my way to a small coffee table where some paper and colored pencils had been left. I scratched spots of color while I sat with what had just happened.
I cried, again. I felt anguish.
The the tears subsided, and I sensed these words:
The mystery that I am is the love that is yours.
I confess, I don’t quite know what that means. But I am seeing more and more clearly that to follow Jesus, to be a Christian, to be attentive to the things of God – to do anything remotely pointed in the direction of the Creator is to experience things that are supernatural, powerful, and often beyond our understanding. More and more, I am being beckoned into a mystery that is wrapped in, around, and through the deepest parts of things like Love your neighbor as yourself and The first shall be last and the last shall be first and Seek justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God. Among other things.
If God can meet me in the deepest part of my soul while walking in circles to the center of a canvas and back out again, who am I to argue? If by releasing things that I have spent my entire life trying to control, I am able to receive grace, why wouldn’t I accept this invitation?
I’ll rest in that.