We interrupt your regularly scheduled blog to bring this important message . . . Yes I had planned to muse on the aforementioned questions about prayer but I wanted to share some thoughts from a visit to the Labyrinth in the Waterford Hospital Chapel, a mental health facility in St. John’s.
I’m not going to write a lot about the history or theology of labyrinths, a simple Google search will give you all the information that you need. Labyrinths have been around since very early in the church. They gained popularity in the Middle Ages as a way to simulate a pilgrimage to the Holy Lands, which at that point had been made too dangerous by the Muslim conquest of Palestine. In recent years Labyrinths have made a comeback. With that in mind we made our way to the Waterford to walk the Labyrinth as part of our Sacred Space Odyssey. We were lead by Susan Cummings who is the manager of Pastoral Care and Ethics at the Waterford. This was not my first experience with the labyrinth but it was a unique one.
As I approached the Waterford entrance there was a woman sitting on the front steps engaged in an intense conversation with herself. Her words were laced with profanity and she seemed to be declaring to anyone who was listening that she didn’t give a f*#!. Once inside I was greeted by a group of 5-6 men who were singing songs with references to oral sex and asking for change to buy a Coke. This was unlike any of the other sacred spaces we had visited. Then again that’s what makes the labyrinth at the Waterford so special. It sits in the midst of such brokenness and real human suffering. The hospital itself has a stigma, as do most mental health facilities. People don’t get warm fuzzies when they think about the Waterford. In fact it is a source of ridicule and the butt of many a joke. That something as beautiful, dare I say divine, come from something we perceive as so grotesque, speaks to me of the incarnation. In the incarnation God moves into the neighbourhood, into the muck and mire of human existence, to share in it and ultimately to redeem it. For me it is the embodiment of the Christian story.
When we entered the chapel a Tom Waits song was playing. The raspy, hour long chant of “Jesus blood never failed, never failed me yet” filled the chapel and my head, my heart and soul. It was intoxicating. After a short introduction from Susan we launched into the chapel and for me that’s where it all went wrong, or maybe it was right (I’m still trying to process all this).
I had highly anticipated this visit to the labyrinth. I viewed as a new way to pray during my Lenten Prayer Journey. As I started into the labyrinth I was intent on getting the most out of the experience that I could. I tried to match my steps to my breathing. Breathe in – step – breathe out – step – repeat – repeat. I tried to block out those around me and focus on the path in front of me. I longed for the centre and even thought of what I would do once I got there. Kneel maybe, or mediate on a painting of an outport village on the wall. This was going to be awesome.
As I walked with my hands clasped in front of me I noticed that they were tightly gripped. My teeth too were tightly clenched together. I was focusing so much on the labyrinth that I was not relaxing. I lowered my hands to my side and breathed deeply to refocus and regroup. I noticed that there were only a couple of people behind me, in particular I noticed who was directly behind me. I also saw that the centre was getting closer. A moment later I crossed paths with the person directly behind me. We had not been to the centre and should not be crossing yet. I thought to myself that this poor woman had gone astray, she had gotten lost in the labyrinth. So I walked on, intent on relaxing.
I soon realized that I was nearing the end. How could this be? I hadn’t been to the centre yet. No, it couldn’t be. I was the one who got lost in the labyrinth. It was my misstep not someone else’s. I was too embarrassed to go back, come too far to start over. I exited and went and sat and stared longingly at the centre. I had expended so much energy to get the most from the experience that I neglected to experience it. My pursuit of the centre had and caused me to miss the centre.
The labyrinth reminds me that I need to think less and feel more. I don’t walk labyrinths, fast, pray, or for that matter worship for what I get out of it. I do these things because they are a process, a journey that brings me closer to God. The journey matters, not the destination. The labyrinth reminds me that every step, every breath is a prayer. That’s what it means to pray without ceasing on this ever winding and twisting journey we call life (1 Thess 5:17).