What it’s like to walk the labyrinth. 

What it was like when I walked it, as quite a few of you did with me this past January 1st here at West Shore. 

Let me describe it in present tense, to more vividly bring the past into the here-and-now moment.

Easing into it, honestly–honestly–I find myself irritated. Spread out before me, the labyrinth offers a peaceful pathway, like the New Age music playing in the background, but my amygdala is like a broken smoke detector and can’t stop shrieking. That’s what PTSD does to a person. You’re constantly in fight or flight or freeze or fawn mode. That’s what I’m bringing, as many of us do, to practically everything in our lives. 

So, the juxtaposition of peace with the internal alarm sound is disorienting, hard to hold. 

Irritating. 

Maybe that’s why I see some people enter and leave soon after, without having walked even a tenth of the way. 

But I’m pressing on. 

My hands are together in the shape of the mudra called Dhyana.

This mudra is shared across several Eastern meditation disciplines, and the Buddha is often seen using it. My hands face upwards, right hand resting on top of my left palm. Tradition sees the right hand representing enlightenment, and the left hand it holds represents the suffering world and the self striving for liberation. My two thumbs touch at their tips, suggesting union. 

Maybe I am struggling with the peace because, when I enter the labyrinth, when I am upon the path, I feel held in just the way that my left hand in the mudra feels held: held in my suffering, held in my striving. The problem is that I have rarely felt held this way in my entire life, since the people I had to rely upon were not up to caring for me as I needed. From my earliest years, I’ve felt chaos, unprotected. Early on I realized: If I was going to survive, I needed to be stronger than I knew. I needed to do it myself. I needed to be my own magician and learn how to pull rabbits out of the emptiness of my own hat. 

I’ve become a loner. 

My instinctive, go-to survival strategy.

So now, something wants to hold me? After all this time something is saying, You don’t have to be the strong one anymore. I can be strong for you. I will hold you. After all this time?

Right now I want to say a cuss word. In my bitterness. The reaction I’m feeling is that strong. 

It just increases my compassion for people who are allergic to church. Church in its widest, most general sense represents being held. So where was church when they really needed it? 

Maybe that’s a bit of what underlies the discomfort. One who had been banished from the Garden long ago—an exile for so long—is (through the labyrinth) being invited back home, and it ticks me off. Why weren’t you there all along? Why did you abandon me?

Oh Lord, I’m having a theological crisis and feeling angry at God just by moving my body into the space of a labyrinth that is just a big piece of fabric on Baker Hall’s floor, with a painted-on diagram. A crisis: just by getting up and putting one foot ahead of the other, walking deeper and deeper on the path. 

I was not expecting this to happen. 

But you know, when a body moves in an intentionally spiritual way, or when it is moved, things can start to soften. The walls we build that enable us to banish unpleasant things from consciousness start to budge, maybe even crumble. But also the walls we build that hide away the best things too, like joy and love. These best things are also what we had to hide from ourselves so that we could stay in bad places. 

To stay in a bad place, you have to change yourself, break yourself down. Stockholm syndrome. Learned helplessness. You have to cut off parts that would make it impossible to tolerate a bad situation. Hurt parts whose screaming pain would make it impossible to get up, eat breakfast, take care of kids, go to work, do everyday things, stay with normalcy. But also the transcendent parts whose fullness and magnificence would make a person look upon their small normal world with incredulity. 

Rumi once said, “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”

That’s also why I am walking this labyrinth. To feel the barriers. To soften the barriers. Not just to my burdened parts so I can welcome them back home, but to soften the walls that separate me from the divine love that has always been in me but I had to cut that off also. 

The discomfort is not a sign of anything being wrong. It’s a sign that something’s working, that something’s right. 

So, I am walking, I am walking. Solvitur ambulando, goes the ancient Latin phrase: “it is solved by walking.”

Walking the labyrinth, right from the start I am sent close to the center almost immediately. This is how the path is set up. You enter the labyrinth and within 5 seconds you are right beside the center, looking in, because that’s where the path takes you. The labyrinth is one of humankind’s most ancient spiritual symbols, and am I getting it right–what it is suggesting? What it is assuring? That there is in fact a center? That to be a spiritual being having a human experience means having to walk paths that run shorter than you want before there’s a sudden turn to elsewhere, and it means the loss of someone you loved or someplace you loved or something you treasured? Or, other times you will walk paths that seem way too long—endless even—in their capacity to oppress your body and your spirit? And yet here too, even these relentless paths will turn, they will wind away to somewhere else. But the ultimate assurance piece is this: that despite all the losses and pains, the twists and turns, the path you walk is ultimately a path to a center, to a place where one might see the whole thing for what it is, where one might see from a God’s eye perspective: that the whole thing is about love, the perfection of love, the perfection of compassion and love and learning. 

Dr. King once put it this way: “we must accept finite disappointment but never lose infinite hope.” It is about justice, it is about everything.

The assurance comes early on, when you walk the labyrinth. Before the twists and turns take you far away, for quite a long time, too.

I am reminded of an old William Wordsworth poem, entitled “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.”

