Oh friends, today’s words will be a GIFT to you, I guarantee. They’ll also make you want to take up residence at your local labyrinth so you too can taste the magic and the holy and the beauty found in this ancient tradition. Mary (who wrote here for us last year) doesn’t need much of an introduction but for the fact she has a way with words, and this way will pull you in and under and leave you breathless with awe. Enjoy.
The only way I can speak of holy curiosity is to speak of a time when curiosity seemed dead to me. Until it wasnt. Curiosity acted as a goad to face my questions, my deepest sorrows, and walk the labyrinth.
An indoor labyrinth was offered as part of a retreat I attended this past year, and although I had actually helped to construct the thing and was intrigued, I had immediate misgivings about walking it myself.
I was deep in a season thick with loss–the death of a mother, a dear friend, the cancer news of other beloveds. The labyrinth struck me as a symbol for the maze of my grief and bewilderment. For the first time in my life my own faith made no sense. I felt that all the furniture had been rearranged. Things I had taken for granted or believed to be true simply no longer held up beneath the weight of my loss.
God would only give me what I could bear. He would be with me always. He would make my burden light and yoke easy. I had only to ask and he would provide.
Not so much.
I can’t help but think of an expression my mother once shared with a smile, “With friends like you, Lord, who needs enemies?” Her way of saying following Jesus wasn’t easy. I was clinging to God by a thread. And not because I believed he could or would help me, but simply because, as the disciples themselves confessed, “To whom shall we go but you, Lord?” There seemed no other better alternative.
But I couldn’t get the labyrinth out of my head. And at some point during the retreat, despite my reluctance I began to grow curious.
Why couldn’t I dislodge the notion that my life was somehow like the labyrinth? Was it truly a meaningless maze of twists and turns to which there was no end? An unfathomable riddle I would never plumb? Was God even in there with me? And if he was, where the hell had he been while my Mom had lain dying, fighting for breath? When my friend could only suck ice chips because food was impossible? When the cancer diagnoses of other beloveds began trickling in: breast, ovarian, non-Hodgkins lymphoma?
And because I couldn’t muster the will to walk the labyrinth, I picked up a book on the retreat resource table. As one does. Walking a Sacred Path: Rediscovering the Labyrinth by Dr. Lauren Artress. “To walk a sacred path is to discover our inner sacred space.” And learned a maze is not a labyrinth. A maze has different entry(ies) and exit point(s), sometimes has dead ends, is often complex and designed to confuse. They’ve only been around 600 years.
Labyrinths, on the other hand, are over 4,000 years old, involve sacred geometry and have only one path that leads in a circuitous way to the center. The way in is the way out.
Was it possible that I was misreading my life as maze when in truth it might be more labyrinth? This wasn’t a game of semantics. A maze affirmed my current experience with suffering and loss: confusion and what appeared to be dead ends. But it left me nowhere and just as bewildered as the day I received the text, “I’m dying.”
A labyrinth is a totally different paradigm. It might be just as frustrating but by design there was a simple way out: go to the center and then keep on going. And there was only one way to find out which was true.
I had to walk the labyrinth.
I did not have a lot of faith as I entered the labyrinth that afternoon. I shucked my shoes and went barefoot–an acknowledgment to myself and God that this place was sacred ground: I was open and wanted the naked truth about my life.
I had read in Walking a Sacred Path that some people entered the labyrinth holding a question. Or murmuring a mantra. But my losses had left me speechless and numb. I had no tidy questions or mantras. Just two fistfuls of grief. So I entered slowly, focusing on my breath, letting myself be.
At the first turn I felt a loss bubbling up. It hurt to even think of her–Mom. The tears began and I moved on. At the second turning another came to my mind. My beautiful friend and the children and husband she left behind. I paused and moved on. At each turn a loss came to mind. The name of a friend diagnosed with cancer. And another. And another. And other losses I hadn’t known were there. Twelve in all.
And I found myself at the center of the labyrinth. At the center of all the pain and loss. And there were questions there waiting for me. Do you love me? Can I trust you? Why should I continue to put my faith in you if it doesn’t change a damn thing? I knelt, folded in on myself, pulled my shawl over my head and wept.
I don’t know how long I was there, but at some point I realized I was not alone. I peeked out from under my shawl. No one else was in the room.
I breathed and listened to my heartbeat and felt held. A burden had been lifted.
Slowly I made my way out of the labyrinth. Breathing slowly. Putting one foot in front of the other. I wondered what thoughts would rise at each turn, but only one came to me again and again. I am here. I am with you. And somewhere along the way I realized that I would not truly leave the labyrinth until I left this life.
I have to confess this was not entirely comforting. I had hoped for more. Some wisdom that would make sense of it all.
Instead I received a truth that honored my reality: the way is sometimes confusing. Long. Tiring. Filled with longing and sadness. But this is true too: I am here. I am with you. And that means I have nothing to fear, doesn’t it?
It means love and trust and faith are possible.
The way in is the way out.
Mary is an urban mama, writer and editor, and avid distance cyclist. She loves God, endorses whole grains and kale, and enjoys the Iron & Wine Pandora station. She and her family will be moving to San Francisco this summer after two years in NYC. It’s Cara again, and today’s follow-up question is simple: how did Mary’s words touch you?