Labyrinths: In Praise of the Meandering Path

Labyrinths: In Praise of the Meandering Path

March 15, 2016

This year, as the season of Lent unfolds, there are several aspects of life I wish where different than they are. Yet, I'm learning that when I encounter what appears to be a way forward, but instead find myself greeted with what seems like a dead end or regressive bend in the road, these are, perhaps not inconveniences to be corrected or overcome, but part of living lives of mundane adventure. Perhaps non-uniform circular motion is part of the journey, not a diversion from it.


I drove by 8840 NE Skidmore Street on my way out of Portland on an early August day during the summer of 2014. If I hadn’t been to that address once before, over 15 years ago, I might have concluded that there was nothing extraordinary about the dense foliage cropping up beside hills adjacent to the long narrow parking lot on the right side of the road. With houses and a few quasi-industrial buildings on the other side of the street, it looks like so many other areas around the outskirts of town. Had I listened to the nagging thought that I was already behind schedule for the trip, I might have kept driving toward I-84, the road home. Instead I made the gentle right turn into the lot.

My last visit to The National Sanctuary of our Sorrowful Mother—more commonly known as The Grotto—had been with a friend fighting terminal illness during the spring of 1999.

She’d wanted to enjoy the sun on her face, the fragrance of botanical gardens sculpted into a space of meditation, and the unparalleled vistas of the Portland cityscape. During that visit I recall the air had been the perfect spring balance of warm and cool. This time I was leaving PDX on the heels of a triple-digit heat wave; even the shade of lush vegetation didn’t offer relief from the sticky air.

I purchased my token to operate the elevator used to transports guests to the garden level atop a bluff, and then slowly walked the trails described by the map. At the far end of one loop I was pleasantly surprised to find a labyrinth—a replica of the one in the cathedral at Chartres.

That one, originally hewn into the floor of the Gothic Cathedral during the early 13th century, the stone path served pilgrims who were not able to undertake geographic journeys. Surrounded by sacred space, walking the maze of concentric circles allowed the traveler to experience a metaphoric passage, their meandering route to and from the center allowing them to emerge transformed. The point of pilgrimage, after all, is to return home in some way made new.

I’d walked labyrinths like this one before, and found the moving meditation to be a potent practice. But standing at the entrance to this path laid in two-tone brick, I read the sign encouraging attentiveness to God’s invitation and thought, “yeah, yeah…whatever…I’m listening.”

God has a habit of entering whatever sliver of space we create, even the skeptical ones.

Moving through Labyrinths

As I placed one foot in front of the next along the narrow path, I found myself responding to the physical experience of the space and heard three distinct invitations:
  • To stop concentrating so hard on the path, lift my eyes, lest I miss entirely the beauty of the shaded grove.
  • To accept as part of the journey what seem, at first, to be dead ends. They are not inefficient diversions, but shifts in direction that create the rhythm of the path, and eventually, one might learn to welcome them.
  • And lastly, at the moment when other tourists blitzed their way through the path so quickly that they found themselves behind me as I moved slowly toward the exit, I understood the invitation to graciously step aside and embrace my pace and path as my own, not one that needed to conform to the habits or rhythms of those around me.
I exited the path not long after stepping aside to allow other travelers by, holding the invitations of the labyrinth in mind. It seemed that, at least on this particular day while visiting a space ripe with memory and preparing to travel to a new home characterized by uncertainty, God offered the space to enjoy myself along the way, not worry when things did not go according to plan, and embrace that my life is my own—and does not need to match the pattern of another’s. Over 18 months later, I am still embracing these invitations. 

At this juncture, with whatever characterizes your life, your creative practice, or your professional development, I hope you might join me in saying yes to enjoying your surroundings, finding delight in unexpected turns, and breathing as you move at your own pace.

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