The first time I encountered a labyrinth was when I was in about the 7th grade. One painted on canvas was traveling around our diocese and was making a stop at my childhood parish where it was splayed out on the parish center's linoleum floor. I can't quite remember what it was about the labyrinth that caught my attention. Maybe it was its shape- smooth, concentric, intricately simple, and symmetric- or maybe it was because it was a treat for the youth group to be able to walk. No matter the reason, I can remember being ushered onto the canvas in my socks, being given a brief explanation of what the purpose of this experience was, and set loose to walk it with my peers.
Being the overtly intentional preteen that I was, I took my time as I was told, meandering through the twists and turns of the maze. There was no rush after all. This was prayer and contemplation. There was no way to get lost; simply follow the path and you would be lead to the center. There was something magical and mysterious about it. The journey enticed me. It was my own and yet it was so many people's. It is a path that has acted as a metaphor for life and it is a path that has met me on all different places on my journey, quite literally.
In Ireland, I would walk it on a hillside over looking Galway Bay. In Connecticut, I would walk it in the wilderness of a retreat house. At my home parish it would permanently be installed in paving stones, allowing me to walk it day and night. In Philadelphia, I would conveniently come to one at Sister of St. Joseph Motherhouse. In Sydney, it would greet me as a pilgrim. Each morning it greets me as I get ready for the day and pick up my rings and necklaces off a miniature version of the Chartres Labyrinth that I have come to love.
Friday I found myself again at the Labyrinth at the Lutheran Theological Seminary here in Philadelphia. In its own room on the second floor of the school's library, the labyrinth is a smaller version of the Chartres Labyrinth that is open to the public whenever the library is open. I've found myself there a few times, Friday it was a stop after a morning meeting about my Formation and a good time to just sit in prayer.
Certainly, my journey has led me places I never would have imagined, but like the labyrinth, you can only follow the path ahead of you sensing what might be ahead but never knowing more that a few steps ahead of yourself and a few steps behind. There are times to pause and times to look up and see where you are in relation to the center. For me, that is where God dwells. If this path you follows is a journey or a metaphor for life- it is the constant pursuit of God.
You enter moving straight ahead, directly towards the God you desire, but, as is so often the case, that path soon turns. You trace the Divine. In and out you weave, knowing always where you are headed but not always knowing the exact route you're going to take to get there.
No matter how many times I walk it, I never remember the exact turns. Each journey inward is its own. My feet fall softly and slowly. I reflect and like my preteen self I travel slowly. In time I've learned to stop. To pause where necessary... to wait in the Spirit.
Friday, Jesus sat at the center of the labyrinth, sitting cross legged in prayer. I knew I needed to move towards him, why else would I have stopped off at the labyrinth on a morning when I could be doing anything else. Before I took my first step, a movement caught my eye- a lady bug dawdling over the tight wound fibers of the carpet. This bug would be walking with me. I paused and let her cross the entrance before I moved inward. As I walked, more lady bugs made their way through the maze. They made me stop, cutting my thoughts short as I witnessed their slow movement. Some would stop completely and I'd nudge them along- no need to stop moving little fellow, let your little legs carry you where they may.
In time, Christ, who remained at the center, came to lead me by the hand, pulling me faster than I might usually move along. Gentle nudging, inward and outward, toward a place of contentment with my faithful companion.
Making the final ninety degree turn, I entered the sanctuary of the labyrinth. The journey takes time and yet when I make that final turn I always seem to be surprised that I am there already. Aren't there more steps to be taken? How could I already be here? Yet I am. The journey leads me here- as it always does, whether I'm ready or not- to God.
In Chartres Cathedral, the Labyrinth lies in the nave, as if it were a womb. There the Cathedral's famous rose window can cast a light that perfectly encompasses it. Recently I heard it said, "this blessed light reminds us that in the quest for the Divine, we must always remember that in Christ the Divine becomes man within Mary and within our own journeys we are invited to bring the Divine to life in us."
How fitting that new life come through divine light in this journey, especially in this season of Advent. The Annunciation propels us into this last week of Advent. We look towards Christmas with the yes on our lips that will bring Christ to life in this world and in our lives. The last four weeks we have prayed for that coming, as we have navigated the twists and turns of the season, of prayer, and of ourselves. Now we make that final faithful turn, the one that always seems to be a surprise. And trusting in the Word, we stand face to face with our God, the God who leads us on our journey, nudges us along, sits at our center, and asks simply in humility and trust that we give birth to him each and every day.