“The labyrinth is an ancient spiritual tool, a walking meditation, a path of prayer. Walking the labyrinth can reduce stress, quiet the mind, open the heart, and bring one closer to God. People come to the labyrinth to heal, to be enriched in the spiritual life, seeking peace, seeking insight.” —Sig Lonegren, Labyrinths
I walked the labyrinth this morning. I knew there was a labyrinth at the Redemptorist Center in Tucson, Arizona, where I am for a self-directed writing retreat. And I knew I’d make time to take my walk.
My first labyrinth walk over twenty years ago at a Spring Hill, Massachusetts, retreat was filled with stops and starts, looking around, feeling almost dizzy with the twists and turns. Now I look forward to drifting along the path, not knowing how long or which turns will get me to the center, but knowing I will get there.
When I woke up at 6:00 am, my first thought was, Ah … labyrinth. As I left my room, I could see the eastern sky was bright behind the splitting clouds. And yet a dark thought flickered like the floaters that can come in your eye. What if it’s not there anymore? My pace quickened as if that was the guarantee that the faster I got to the labyrinth area, the more sure it would be to still exist.
There’s the open space around the bend. Good. Yes, it’s there. It looked the same—flat dirt, rock-lined paths that I had walked before, with the small altar of rocks in the center. It’s set back along a path near the petroglyph rocks and under the protective shadow of a small hill that is the location of the stations of the cross.
This labyrinth faces north, and the rainstorms of the day before seemed to be receding. Light in the east, but shadows still lurked behind the rocks. It was dim. Silent and serene.
Another sojourner is poised at the entrance or mouth of the maze, head bowed. I sit on the stone bench nearby and wait until she enters. I’ve never thought of a labyrinth as something you go through. You simply enter and move ahead, one step at a time.
A labyrinth is usually a flat layout in an open space—a life-size two-dimensional sacred maze along which to walk. The paths wind around and back and forth, leading to the center area.
Some people walk repeating a mantra; some walk in silence; some use empty mind. Some use it as a walking meditation, or a stream of consciousness walk.
I am entering this morning with an empty mind. But I hold the intention of keeping my head where my feet are. To drop the people and problems and to-do lists that I mentally packed along with my laptop, sneakers, and toothpaste. To stay in this moment.
I look north as I stand at the mouth of the labyrinth. The mountains are a grayish purple in the morning light. The cholla, prickly pear, and small saguaros around me are like sentinels watching in silent support. There is also a very green ground covering, which is unusual here in the Sonoran Desert. It rained last night, and everything is darkened and saturated to a deeper hue by the rain. Not a dull and heavy darkness, but a comforting velvety dark.
This labyrinth is in marked contrast to the one I walked at St. Mary’s in San Francisco, which was a concrete-etched oasis in the midst of office buildings, and in the shadow of the old elegant Fairmont Hotel.
As I stand there, I become mindful of my most recent spiritual directive—to respond in a different way to people, places, and things. My goal is to build and hold a feeling of compassion for others and myself. I focus on the labyrinth’s middle, where a pile of rocks rests at the epicenter of my walk. I visualize Compassion waiting to welcome me. In I go.
I say this intention several times: May I respond in a different way to people, places, and things, leading me toward my goal of compassion for myself and others. I look down as I walk. This desert labyrinth is laid out in the dirt and so has a reddish floor. The rocks that border the sides of the path are the sizes of different coffee mugs—some dainty, some the super size of a Starbucks mug. They are like the gray uniformed guards at the Chicago Art Museum, steady and silent but joining you in sharing information to guide you if you get lost. These rocks are gray, or spotted, some wearing little top hats of moss, reminding me of a labyrinth I walked at Cape Cod.
The smaller pebbles that cover the path crunch under my feet. I watch the toes of my blue sneakers as they peek out from the hem of my pants, taking me ahead. I am calm and peaceful. The March air is cool, almost cold, and the feeling on my cheeks reminds me of being outside in the snow.
Time recedes, but a thought intrudes. Am I going the right way? I’ve been walking for a bit of time, but the center still seems far away. I have to laugh because this happens every time I walk a labyrinth. Have I stepped across a rock border to an earlier path? Did I get turned around? Am I heading out, missing the center entirely? I stop and look back and into the center. No. A labyrinth can be trusted. You will get to the center. You are exactly where you are supposed to be. I have to remember this concept “out there” in the world when I think I’ve made an emotional, social, or mental misstep. I won’t miss the plane, or meeting, or opportunity to make a new friend or forge a deeper relationship. I am going in the right direction and am exactly where I am supposed to be.
As my chuckle settles contently in my stomach, I look up to see the equivalent of spiritual nuns walking outside the labyrinth. Ten, maybe twelve women are walking single file, steadily heading straight toward me. Their spiritual garb consists of colorful shawls and long draped scarves wound around slender necks, UA sweatshirts, knitted caps on gray heads. Sneakers, hiking boots, and Uggs lead them on the curve around the hill toward the petroglyphs. They are so beautiful in their individual dress and uniform pace that I have to stop and stare as they file by until I can only see their retreating backs.
I resume walking. My fellow sojourner is moving at a different pace, and I realize that I am going to be right behind her if I maintain my way of walking. I will be practically stepping on her heels. What to do? Is there labyrinth protocol for this? As I am flipping through my mental labyrinth etiquette files, she stops. Oh no, is she going to do a midwalk prayer? But as I get closer I realize she has moved five inches over a rock border and is motionless, waiting for me to go past. She must have felt me coming and moved over and then back after I passed for both her comfort and mine.
“Thank you,” I murmur as I go past. She nods. Remember this too, Ethel. Things work out without worry or angst and sometimes even without you having to orchestrate it. You can simply move on.
When I look up again, there is the center. Compassion is there. Rock piled upon rock from a large flat one on up, smaller and smaller, making the two-foot-high natural altar. Meditators have left offerings on the top rocks. More than I have ever seen at a labyrinth. A wristband, a picture of Mary, other tiny rocks, a button that says 12 +12 =good math, a paper clip!
I have nothing physical to place there. What would I like to bring to such a sacred place? What do I want to leave there to be enveloped in compassion? The answer comes instantly. It is my brother-in-law, Paul. Paul, whose life was altered eight years ago (2005) by a stroke that forced part of his brain to go to sleep. Paul, who recently had a TIA, bringing him another electrical storm of sorts that threw him off balance physically and emotionally. Paul, who got up every single day and showered, making himself look clean and handsome, and greeted me with “Hello hello! How is everybody today?” I place my love for Paul on the top rock near the 12+12 offering. I am sure he would like that and also laugh to be in the company of a sacred paper clip.
I turn and begin the leaving. It’s always quicker returning. Another truism to recall in the outside world.
More storms are predicted for this mid-March Saturday. Clouds are piling up over the northern mountains. But the sky is still slightly brighter in the east. Proof that there is always light, even if you can’t see it.
The Garden: When a story comes in full blossom, as my experience did at the Redemptorist Center, I have to write it down immediately. I wrote the labyrinth story that afternoon. It was so easily remembered and cherished, needing very little in the way of details.
Excerpt from Seedlings, Stories of Relationships ©2014
Ethel Lee-Miller blogs regularly about people, the power of words, and her writing life. She’s retired from professional writing gigs after 30 years of teaching, coaching, editing, and gathering writers to publicly share their work. She is the author of Thinking of Miller Place, and Seedlings, Stories of Relationships. In retirement she writes to inspire, to connect with folks, and for the pure enjoyment of it. Ethel enjoys sharing stories at Odyssey Storytelling, Zoom gatherings, and anywhere there’s a mic or a Zoom room.