Traditionally we pause as we approach year’s end and review all the events that have impacted on our lives. We have met different people and said good-bye to some old friends; at times we have rejoiced, while at other times we have sorrowed; we have known both pain and pleasure.
The process of reviewing our personal year may reveal instances when we have not shown unconditional love and acceptance to those whose lives have interacted with our own. It can also expose us to the fact that somehow God has not always been our first love, that the intimacy with God we have known previously is no longer the focal point of our being. Yet, though we are immortal souls here on this planet for a short time while clothed in human flesh, we tend to focus on the temporal rather than the spiritual. Is there a way we can reconnect with God, some special approach, perhaps, that will enable us, at all times, to be aware of God’s presence?
For thousands of years contemplatives, as well as ordinary folk, have used labyrinths to release both internal and external interruptions from their minds, and to fix their focus on God. Each time I have walked a labyrinth I have found it a profound spiritual experience – one almost beyond expression in mere words. In the Washington National Cathedral Centre for Prayer and Pilgrimage may be found a “Prayer for a Labyrinth Walk” written by Jean Sonnenberg at the Bon Secours labyrinth. It reads:
O God of many paths, I stand before this labyrinth today, metaphor of my journey to you. In the Western world I have been taught that `the shortest distance between two points is a straight line,’ and being an impatient person, I am uncomfortable with waiting. I have often modeled my journey to you on the straight line. But you, God of infinite patience, have shown me there is another path, a curved path. On this path, my anticipation is heightened as I approach the centre, only to be led out again to the periphery. But this path more closely resembles life itself. On this path, if I just put one foot in front of the other, it may seem at times as if I am not approaching my goal, while in fact, I am drawing closer all the time. But you are a God of surprises and mystery, and I don’t control the path. The labyrinth is a symbol of my surrender to mystery, trusting, not knowing for certain, that the path which curves in and out, again ultimately leads to the Centre, which is You.
In this prayer, the role of faith – “mystery, trusting, not knowing for certain” – reminds us that it is by faith in the promises of the Eternal God that we are able to live extravagantly, filling each moment with God’s love and power as we serve the needs of others.
As we step through the entrance of any labyrinth there is a straight path ahead for a few steps, before we need to turn either to the left or the right. Reflecting our initial relationship with God, these first few steps speak of the clearly marked spiritual path to our Creator. But just as the path of the labyrinth changes direction, so we find circumstances in our lives impact on, or change, the intimacy we share with God. For as we become absorbed with the here and now God ceases to be the centre of our attention. As we walk the labyrinth, praying God will release from our attention all the distractions that have occupied our attention, we find the path of the labyrinth has doubled back, and is now parallel with the way we have just trodden.
This directional change can be seen as a gift from God enabling us to look at the events of the past – those hurts or resentments that have been crippling our emotional and spiritual lives. Right at this point we are given the opportunity to deal with them. Perhaps we have been unable to forgive others for the harm they have caused us and those we love, perhaps we are resentful of the way specific relationships have broken up. Here in the labyrinth God reminds us of the sacrament of reconciliation. Have we considered that “My Father and I will come and abide in you”? Christ has presented us to God as spotless souls washed clean of our sins; sins that have not only been forgiven but also forgotten. We are restored to our original place within God’s realm as co-heirs with Christ.
As we pause to think more of the sacrament of reconciliation, the Holy Spirit bids us look at our relationships with others – are we prepared to forgive them as we have been forgiven, freely and unconditionally? It is of no consequence whether they admit the wrongness of their word or actions, our concern should be limited to our own thoughts and actions. Can we, as we move into the next section of the labyrinth, offer forgiveness freely? As we forgive and ask God forgiveness for these others, the sacrament of reconciliation is fulfilled.
Just as the labyrinth path again changes direction, so do our lives as we encounter new challenges and discover new people along our journey. People and the opportunity to serve them as Jesus did, as servants of God, are special rewards from God. Each person we meet can teach us more about ourselves, our own prejudices, likes and dislikes, and areas of comfort. Any person on any day may in fact be an angel of awakening drawn to us to uncover previously unrecognised talents. On meeting people, do we remember that God loves each of them just as much as we are loved, and do we anticipate meeting God within them?