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:

The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,

                   Hath had elsewhere its setting,

                      And cometh from afar:

                   Not in entire forgetfulness,

                   And not in utter nakedness,

But trailing clouds of glory do we come

                   From God, who is our home:

Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

Shades of the prison-house begin to close

                   Upon the growing Boy,

But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,

                   He sees it in his joy;

The Youth, who daily farther from the east

                   Must travel, still is Nature’s Priest,

                   And by the vision splendid

                   Is on his way attended;

At length the Man perceives it die away,

And fade into the light of common day.

That is the Wordsworth poem. I absolutely do not remember trailing clouds of glory when I was born. That stuff got knocked out of me fast. 

But the labyrinth insists it’s true. That it’s the beginning and the end of the journey of spiritual beings having a human experience. 

The labyrinth’s center reminds me, and then I am sent out beyond it, onto winding paths that remind me of the good times and the bad times of my present life and all our lives, whatever our unique collection of social identities happen to be. 

We are different from each other in so many ways. In so many ways, my experiences can’t translate fully when I try to tell others, and that’s true for us all. But our unity is that we are all spiritual beings walking the same cosmic labyrinth. And we are all aimed for liberation and love.

When I opened the January 1 labyrinth walk with a ceremony, one of the things I did was thank people for showing up for their own spiritual healing and wholeness. But I also thanked the people for doing something else–which, when I named it, might have come as a surprise. I said that they were also showing up for the healing and wholeness of the others who had come–that, more generally, spiritual healing and wholeness is not just an individual achievement but it is also collective. And there are aspects of healing and wholeness that are impossible to do singly and in isolation. 

In this same spirit, I want to thank you for showing up to church today and every time you do: for your own wellness, of course, but never forget that it’s also for the person sitting beside you as well, and the person in front of you, and behind you, and everyone. And they are showing up for you. It’s about mutual encouragement. It’s about mutual commitment. 

What, indeed, might happen to church attendance levels if we all really got this truth? 

But now I will contradict myself, as I have to admit that a part of me wanted to be the only walker upon the labyrinth. This surprised me, actually. I had not walked a labyrinth seriously for many years, so on that January 1 morning, when I got on that labyrinth, with a bunch of other folks on it too, I felt a part of me rattling away. I wanted the whole thing all to myself! Mainly it’s because, when there are many walkers all at one time, and since the path is narrow, when someone is approaching, you or they need to step aside for a moment, to allow the other to pass. You have to do this often. 

And, you have to do this mindfully. Yet another thing I said in the January 1 opening ceremony was that labyrinths are not mazes. Mazes are meant to trick you and get you lost. Mazes have paths that go nowhere. But every path in a labyrinth goes somewhere. You can’t get lost in a labyrinth. However, you can get distracted. You can get side-tracked. It’s what happened to me. I stepped aside for someone and was more focused on what they were doing than on where I was, so I lost track of the path I was on. I accidentally stepped on the path beside mine, and I ended up retracing steps that I had already taken! Walking the labyrinth takes a long time, so it wasn’t exactly fun to have to retrace those steps. 

Thus my desire to have the whole thing all to myself. And I’ll bet I wasn’t the only one feeling that way. 

Yet, in all things, the labyrinth is a teacher. Even this was a powerful lesson about not getting so caught up in others’ dramas that you lose sight of where you are going. Someone once put it like this, using a completely different analogy: put on your own oxygen mask first, before helping others. Otherwise, you undermine the help you can give. Your hurting self is no good in helping heal the world. 

The labyrinth is a teacher. And everything that happens upon it is grist for the mill. 

It reminds us that we are held by a Love that is greater than we know, despite any and all experiences of trauma and loss.

The labyrinth can also trigger us, like church can: like anything that says to the exile in us: welcome home. 

The labyrinth also assures us that all the paths we walk in life—all the joys, all the terrors—are not paths to oblivion, but they all point to a center which gives meaning and purpose and which can send us back out into the world with a Bodhisattva spirit and a Dr. King spirit of compassion and healing and justice-making. 

The labyrinth also reminds us that aspects of liberation are collective, and we must know that we are showing up for others when we come to church or when we do other kinds of spiritual work, as much as we’re showing up for ourselves. 

The labyrinth also challenges us to stay focused on the path we are walking and not to get so caught up in others’ lives that we lose track of our own. 

Also, and above all, the labyrinth holds up the truth that so much of what we are—joy and sorrow alike—is embodied and needs embodied ways of expression and release. 

Not just the verbal intellect but nonverbal emotions and intuition and heart and flesh.

Not just words but hugs and sighs and tears and laughter and our For All That Is Our Lives ritual with the cards and stones–and also marching for justice, going to workshops, voting, “praying with your feet.”

Not just reason-based arguments but hymn singing and choir singing and dancing and labyrinth walking and telling your story and listening to the story of another while looking into each other’s eyes.

Not just written bibles but sacred stones and these sacred chancel symbols, this sacred architecture located at 20401 Hilliard Blvd. in Rocky River, Ohio, sacred spaces like this.

These embodied things–also. Let there be more of them.

Let the ancient labyrinth be our teacher today. 

AMEN.