A labyrinth looks a bit like a maze, except that the aim is not to get lost, but to get found.
At the Canadian Retreat Centre where the writing workshop I attend is held, there’s a labyrinth. It’s made of small rocks laid closely together, set into the grass, and the path leads intricately into the centre and out again, never once crossing itself, or going over its own tracks.
Labyrinths have been around for thousands of years, in several cultures. Examples have been found in ancient traditions including Celtic, Indian and Native American, and they started appearing in Christian churches from around 1000 C.E.
I’ve heard about the contemplative power of the labyrinth, but I’ve never walked one. The week before my workshop I saw the big, beautiful marble one in Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, but I was hurrying and didn’t stop for long.
Now I have all the time in the world, and before I sit down to my writing each morning, I slowly walk the labyrinth. It takes five minutes and 422 steps for me to reach its heart. As I walk, I ponder what the labyrinth might be teaching me.
I have been finding the writing hard – no surprises there. As I pick my way over the narrow trail of inlaid rocks, I realize that although it seems unlikely, this confusing path is actually leading me somewhere. I know I can trust the labyrinth not to get me lost. I know if I just keep putting one foot in front of the other on the modest path, I will get to where I need to be.
If I try to look too far ahead, however, all I get is bewildered and panicky. It’s impossible to see how I can get anywhere, with the plethora of paths doubling back on themselves. If I look at the whole thing, it just seems crazy and directionless, a cruel trick. But concentrate on the next step, and then the one after that, and the path is perfect – it never leads me astray.
Walking the labyrinth, you are often heading away from where you want to get to. You think you’re almost at the centre, and then it doubles back and goes right to the outer edge of the circle again. But if you are faithful to the path, it will lead you there, and sometimes when you feel furthest away from your goal is when you have almost reached it.
I emerge from the labyrinth a little more ready to take on writing, and life, again.
A labyrinth looks a bit like a maze. But you don’t get lost. If you pay attention, and go one modest step at a time, you get to the very heart of things. And safely home again.
Published in The Sunday Age, 7 July 2013