What happened that day in the labyrinth
My favorite earrings at the moment are these small silver spirals. I like them because they’re sort of little mini labyrinths and I’ve been fascinated by the idea of labyrinths for a while now. My fascination started because I read several glowing accounts from big time spiritual writers of how this ancient and revered prayer tool has been powerful, surprising, and practically life-changing for those who want to connect more deeply with God -- I particularly remember reading about it in one of Nora Gallagher’s books, her memoir of “a year lived in faith,” called Things Seen and Unseen. Nora is an amazing writer, and when she told about walking the labyrinth at her church and how she had an experience in which she clearly felt the movement of her own soul, I nearly wet my pants with envy.
So, a couple years ago, when I finally got the chance to walk a legitimate labyrinth, I was pretty thrilled. (I say legitimate because once before I’d walked a temporary labyrinth staked out in packing twine on the front lawn of a church in Oak Park, and I was so worried about tripping on the string and ending up sprawled across the ancient prayer tool, thereby screwing up the experience for everyone else, that all I was unhappy, self-conscious and overly anxious the whole time walking it – so that clearly didn’t count.)
This legit labyrinth was no flimsy faker…it was embedded on the grounds of a hard-working little Catholic retreat center out in the middle of nowhere Indiana. I was there for a women’s retreat weekend, sponsored by my church in Chicago, and we were having our afternoon break time, during which we were invited to do crafts (Beading? Decoupage? Do people even do decoupage anymore?), take naps or nature walks, just hang out in the lodge and chat…or walk the labyrinth.
Of course, I chose the labyrinth.
This particular labyrinth, built in the 11-circuit Chartres style, had a grassy path neatly edged with brick. Before I began walking it, I read this, in a brochure provided by the retreat staff:
The labyrinth is not a maze, but a winding, unicursal path. There is one pathway in and one pathway out. There are as many ways to walk the labyrinth as there are people who do so. Most people take time for reflection first. They center themselves before entering the labyrinth. They seek the guidance of the Spirit. They allow themselves to leave any skepticism behind – just try to walk, run or dance with an open mind.
First, I will admit, there was no dancing involved when I made the trek around the circuit, not even skipping, running, jumping jacks, or some smooth and graceful tai chi. I just walked. Slowly and…you know… meditatively-looking. I did, however, as the brochure suggested, attempt to reflect and center myself before going in. I did try to keep my mind open and seek the guidance of the Spirit, to the best of my ability. I didn’t really know how to “allow” myself to leave any skepticism behind. I mean, geez, if I knew how to leave my skepticism behind, I probably wouldn’t need to walk a labyrinth, right?
But whatever. I walked the path. And I felt that I was basically following instructions and doing everything I was supposed to do.
And nothing happened.
No bright lights. No epiphanies, major or minor. No moments of wonder, no flood of peace, nothing verging on awe. Nothing.
Well, except that I got a little bored. And annoyed that nothing was happening.
Unlike the stories I’d read in those beautifully written people-seeking-a-holy-and-wondrous-relationship-with-the-Divine books, I got zilch. Of course, also unlike them, I wasn’t in a remote little monastery in France, the Himalayas, or even California, maybe that was my problem. But this felt like this was my big chance, as close as I was going to get to a spiritual vortex in the middle of my Midwestern, middle-class life.
When I got near the end of the route, close to the center of the labyrinth, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I considered raising my fist to the heavens to yell at God, but that seemed a bit overly dramatic. So instead I sat down in the middle of the path and went into what could have looked like the appropriately beatific silent prayer time, culminating my meaningful labyrinthial experience, if anyone had wandered nearby.
I guess maybe it was actually a prayer, if whining with your eyes closed counts as prayer. (Seems to be the kind I'm best at, honestly)
Crap, God, I said (and I’m paraphrasing) what’s the deal? I’m feeling kinda ripped off here. All I wanted was a little something cool and spiritual to happen. Just a special moment, even a semi-special moment. Is that so much to ask?.
After a while, I stood up and shuffled out of the labyrinth. Went back to my room. Had a diet Pepsi. Ate some chocolate. Felt guilty about eating the chocolate. Craved more chocolate.
