Labyrinth: We Make the Road By Walking

The labyrinth is a spiritual practice, a form of prayer that is based on the ancient practice of pilgrimage. Pilgrims walked to holy places, shrines to saints or locations in the holy land where important things in biblical history took place. Even in biblical times, there was a Jewish prayer practice of going to the temple in Jerusalem and certain psalms were sung while walking around the city. In the gospels, there are more than a few important events that are described as happening on the road: the risen Christ appears to a group walking the Emmaus road, Philip encountering the Ethiopian while walking the Gaza road. Jesus describes himself as “The Way” and certain parts of the early church, before the name “Christian” had really stuck, described themselves as “People of the Way.”

Walking is a powerful metaphor for the spiritual life. It’s as much about the process as the result. While we have a final goal in mind, much of the time, we aren’t sure about the next bend in the road, the next challenge. So we pray for the strength to know how to proceed, and we walk.

Labyrinths allow us to engage that metaphor in a powerfully embodied way. A labyrinth is not a maze; mazes are designed to confuse you, to make you feel lost. Labyrinths have one set path to the center and one path out which you can clearly see. The point is not to be lost, but to walk, to follow along the path, taking mindful steps and living the metaphor. You can walk a labyrinth quickly and confidently, go right to the center and out, or you can walk slowly and meditatively. You can go three steps forward and two steps back if that’s how things feel for you right now, which might just help to reassure you that even with that slow pace, you do eventually arrive. You can even abandon the course, skip over the markers that set the course and set your own path. It’s your walk; your set of choices.

At times, it can seem remarkably difficult to keep to the path even though you can see it. The twists and curves of the path can sometimes make you doubt you are keeping correctly to the course. You wonder if you wandered off track, if you need to retrace your steps or start over. This, too is a good metaphor for how we encounter the spiritual path we walk. Are we mindful of our days? Keeping true to our commitments?

The labyrinth at Scarritt Bennett Center uses bricks to mark off the path. Some of these are memorials to beloved teachers, mentors, family and friends of SBC staff and alumni. They are like the piles of stones called cairns you sometimes see on walking trails, reminders of those who laid the path before us, those who blazed the trail. Even though we might not know them we can be grateful that they had a part in building the remarkable witness of Scarritt Bennett and its ongoing work to inspire new generations of pilgrims to come to this place, be inspired by its history and join in the ongoing practices of hospitality, learning, justice, and spiritual empowerment. But the labyrinth path is not all bricked. There is also grass and rock as a reminder that the way is not completely defined or completed. We do our work in the context of a living breathing environment. Your presence on the labyrinth path is a part of that context, and your presence on this way helps to set the course for those who will follow. For all that has been, we give thanks, for all that is to come, we give thanks.

mtidwell photoMelissa Tidwell has written about spirituality, music, metaphor, and zombies. She is the former editor of Alive Now magazine, and the author of Embodied Light: Advent Reflections on Incarnation. She contributed to the Companions in Christ small group formation series and has also written for Weavings magazine. In 2013, Melissa returned to seminary to finish a degree begun 20 years before, and is now seeking a pastoral call in the Presbyterian Church. She is a resident campus assistant at Scarritt Bennett Center where she contributes to chapel services