Earlier this month, I got to spend a week with Susan in her lovely town of 150-year-old brick and red stone buildings nestled between the rolling green hills of eastern Iowa and the banks of the Mississippi. While I was there we visited Sinsinawa, a Dominican monastery on the other side of the river in Wisconsin. We wandered the grounds, meandered through the cemetery, and ate an al fresco luncheon on a stone bench overlooking an old labyrinth.
After lunch, Susan wandered off to journal and take photographs, and I stayed to walk the labyrinth. I never really understood the purpose of a labyrinth—it looks cool, I admit, and Celtic, with all those seeming knots that really aren’t—but beyond the cool factor, I’d never given it much thought. This time, though, with humid Wisconsin air clinging to my skin and clothes, and the sun blazing out and then ducking bashfully behind the clouds, and the cardinals streaking past in red flight, and the dandelions and clover growing up among the old stones of the labyrinth’s path, I found myself pondering.
The goal of the labyrinth—at least for me—is to get to the center. This is the goal of my life, too—to reach the Center, the Source, the Beauty and Love that beats at the heart of all that is.
But when I looked down on the labyrinth from my perch on the stone bench, I saw that it was a circle, and the outside of the circle was double, with rays like those of the sun slanting between the two rims. All of life is like that—held within God—but whether or when or even if we reach the center is up to us. God will not force us to walk.
I entered the labyrinth, and at the first curving saw that only a narrow membrane of stone separated me from the center. I could simply step over the stone and arrive at the center. But I did not; that would be cheating, and there is no satisfaction in that. Besides, you cannot cheat God. The path must be walked. In the spiritual life, there are no shortcuts.
I realized later that though I felt close to the center there at the beginning, I was about as far from it as I could be. And I thought, how very like God to grace us with a felt sense of His nearness as we begin our journey—sweetness and light to send us on our way.
As I walked, I moved away from the center, then drew nearer, then moved away again, and I reflected that the Christ-life is like this: we feel closest to God (sometimes) when we are furthest away. And when we keep walking the path He puts before us, however far away we feel, we are, in actual fact, drawing ever nearer to Him.
I kept walking. I prayed, “Thy will be done.” Had I walked the labyrinth a few days later, I would have prayed, “Into Thy hands.” It comes to the same thing: trust, and surrender. Simple words, but their meaning makes my timid, rabbity heart quake. I said them anyway. I walked on.
And on. And on—and seemed to be moving ever further away from the center. At one point, I was walking the rim of the labyrinth, about as far away from the center as it was possible to be, and reflecting that the important thing is not how close I feel to God—after all, the whole of life is enfolded in Him. What matters is whether I am close to God. Every step of obedience, of faithfulness, draws me nearer to His heart, though I may feel light-years away.
I cannot rely on feelings, which are ephemeral as a cloud and fickle as the weather. I have to rely on faith. This is not to say that feelings are unimportant, only that they are irrelevant. How close I feel to the center of the labyrinth as I walk its rim is no indication of how close I actually am.
And at that precise moment—I am not making this up—I turned a corner and looked up and gave a little gasp, for there, directly before me, was the center of the labyrinth. Five steps, and I was in the center. I laughed out loud, for it was too perfect. Had I been writing a story instead of living my life, I could not have included this detail, for it would have smacked of improbability and authorial contrivance. But what can I say? It happened just like that, to my immense delight.
I stood in the center of the labyrinth, looking around me at the long, convoluted path I had just walked, at the apple trees lining the drive, at the wooded copse beyond a sun-dappled meadow, at the shining white stones in the graveyard, and I laughed at myself and quietly thanked God for this little parable, perfect right down to that final, wonderful turn and my gasp of surprised delight.