Thursday, June 16, 2005

Walking the Labyrinth

I met a dear friend for coffee the other morning. Knowing I live just a few minutes from Colorado Springs' charming downtown, he parked his car at my apartment, and we walked the few blocks to Pikes Perk, one of the local "mom and pop" outfits I like to frequent.  A wise and loving man who has become a mentor of sorts, Calvin is a former corporate executive who now, along with his wife Lisa, leads a ministry that strives to reintegrate the ancient Christian practices of contemplative, meditative prayer and spiritual disciplines into our frenetic, modern lives.
As we ambled along Cascade Avenue, gestating the topics that would occupy us for the next several hours, we passed a church which, up until recently, had been involved in some major grounds renovations.
"Have you checked out the labyrinth, yet?" Calvin asked me.
I probably gave him a very quizzical and confused look. I had a sneaking suspicion he was not referring to David Bowie.
"The what?"  
"The labyrinth...this."
He guided me off the sidewalk and around a short wall to a large open area in front of the church where a massive design lay before us, composed of multiple hued stones.  It reminded me of the vast quad behind the Dublin castle, where several stone snakes coiled around each other in an intricate knot, their long bodies so intertwined that I couldn't tell where one ended and the other began. This design was far more orderly — red stones emanated from what I assumed to be some sort of starting point and spiraled circuitously to a center point that was visible, though not instantly linkable to the starting point.
"A labyrinth," Calvin began, "is an ancient pagan symbol that the medieval Celtic church adopted and redeemed. It looks like a maze, but it's not.  Unlike a maze that has confusing twists, turns, and blind alleys, you can't get lost in a labyrinth.  There are no dead ends –it's just one long path. You stay on it long enough, you'll always get to the center. The labyrinth is a tool for personal and spiritual transformation...a means in our hectic lives to pause for a short time, slow down, quiet the mind, and encourage meditation on God. It's really quite beautiful."
I agreed, and though I would have liked to stay longer, coffee called, and we had lots to discuss. But a few hours and a medium breve later, when Calvin's car was merging back into traffic in front of my old Victorian, I ran inside, collected my journal and my copy of the Common Book of Prayer, and returned to the old church.
Dating back nearly 5,000 years (though miniature "finger labyrinths" pictoglyphs have been found in Neolithic caves) labyrinths span cultures as diverse as the Native Americans, the indigenous Indian tribes of South America, the Vikings, the Mesopotamian Egyptians, the Indian subcontinent and most "recently," the Europeans.  Though no one can say for sure where they originated, labyrinths have been found around the world carved in rocks, woven into cloth, etched into tablets and pottery, arranged in tile, and inlaid in the floors of some of Europe's most beautiful cathedrals, including the splendid Chartres, in France.
These larger, walkable labyrinths emerged sometime in the ancient Classical world.  When they were assimilated into Christianity, they were used as mini personal pilgrimages as well as times of quiet introspection, prayer and repentance. Typically, ancient pilgrims would use the time spent making their way to the center of the circle as a way to relinquish those things in their lives that they tried in vain to control and adopt a quiet, humble surrender to God and His leading. When they reached the center, they would pause for meditation and prayer, seeking insight and clarity to God's will in their lives. The walk back out the way in which they came in was spent contemplating God's control and direction, empowering them to return to the "outside world" replenished, refreshed, and redirected.
Placing my journal at the center of the circle, I returned to the beginning of the unicursal path and began walking slowly, methodically, reveling in the experience, enjoying the feeling of the sun on my back, and trying to ignore the tumult of a major intersection just beyond the church's boundaries. Each deliberate step was a breath of silent prayer. I read the Psalms aloud.
At its most basic level, the labyrinth is a meandering but purposeful path, a metaphor for the journey to God and back out into the world with a broadened understanding of who we are in Him. Walking the serpentine lines helps us see our lives in the context of a path, a journey, a pilgrimage.
I couldn't go far without the path bending or doubling back on itself. I was reminded of the Christian imagery of the "straight and narrow" path.  The labyrinth's path was narrow, but far from straight. Like life itself, it was full of twists and turns. The straight and narrow implies that the path is not easy, and we are bound to make mistakes and lose our way. Half the time I didn't know if I was coming or going. The center, while always visible, was elusive. Some moments I was so very close to my destination, only to veer away from it and find myself tracing the outside of the circle. Was I lost?  Did this path, in fact, reach the center or was this all some sort of elaborate joke?  Were the priests huddled around some window high above me, pointing and holding their bellies in laughter?  I was so far away from the center now. I had just been looking at it, celebratory and content, and now I was walking the fringe, so far away.
We don't often like to acknowledge the fact that losing our way in life is not only a possibility but also an inevitable part of all of our spiritual journeys.  But none are beyond the mercy and direction of God. As soon as we become aware that we are lost, we are already on our way to being found again. I spiraled, meandering, time passing with an agonizing crawl. And then, suddenly, without realizing I was so close, I was there. The center. God. Or at least my romanticized attempt to contextualize my reaching for Him.
I plopped down Indian-style in the middle of the circle and jotted down a few thoughts, read a few more Psalms, even snapped a few pictures (when my computer is operational again, I'll be happy to share them with you). Eventually I made my way back out the way I came in. This circle, this garden of stones, this labyrinth is indeed my life's path.  Sometimes close to the center, sometimes far. Sometimes the goal in sight, other times nowhere to be seen. Sometimes straightish and other times crooked. Sometimes lost and then other times...suddenly, unexpectedly, blissfully found.
With a great sense of serenity – the kind that comes when we encounter someone or something far greater than ourselves and discover it has nothing but love for us – I left the labyrinth and began making my way back home. Though I suppose, if the metaphor is correct, I never really left the path at all.
I can see why Calvin liked this so much. It is a tangible and palpable reminder that we are not human beings on a spiritual path, but spiritual beings on a human path.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Brandon:

You are a very quick learner! Thanks for the tip of the hat on your blog.

You have clearly caught on to the imagery and mystery of the labyrinth.

As for praying the Psalms, I'm proud of you.

Let's keep talking.

God bless you,


11:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow! Very cool piece! Beautiful!

1:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This blog so beautifully describes right where I
am at the moment (that being on the fringe right when I thought I was about to reach the center).


1:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

AWESOME!!!  I am feeling the need these days to walk the Labyrinth.  Life happens, huh?


10:30 AM  
Blogger Brian Worster said...


I stumbled upon your site via a friend of a friend's blog. I'm interested in the labyrinth. Where is it located in the Springs? My email address is


2:00 AM  

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