I first learned about labyrinths perhaps six years ago. A friend at church fell in love with them. She wore a labyrinth pendant, talked about them constantly, led a workshop to construct one, portable and folding, out of paint and canvas. One year on Maundy Thursday the labyrinth was set up in the parish hall, and we were invited to walk it before the stripping of the altar. Curious, I tried it. I already loved combining prayer and movement when I swam, and I’d heard friends talk about the deep peace they found at the center of the labyrinth.
Unlike mazes, labyrinths offer no choice to the walker; it is impossible to get lost in a labyrinth. The path curls in and out, until at last you find yourself in the center. There you rest and pray until you choose to retrace your steps, following the design safely back out again.
Although labyrinths come in various designs, they share certain features. The path at first leads you sharply inward, and you think you’re almost at the center. But then the path winds out again, almost to the edge. Walkers are farthest from their destination when they seem to be the closest. Conversely, when you’re on the portion of the labyrinth that seems farthest from the center, the path will soon turn and bring you there, more quickly than you could have imagined.
Labyrinths mirror the spiritual journey. Early on, in the first flush of conversion or enlightenment, we feel ecstatic, as if we could almost reach out and touch the divine,. But inevitably we find ourselves wandering outward, until the holy feels impossibly distant. That is the point, when we least expect it, where we are actually closest to the sacred center.
On paper, this sounded wonderful. On canvas, in our parish hall, I found it merely dull. The path felt tedious, too predetermined. Where was free will? And when I reached the center, I felt nothing special. I dismissed labyrinths – which would soon start popping up in catalogs and on keychains – as just another species of spiritual kitsch, like angel magnets and Buddha candles: the Sacred for Sale. I’d stick with swimming, thanks.
And then my father, eighty-six, decided to move from Philadelphia, where my sister lives, to Reno, to be near me and my husband. We found an apartment for him, found a nonstop flight from Philly to Sacramento so he wouldn’t have to change planes in a wheelchair, and drove two hours to pick him up. When we got him back to our house, though, he collapsed as soon as he got out of the car. We called 911; he was admitted to the hospital to have a pacemaker implanted, from there went to a nursing home, and at last got to spend a few weeks in his apartment before having a heart attack that sent him to the ICU.
My father’s path was very winding, and would become more so. The Reno VA, where he’d been in the ICU, shipped him to the San Francisco VA to see if he was a candidate for open-heart surgery. (They ultimately decided that he wasn’t; he went back to Reno, and from there to Palo Alto to be evaluated for inclusion in a clinical trial at Stanford.) Just before Thanksgiving, my husband and I drove to San Francisco to visit him. The weather was unseasonably warm, and his hospital room had a lovely view of the ocean and the Presidio.
Every lunchtime, Gary and I went to a diner down the street, and then walked for several hours on the beach or on the clifftop trails, which offered views all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge. One day, wandering a new section of trail, we came to a bluff. I looked down and saw, immediately below us, a labyrinth lovingly built of stones.
Heart lifting, I scrambled down the bluff and walked the labyrinth, the scent of the sea in my nostrils. Each step seemed holy. At the center, I found offerings: flowers, some pennies, a pile of pebbles. I understood then that although my father’s path had taken him far from home, God was very close to all of us.