Thursday, July 31, 2008

Walking the Labyrinth:
Life Lessons of a Timeless Ritual



--Feature: "Sustainable Soul w/Rebecca Hecking"--


Several summers ago, I helped build a labyrinth. Together with a half-dozen other women, we started the day with a huge pile of river rocks, and ended with a relatively simple seven-circuit labyrinth. The effort took nearly the entire day, and what a day it was! Mid-August in the wilds of the upper Midwest U. S., it was HOT. Sticky and sweaty, with no shade to speak of, we moved the pile. Rock by rock. Over and over. We followed a plan from a book, laying out circles of stone, then moving a select few to create the path. By the end of the day, we had sunburned shoulders and blistered hands, but it was worth it. We surveyed our handiwork, danced the hokey-pokey (really), then settled for dinner.

A labyrinth can look like a maze to the casual observer, but it is far from it. A maze is a puzzle to be solved, with lots of dead ends and false paths leading in wrong directions. By contrast, a labyrinth is one single path, snaking back upon itself over and over to the center. It is impossible to get lost in a labyrinth. Labyrinths have been used for centuries as a spiritual tool for meditation. Medieval Catholic pilgrims who could not afford to travel on a “real” pilgrimage to a holy site would walk a labyrinth as an alternative “pilgrimage." Today, labyrinths have come back in fashion, and can be experienced in a variety of secular and spiritual contexts.

After our dinner (which was particularly delicious cooked over an open fire), we waited until dark. Then, by candle and lantern light, we walked the path together. It was beautiful to see the lights moving in a slow-motion dance to the center. Later that night, I went back to the labyrinth alone for a very different experience. I turned off my flashlight, and walked the path by starlight. There was no moon that night, but the stars shone bright and clear in a sky unpolluted by city lights. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I found that I could see just enough to walk the path. I had to move slowly and purposefully, only able to see a few steps ahead. More than once, I tripped over a patch of uneven ground. It took a long time, but I eventually reached the center, and looked up to see the Milky Way stretching across the velvety blackness. I felt at once very small, yet so very much at peace.

As a metaphor, the labyrinth is so rich with possibilities it’s hard to know where to start. The twists and turns, the confusion of not knowing quite where you are on the path, the certainty of reaching the center… It’s all about life, isn’t it?

I’ve walked many labyrinths over the years, alone and with others. Grassy ones on hilltops. A large fabric one unfolded on a floor at a church. Seaside by the Mediterranean. I even have a “finger labyrinth” carved by a laser into a piece of cedar. But the walk by starlight in that field in Wisconsin is unique. Seeing only a few steps ahead. Guided by (literally) the Universe shining down on me. Stumbling ungracefully quite a lot, then picking myself up again. Needing to focus on the immediate path in front of me. And finally, the deep peace at the center of it all, the feeling of being held in the loving embrace of a thousand stars.

In the end, we’re all walking our own life’s labyrinth, with its twists and turns, unexpected detours and mysterious grace. Sometimes we stride with confidence; sometimes we trip over our own feet. It’s easy to plow ahead, with our heads down straining to see just a little further down the path before us. That’s fine, as long as we don’t forget to stop now and then and look up. It’s then that we see the Universe sprawled out above us in all its glory, the source of light for our footsteps. Moments like that give us the courage to keep walking, no matter where our path may lead.


*Pictured Above: The Labyrinth in the Nave of Chartres Cathedral in France (c. 1221)


Rebecca Hecking is a contributing columnist to the Lohasian, and an eco-spirituality writer based in northwest Pennsylvania. She highly recommends both labyrinth-walking and stargazing as spiritual practices, especially if combined. Find her at rebeccahecking(at)earthlink.net



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