(Written during our family retreat vacation)
I just returned from walking the Labyrinth here on the grounds of The Springs. Walking this ancient practice is meant to be a journey, spiritual and physical, to the center…the Cross of Christ. Emptying oneself of ambition and the concerns that fill daily life, one is simply to focus on Christ. This can be done through meditating on a song, saying the Jesus Prayer, repeating one word or a verse. Whatever works to set one’s mind on Christ alone.
The first time I experienced this was seven years ago during my stay at The Cenacle, which is, sadly, no longer a retreat center. Upon hearing the word Labyrinth I thought immediately of getting lost, scary movies I should not have seen as a kid, and big stone walls. Given that prejudice I was sufficiently underwhelmed. It is a walking labyrinth that is flush with the ground, leading to a center with a bench, cross, or some sort of icon that is to set our minds on Christ. No stone walls or dragons to be found.
The labyrinth I just walked was similar to that one I encountered several years ago. However, rolling meadows lined with a tall forest, this labyrinth is snug up against a dense tree line. This beautiful backdrop notwithstanding, I had to venture back a ways through the many buzzing insects that swarm my head like flies on dung. Nothing prepares me for a deeply spiritual time like humid skin baking in hot sun with the cacophony of God’s most annoying invention seeking the rim of my inner ear. By the time I reached the Labyrinth my hat was off, swatting about, and I am sure I appeared as if I was attempting some age old ritualistic dance of the gods. Let’s just say the bugs got the best of me.
Determined to walk this journey I stood at the threshold breathing deep, preparing myself for the slow amble toward the stone cross. I quickly realized that the bugs were going to be the distraction I was going to have to leave behind…though they would not leave me alone, I had to let them alone. I so wish my challenge had been something different.
But isn’t that our general sentiment when difficulty arrives at our threshold? A different challenge, Lord, anything but this; this is too much.
I began on the journey, singing “Turn your eyes upon Jesus; Look full in His wonderful face. And the things of earth will grow strangely dim; in the light of His glory and grace.” And old song I remember singing in church years ago. With no one around I sang aloud as I ambled along. Taking inventory of my journey I notice within a growing peace and, before long, realized I had only swatted once at the annoying inventions. I was calming within…singing, walking, nearing…
The shape of the Labyrinth makes it difficult to gauge how far one is from the center. Just about the moment I thought I had a quite a ways yet to go, I stepped around the corner that led directly to the cross. I was there! Unaware of the welling anticipation I was aptly surprised by my joy within. I stood there gazing at the knee-high stone cross…somehow towering over me. Not in shame, it is only the shame of those who refuse its Messiah. It towers with humble authority, knowing one day every knee will bow and every tongue confess the Truth of its message. Until that day it stands patient, yet fiercely seeking to extend its grace to those who have yet to confess. Have you?
Wondering at my ability to lose focus even as I stood before it, I was humbled. I walked around it once, standing behind, beside, before…like Christ does with me now. Reminding me of His ever-presence.
I marveled at the connections with the spiritual life. Walking between the stones on the path toward the Cross I came closer and further away as I neared the center, it’s simply the layout of a Labyrinth. It reminded me that even in my own spiritual life I feel sometimes nearer and sometimes further from Christ, as the ebb and flow of life goes, yet I am to continue to walk toward Him. I should pay less mind to where I am, per se, and focus rather on Christ at the center. Trusting His presence as the strength of my journey.
Lately I have heard many friends talk of their struggles with guilt concerning prayer and the spiritual journey in general. I understand. But truth be told, this is utter self-focus. Certainly there are times when one needs to discipline themselves, mark a spiritual path to walk along, have an accountability friend, certainly. But there are also times to let go of how or if this or that is working according to what I am feeling and what I feel God may or may not feel about me this particular day in proportion to the strength of my disciplined self. We project our wandering hearts onto Him and receive feelings untrue. This tragedy of the spiritual life is nothing but the works of the Evil One. Lying, once again, as he did in that lush garden so long ago.
If we held before us the reason we need the Cross in the first place we would not be so shocked at our wandering hearts. Let us not have too lofty a view of our sinful nature that we forget we need Him unending. God, most certainly of all, is not shocked and remains responsive to repentance with grace sufficient. When true guilt has been acknowledged, there is no place for shame.
So as I walked toward the Cross, singing to focus my soul, trying hard to not swat at the buzzing around me, I simply kept me heart on Him. Like the lines of the Labyrinth my heart came close and went far. But, you know what? That Cross never moved, and it never shut its gate. The threshold remained open, and still does.
As with all pilgrimages one must return home to complete the journey. As I turned around to make my way out, I noticed, still, the presence of the Cross. Its steadiness sent me on my way…for all true spirituality is lived out in daily life.