The labyrinth path, having moved so closely to its centre, now swings away in the opposite direction, and we are reminded of the times we have moved away from God. What was the stumbling block that caused us to falter – was it pride and self-justification, was it greed to clutch tightly to earthly treasures instead of preferring heavenly rewards? At this place in the labyrinth we are challenged to recognise the cause of our distancing from God and release our need for earthly acquisitions into God’s healing light. Let us welcome the freedom the release of such a load affords.
As we move ever closer to the centre God brings into our minds those who suffer oppression, homelessness, famine and the millions now affected by the AIDS virus. In this time of questioning we are asked to examine our response to the distress of such people. Can we truly separate ourselves from these people by claiming impossible physical distance, lack of time or any other such excuse? Are these not some of those of whom Jesus spoke when he said, “Who ever does this to the least of these, my family, does it also to me”?
On and on we journey through the labyrinth; with each twist and turn the Holy Spirit reveals to us all that has been tucked away in the darker corners of our lives. God invites us to face all those issues that have prevented full communion with our Creator. As we walk we move closer to God and our relationship deepens. We find in God the source of healing for all our fractured and fragmented thoughts and actions. It is as if we are being drawn closer to the very essence of love. With God we not only retread memories of pain and separation but also times of joy and laughter, and we find ourselves praying for those who have shared these gifts with us.
Finally we discover with surprise that we have arrived at the centre of the labyrinth and we pause in God’s presence, opening our minds and spirits to the messages and blessings God has prepared there for us. It is as if we are being infused by light from the very centre of our being, and that same light begins moving through our bodies, infusing us with God’s love and power. We sense in this light the holiness of God, a holiness that God desires for us – holiness that represents the mystery of our relationship with God while we yet walk on this human plain. It infuses us with awe and wonder that we have been chosen by God, that for us there is something more than we could ever have imagined. Here in the centre of the labyrinth we find peace awaits us, peace deeper and more complete than we have ever known, peace that permeates our being and bids us to be carriers of peace wherever we tread. Here we feel ourselves being blessed as we are drawn ever closer into the presence of God. It is as though time stands still, eternity becomes the present, and we are bathed in God’s healing love. We would stay in this holy place, but we feel an urge of the Spirit to move from the centre, to walk refreshed the labyrinth path in preparation for our re-entry into the world of distractions and challenges.
As we move slowly back down the path we discover God speaking to us. This is the time of learning and empowerment. In the centre God healed and blessed us, drawing us closer into the spiritual realm of which we are part. Now it is God’s time to commission us for the work ahead, to teach us as we tread these paths. Just as slowly as we proceeded toward the centre our footsteps tread a measured pace as God speaks to us. In this deeper, meditative spiritual state we learn more of our mission in the world. We turn from the superficial world that measures success by attainments and possessions to a life in which prayer, fasting, solitude, meditation, submission to God’s will, confession, worship and obedience become as natural and normal as breathing. As holy people we present a contradiction to the world, for our ideals and our lifestyles reflect the light of God’s indwelling love.
Permissiveness, greed, selfishness and self-justification become alien in our thoughts and lives, for we hear and see our beloved Jesus on the cross crying for forgiveness for all who had beaten, humiliated and hated him. The peace that infused our being at the centre we carry within us and its calm is enough to curb the storms and pressures that surround us. We are the living clay, constantly moulded and reshaped by God’s design. We are the light by which others find their path back to God.
As we reach the doorway through which we stepped, seemingly so long ago, into the labyrinth we pause and look back. On our journey to the centre of the labyrinth God loosed all the burdens we had carried, and revealed those parts of our life we had allowed to become dysfunctional. We were invited to surrender all those areas of our lives that did not reflect love, so that God could heal us. The physical and emotional pain we carried with us as we entered the labyrinth we have given into God’s care, and God has transformed those damaged areas. At the centre we were drawn closer into God’s presence and were renewed emotionally, physically and spiritually. As we moved from the centre of the labyrinth we were strengthened for the task ahead. Our eyes became those that could discern the needs of the world around us. The peace of God had begun the change in us, enabling us to be living vials of holy water for all who thirst. On our return journey through the labyrinth we are offered the spiritual gifts of patience, love, joy, gentleness, faithfulness, kindness, peace, goodness and self-control. Yet, in the gift of self-control, we acknowledge that we freely give to God the control of our lives, our thoughts and our actions. Into the world we now step, we who have met God within the centre of the labyrinth, and have found ourselves transformed into the holy people of God. It is in this transformation that our hearts and minds have been brought into perfect harmony, for they have renewed their focus on God. Once again we are whole, loving God with all our minds as well as our hearts.