When asked to give a definition for the term “labyrinth,” my first inclination was to describe a confusing hall of mirrors at one of those abandoned parking lot carnivals or envision an intricate maze for white mice in a science lab. Both scenarios befit Webster’s definition of the term, so I thought I was on the right track. It wasn’t until I walked the path of a prayer labyrinth that I gleaned a whole new meaning, one that is decidedly contradictory to the technical definition. Perhaps such a cleverly counterintuitive label is what has sparked my thought process, and rightly so, because the path I walked in the prayer labyrinth was anything but perplexing.
Last weekend, I was fortunate enough to experience a get-away trip with a group of young adults at Camp McDowell, the pride of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama. Located on a national preserve, this mecca for kids (and big kids alike) has acted as a “destination parent” of sorts — a safe haven that has raised, nurtured and changed lives. Illustrious and acclaimed McDowell, coined “wonderful, wonderful” Camp McDowell and just plain, endearing “camp” for those brought up in its nurturing shade, was a new place for me. And I loved it.
Sabbath was the theme of the weekend. It seemed ironic to have a program revolve around a term denoting, even requiring, rest. I was pleasantly surprised the first morning (after a refreshing, early morning canoe trip) when the priest read a few verses, and bid us go and make an effort to Sabbath. The term used in in its verb form was foreign to me, but really, it does take effort, especially in the fast-forward world we live in now. I was expecting a lengthy, lecture style program complete with worksheets or something, but after reading a few verses, Sharon (the priest aforementioned) entreated us to go sabbath. She gave some guidelines, however. There were choices like hiking, art, and quiet/journaling time which gave us freedom yet kept us within the loose confines of rest. Each gave us an outlet.
The fourth option was to walk the camp’s labyrinth. I felt slightly impious for not knowing what this meant. I’d been going to church since gestation, why was this so new? Intrigued, I followed Sharon and few others up the road to a wooded area where the labyrinth was located. A small wooden sign etched with “labyrinth” pointed into a patch of woods and was the only indication that anything beyond pine trees and armadillos existed in the direction the tilted arrow suggested we go.
In its simplest form, aesthetically speaking, a labyrinth is a pathway in which the entrance and exit are the same portal. The path covers a quarter of the circular design, switchbacks folding back onto itself as it reaches the center. Then, unexpectedly, the path drifts outward again into another sector, taking you further away from the progress seemingly made along the way. Again and again you purposefully pace until reaching the center. The small circular hub of the labyrinth feels like a safe haven, but the only exit is backwards. Following the path once more, you eventually find your end.
Oh, the symbolism. I was enthralled by the concept of just this wooded path lined by rock. Sharon compared the prayerful walk to our Christian journey, and no better visual and experiential moment has ever brought such clarity. The winding pathways were life’s journey with the destination being the heart of God in the center. We walk through segments of our lives drawing closer to Him, but we can, in an instant, be set back by circumstances of staggering doubt or problems that wish to ensnare. Sharon suggested we meditate on a certain prayer or thought as we walked. Having not been prepared for such an inward journey, I took small steps and just quieted my mind. I saw obstacles in the brush, became confused when turns were unclear and battled my mind’s desire to be distracted by passers-by. I needed guidance, and the only applicable passage that came to mind was Psalm 23. Quoting it over and over again, I traced the lines as intricately as I traced my path through the labyrinth and ultimately to God.
When I got to the third verse that says, “He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake,” I heard a newer version than I’d ever heard before. As a Christian, I have submitted myself to God, therefore I am submitting myself to a life of holiness. Once we begin, there’s no turning back. Yes, there are discouraging bends and paths steering us from our central focus. They seem like long, cold hallways that shrink and leave us suffocating and unloved. But around the bend, there are ways back. Intricate and irregular as they may be, our desire to press on draws us closer to God once again. Righteousness is rooted in love, and as simple as it seems, following this command should be our focus. Yes, the trials shake our confidence and we waver in our faith, but sanctification is a cleansing gift.
The labyrinth taught me that although our lives are intricately unique, our path is as simple as submission and steadfastness. Like a magnet, He draws us inward. Lord, give me grace and strength to carry on.