I had the opportunity recently to walk two different labyrinths. It had been a number of years since I’d walked one, and walking two nearly back to back was a refreshing and grounding experience.
We’ve written before on this blog about labyrinths as a form of contemplative prayer, and I’d encourage you to read that post for more information on labyrinths’ origins and modern use. I personally love labyrinths for the way they tie me to ancient spiritual practice. Labyrinths are found in Greek and Roman mythology, and came into wide use in Christian tradition in the Middle Ages, but they also have been discovered to have their place in ancient Nepalese, Indian, Native North and South American, and Australian cultures. The sense that this pattern and practice is meaningful across time and different religious traditions is very powerful for me — like all liturgy, it is a gift to participate in something that transcends my particular time and place. I also love that the path is laid out clearly before me, with no dead ends or choices to make (so UN-like life!) which allows me to sink into a deeper level of mediation and prayer.
I experienced the first labyrinth during a women’s retreat at Avila, a retreat center in North Durham (for those of you who are local!). Walking the path under tall and sturdy pine trees with the wind in the branches and the sun on my back was so peaceful.
The second one was in Duke Chapel — a large 11-circuit labyrinth made of canvas spread on the slate floor just before the altar. The settings couldn’t have been more different: hushed darkness, candles, the only noise the swish of socks shuffling along the path. And this time my eight-year-old daughter, Clara, was with me.
Walking the labyrinth with Clara is an experience I will cherish for a long time. On the way in, I led the two of us slowly, asking “What do I need?” She followed close behind. I had instructed her to open her heart to God, to pay attention to her breath. An 11-circuit labyrinth takes a long time when walking at a meditative pace. She didn’t seem to mind.
We made our way to the center and found a place to rest. She wanted to sit on my lap. I had told her beforehand that the center represented God’s womb. She understood right away that I meant a safe place, free from harm, surrounded by God’s love. I invited her to open her heart again and to ask God what she needs. We sat like that — me cradling her and us being held together in that prayerful space — for a long time. We started back out slowly, with her leading. On the way in I had given her a special stone to carry, and she passed it back to me as we started out. I held it, still warm from her little clasp, and prayed to see how and where I could best participate in God’s healing work in the world.
Walking out after her, I asked for wisdom from on high to follow her lead in life, to let her teach me how to she needs to be cared for. She walked a bit faster than me, and got ahead of me. I had the chance to look upon her and behold her. I prayed, “God, teach me to cherish her more and more each day. Make me worthy of her. Teach me to mother her with Your love and light. AMEN.”
I think the reason walking the labyrinth with Clara was so powerful is that it was something we could do together, something we could participate in as equals. When I think about passing my faith on to her, there is so much that is difficult for me to explain — so many of her questions leave me tongue-tied. And yet here was a form of prayer that was both simple and profound and that involved our bodies but not our intellects. No special training or instruction was required; she is sensitive and picked right up on the sacred tone of the moment. Afterward we quietly put our shoes back on and filed out in silence, blinking in the evening light. I held back from asking her questions about what it meant to her, though over the next few days she did offer some reflections, and mentioned a number of times that she really liked it and wanted to do it again. That evening as I was tucking her into bed, she shared that it was her favorite part of her day. All I could say was, “Mine too, sweetie, mine too.”
First and third images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; second image courtesy of Avila Retreat Center