Today I found myself in another city, in a church I’d never set foot in before. I’d gone looking online for a noontime Eucharist, and instead noticed that a church right around the corner from my hotel had its labyrinth set up from 10 till 3. I’ve read about labyrinths; I’ve thought about them a good bit; I’ve never prayed in one, though.
So I went around the corner. I’m sure God was chuckling a bit at the “labyrinth” I needed to traverse just to get into the building–this door’s locked, that door’s locked, the open door is labeled “Office,” and the poor man behind the bullet-proof glass must have thought I was out of my mind when he directed me to “the front door” and I looked at him blankly. I’d entered the property through an open gate…but upon walking back out, I suddenly saw the front door. Doors, actually–probably 20 feet tall. I’d just approached from the wrong direction.
This is a very old city church, and apparently not a wealthy parish–water stains on the ceilings, heavily worn floors with floorboards that creak when you walk on them. The space probably seats 300 people, although there were perhaps six or seven others in the pews. It was cold outside, so they were inside. One man was reading the newspaper.
The labyrinth was canvas, the pattern painted in bright blue on once-white cloth, rather dingy from use, laid between the communion rail and the altar. I took off my coat, sat down in the front pew, and spent a long time wrestling with myself. No one else was praying. Certainly no one was anywhere near the front of the church, or walking the labyrinth. One man was snoring in the corner. But I wondered what they’d think of me if I just took off my shoes and walked up and began to walk the path. (How silly is that? Several of them didn’t even realize I was there!)
But I overcame my reluctance, only by grace, and stepped onto the canvas.
I wish I could say I had an incredible experience of God’s love, or guidance, or conviction. I did not. The labyrinth might have been about 10 feet in diameter, which is to say small. There was only room on the path for one foot at a time; sometimes, going around the tight corners, I wondered whether I’d be able to keep my balance. I had to look down and concentrate on my steps. Walk slowly…more slowly. The organist was practicing… well, no, says the music teacher in me, not practicing, just playing while stopping at the wrong notes. The music was beautiful, but rather more like a strobe light than a beacon. Harmony, dissonance, silence. Harmony, dissonance, silence.
I walked for perhaps ten minutes before reaching the center, and faced the altar. Nothing fancy or ornate at eye level; behind the altar, though, very old, very high, very ornate stained glass that I could barely see because it was cloudy outside and at least 25 feet away from me even standing near the altar. Jesus, a couple of times, lots of cherubs…but I couldn’t really understand the scenes portrayed. So I stood in the center and waited. The newspaper rustled. Someone behind me belched, and excused himself to anyone listening. Eventually, I stretched out my arms and hands in a posture of surrender, and offered myself once again to the one who gave His life in place of mine. The organist turned out the lights, flipped stops and switches, and brushed past me as she left.
So I lowered my arms, turned, and began the slow and slightly wobbly journey back out. Retracing my steps, I noticed the way the path becomes tighter and tighter as it approaches the center, then suddenly provides a space for five or six steady steps as it moves into the next quadrant. In and out, back and forth…a lot like life. Sometimes simple, straightforward steps; sometimes twists and turns and careful placement of the feet and worries about falling. Yes: a lot like life.
So now I’ve (finally!) prayed my way into and out of a labyrinth. And I’ll do it again. I’ve wanted to experience God in an outdoor labyrinth–there are several within driving distance of my house–and I probably will at some point. I’ve also wanted to participate in this practice with a group of others who are also prayerfully seeking God, and will probably do that too sometime. But for now, I’m glad I took the time, and found the place, and persevered through the labyrinth to get to the labyrinth, and prayed while others sat there in God’s presence–whether they knew it or not.