At the end of last week, a very complicated week, I decided I could use a labyrinth walk. I’ve done this before. It often helps to settle difficult and sorrowful experiences. About twenty-five miles outside of Washington, D.C. the Bon Secours Sisters, a catholic community of nuns, run a retreat center. On the grounds of their retreat center and health system offices, they’ve created a beautiful labyrinth. It sits amid thick trees, offering shade and the meditative whisper of the wind through oaks, elms, and pines. As you can see from the photograph, in the summer, the place breathes greens of all shades. It’s a beautiful place.
Last Sunday, forty-nine people were killed while dancing and celebrating at Pulse, a GLBT nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The American Presidential campaign continues apace, with one candidate calling people names, appealing to Americans’ worst fears and prejudices. The refugee crisis in Europe seems to worsen daily. All these realities affect us. For myself, I have been carrying them heavily. I needed a practice that might help me hold these tragic events in a respectful and healthy way.
The labyrinth helps. I stand at the entry and bring these sadnesses to mind. I take the first steps and breathe in and out very deliberately. I walk slowly, not trying to think and solve, just trying to hold and respect these events, the people at their center. As I walk and breathe intentionally, I am drawn out of myself. I notice the breeze causing leaves and pines to hum. I notice the birds’ songs, quiet but present. I notice the sun on my arms, then the shade. I walk the complicated path to finally end up in the labyrinth’s center. There, I am aware that I already feel very different than I felt when I began the walk. I take a few deep breaths here at the center. I note a gratitude for this opportunity. Then I turn and begin the walk out. I continue to breathe deliberately. I notice I am no longer feeling the same anger and anxiety I felt when I began. I am more calm. I know I have not solved the sufferings that brought me here. But I have made room in my own person for them to be. I also made room for myself to look at these events with more love and patience. I even begin to sense a note of hope. It seems to me, this is as much as one can hope for.
We find our way through the sorrows of life with patience and calm. I can panic and try to think my way to peace, to demand solutions to situations I cannot solve. This leads me nowhere. But when I take the time to deliberately slow myself down, to write, to walk, I often find some area in myself where I can take action. I often realize a person I can connect with, a group with whom I can gather. The labyrinth walk often reminds me of the need to gather with others, the need to face these sorrows with a community. It might be ironic that it takes an ancient solitary practice, like a labyrinth walk, to remind me of my need for others. It’s a lesson I keep learning.
After posting a photograph of the Bon Secours labyrinth on a social media site, a friend told me he and his wife used to walk a labyrinth near their home. He mentioned that he found it cleansing. He and his wife would walk home from the labyrinth holding hands. It’s a beautiful image of what deliberate slowness and pace can offer us.
Is there a labyrinth near you? If you’ve never walked one, I urge you to give it a try. It’s an ancient practice. Labyrinths were often painted or created in mosaics on cathedral floors. Worshippers could come into the huge space of a church and walk a labyrinth on the church floor. We’ve been doing this for a long time. I’d like to think the Bon Secours labyrinth in the woods is a labyrinth in a church– a holy place, a sanctuary in the trees.