Real Life in a Labyrinth

What they say is true: every labyrinth walk is different. If my first two experiences felt playful and rejuvenating and deeply spiritual, my next walk was … decidedly not.

I had been eagerly anticipating the opportunity to walk this path, the beautiful and historic Chartres pattern with its complexity and symbolism. Perhaps I had inflated my expectations so greatly that no reality could possibly compare.

But I don’t think that was it. Not entirely anyway.

The Chartres pattern is geometric, not organic like the classical path. It is
precise in its layout, with each curve formed in uniform channels and chartreswidths—unlike the uneven lines of the hand-drawn or stone-carved Cretan path. And it is designed in four interconnected quadrants, in contrast with the fetal curl of its womb-shaped cousin.

I have become quite familiar with the meandering journey under the tip of my stylus when the entire labyrinth sits in the palm of my hand. I feel intimately connected to its circuits when the ceramic glaze grows warmer under my fingertip and on my lap.

But to stand at the entrance of the “life-sized” canvas labyrinth and to begin the long walk with slow and careful steps—well, I had not walked more than a single quadrant before my spirit began to whine like an irritable child.

Are we there yet?

This felt more like work than it seemed like worship. It demanded focus and balance to stay on the correct path. I felt my muscles growing increasingly stiff—until my neck, shoulders, and back ached from the tension.

How_Long_O_Lord_peanutsAnd I was so tired I could weep.

I was irritated by the woman sitting on the perimeter, not bothering to whisper as she heaped unsolicited advice on her hapless neighbor.

I grew impatient with the need to step aside and allow others to pass on the path. (And why was I the only one giving right of way?)

Even the quiet comings and goings of others in the room grated on my nerves.

Shut up and get out! Can’t you see I’m trying to have a deeply meaningful spiritual experience here?

So much for my theological commitment to community.

Even as I found that shred of self-deprecating humor, I began to notice other marks of community … of those who had gone before me.

coffee stainsThe coffee stains on the white canvas.

The names signed along the scalloped edges of the circle.

The unevenness of the painted lines that testified to human hands, not assembly-line creation.

And it occurred to me, slowly, as I continued to walk, as I had to steady myself on the sometimes dizzying circuits, as I yielded yet again to a fellow pilgrim, as I acknowledged the tedium I found in the time-consuming journey…

This is life.

Labyrinths, it seems, are sometimes deeply spiritual and powerfully insightful and divinely exhilarating, like life. But other times, they are pedantic, protracted slogs with intersections that create collisions more often than connections, where companions are sources of irritation more than inspiration, where expectations far exceed reality.

And yet, even in the disillusionment of that discovery, I realized something more: Emmanuel was in this labyrinth experience too.

Teaching me to read traces of those who preceded me on the path—those who left their mark intentionally, with purple marker, and accidentally, in spilled coffee.

Tutoring me in the contrasting gifts of attending to the path under my feet—and of casting my vision ahead to anticipate the needs of others.

Alternately soothing my spirit and steadying my steps as I walked, one foot in front of the other, the apparently interminable way which was both work and worship.

If that isn’t a microcosm of life, I don’t know what is.

And while I wouldn’t trade my first joyous and playful experiences in the labyrinths that went before, I find I am grateful for this more challenging experience too.

It is one I will choose to repeat when given the opportunity—to build stamina, to cultivate the physical and spiritual discipline of persevering
on the path.

how longBecause in this year’s first week of Advent, that life-sized and life-like labyrinth reminded me that my favorite liturgical season is essentially one of waiting—and not necessarily waiting with sanctified patience. Advent is also (and even primarily) an interval of impatience, of clamoring, of whining with that inner child,

How long, O Lord? Aren’t we there yet?

Come, O come, Emmanuel. Come to us in our work and in our worship, in our pacing and in our play. And in your coming, let us become more like you.

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