A little over two years ago I discovered labyrinths. I happened upon one at a local church and it immediately drew me in and down the proverbial rabbit hole. I was fascinated by it. It wasn’t just the shape, the circular path, but also in this case the courtyard it was in. There were windows set in stone walls with worn wooden benches separated by narrow walls giving it a medieval structured look. Opposite the entrance to the courtyard were a pair of French doors and around the boundary of the space were a variety of plants and flowers. The first time I was there was a bright sunny day, but on my second visit when I actually prayed with the labyrinth it was much colder and overcast. It didn’t dampen my enthusiasm for my hour in the labyrinth and meditating in the courtyard.
I started reading about them, and in an unexpected coincidence I met a woman in my writing group who used to teach a workshop about labyrinths. She loaned me a few of her books for my reading that semester.
The first thing I learned in my studies is that labyrinths and mazes, though the words are often used interchangeably, are not the same thing. Mazes are meant to be a little confusing, they dead end and may have more than one path to get to the center and the goal or treasure. Labyrinths usually have one path to the center and then either a second path out or a reversal of the original path and the treasure is in the journey through the labyrinth rather than a golden prize.
My first experiences with labyrinths were simply observing them, counting their circles or turns, taking photographs, and then walking through saying prayers or reading Scripture. I did one labyrinth walk using the chants from the Dominican Retreat House’s monthly Taize prayer evenings. The rhythm of the chantings fit within the walking of the labyrinthine path. I did another by reciting the Hail Mary over and over until I returned to the beginning of the path.
I even created my own labyrinthine path at the Retreat Center to walk during one of my breaks on my Cursillo weekend. The Cursillo weekend is an intensive three day immersion in the short course where Cursillistas spend their three days in prayer and study, learning and practicing how to bring and integrate Christ into their day-to-day life in meaningful ways. Once the weekend is over, the Fourth Day begins which is really the rest of your life.
I tried to return recently to a labyrinth in Round Lake, New York and when I arrived realized that it was completely covered in snow. I had to shake my head. I wasn’t dressed for a walk in the snow, but it was less disappointing than I might have expected it to be.
In the labyrinths that I’ve walked one thing that truly surprised me was the feelings of solitude; of being one with myself and one with G-d. Especially the one in Toronto, Canada where there were other people sitting in the park and some walking the labyrinth “with me” but each at our own pace and in our own thoughts, taking our time, nodding in passing, but not interrupting, like the community of mass, together and separate simultaneously.
Prior to my Cursillo journey I discovered that labyrinths inherently form the tripod that we strive for in the Cursillo movement. Our spiritual journey is expressed through the ways we’ve encountered piety, study, and action (the tripod), and in addition, include any moments when we felt especially close with G-d.
Many things are easier to see in retrospect, but with the labyrinth the tripod becomes clearer on how the three legs fit together. It also shows that while we learn and talk in a certain order – piety -> study -> action – they can be interchanged depending on circumstance. In the case of my labyrinth excursions, my path begins with study, learning what the labyrinths are, finding the ones in my area or in my travels and then moves to action. Designing a finger labyrinth to bring with me places, designing the walk at the retreat house, and the actual walking of the path, and finally piety.
Piety brings my studies and my actions together in intercessory prayer as well as offering gratitude for the blessings of prayer and the one foot in front of the other of the guided path and all of that together – study + action + piety + labyrinth path comes together in the close moments, moments to spend with G-d and allow Him to join me in the quiet and solitude of the journey.