I really don’t know what you’re supposed to do, if you would like to be a more godly-type person, but aren’t particularly good at it. If you would love to be more holy, or at least more holy-ish, but you’ve got a lot on your plate, including a heaping pile of skepticism. And if you’re not even close to being a spiritual giant, in fact you don’t even like spiritual giants or people who feel they have answers to all the big questions of life and consider Jesus their personal friend.
I was thinking about this yesterday when I went to church. 10 am, there I was, once again, wearing my pretty little labyrinth earrings, sitting on a rock hard pew in a beatific little sanctuary on the corner of LaSalle and Elm. What am I doing here? Why do I keep showing up? I realize I’m in the minority. For years Gallup polls have been reporting that around 40% of Americans say they attend church every week. The key words here are “say they attend church.” Recently, sociologists of religion have insisted on counting how many people actually go to church, versus those who say they go. Two of those researchers, Kirk Hadaway and Penny Marler, reported that only 20.4% of the population, actually step foot into a church each weekend --half the number who say they do.
The conclusion I came to yesterday was that I go to church out of longing. A longing to make sense of why we’re on this planet, and to connect with others who are thinking about the same things. A longing to be in a space, for a least an hour or so a week, where the gods we usually worship in our culture - money, power, violence, beauty, intelligence - are replaced by a God of love, generosity, brokenness, vulnerability and grace.
I go because, of Jacob, the “big Bible hero” our pastor preached about yesterday, who as it turns out, wasn’t a spiritual giant either, who was basically a major…what’s the proper theological term for it…? Oh yeah, a fuck up…and yet God kept loving him, kept taking him as he was, and not giving him what he “deserved” because that’s what a God of grace does.
I also go to church because one day I heard the words of Micah 6:8 and they raised a tingle on the back of my neck: O people, here’s what is good, this is what God has in mind for you, this is the way to be: do what is right, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.
I go because I long to live in a world where those are the abiding principles. Do what is right. Love mercy. Walk humbly. And in order to live in that sort of world, I have to do my part, I have to be a mercy-loving, humble-walking kind of gal. And speaking of walking, it struck me, yesterday, sitting in church, that I walk a labyrinth practically every day. Our agency’s offices are floor after floor of cube workspaces…not “unicursal” but definitely labyrinth-ish.
And, yeah, I’m a little embarrassed to say this, I also go to church for the same reason I walked the labyrinth, because there’s even a part of me that longs to…you know… have my soul moved, and connect with that Holy, Mysterious Whatever. Yeah, I know… I’m cringing and rolling my eyes a little, just to write that…but there you have it. The writer of Psalm 143:6 said he’s as thirsty for God as a desert is thirsty for rain, and St. Augustine said, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you." I’m not sure if I could go that far, but I do feel a bit like Luke in Star Wars… I want to let go, and feel the Force flowing through me. (And I’m also scared shitless of this, to be quite honest.)
After my labyrinth-walking afternoon at the retreat center, I ended up in the dining hall for supper about 5, ended up with a pink, plastic slotted tray/plate in a serving line, waiting for watery spaghetti and Italian-dressing-drowned salad and some greasy garlic bread to break with my fellow pilgrims, the other women on the retreat. And I looked around and thought, Why are we all here? It’s clearly not for the food. It’s not even for the company…we could have gone to a much nicer restaurant back in Chicago together, we could have had a sauce that didn’t come out of a can, and plates without compartments molded into them. Just like me, everyone is too busy to be here, we’re moms and daughters, and lawyers and doctors and financial consultants and artists and volunteers and teachers and have way too much going on in our lives to drive three hours for bland food and bad beds and beadwork. We are also, most of us, ex-Baptists, former Lutherans, recovering fundamentalists, lapsed Presbyterians/ Methodists/Catholics/ Pentacostalists, who are, as Catherine Falsani has said, “…fleeing from a kind of religious experience that has little to do with anything sacred or gracious” and way too cynical and skittish to feel entirely comfortable at a church-sponsored women’s retreat.
And yet, here we all are.
Here we are, despite all the reasons we shouldn’t be, like baby birds, mouths open, hungry for God. Longing for spirit and a taste of what we all might be doing on this big blue spinning globe and why it might make a difference.
And here I am again, this Monday morning about to head into work, wearing my special earrings, and trying to keep my eyes open for the “more than meets the eye” that is there, that I believe is always, somehow, there, as I wind my way through the lovely little rag-tag labyrinth that is my life.