Have you ever walked a labyrinth?
A few weeks ago, my husband and I took five-year-old Luke and seven-year-old Matthew to a retreat center. We had no formal agenda, just the desire to spend some family time in a beautiful peaceful place in the midst of the pre-Christmas rush.
I’d been to the center years before, most recently in spring, and had admired its blooming trees and had enjoyed wandering its paths and sand labyrinth. Its old Tudor-style buildings with their green lawns made it look like an English estate, thrilling the Anglophiliac geek in my soul. My grandmother used to attend Mass at the center; she and Grandpa lived in the neighborhood. For me, it was a place of gentle stillness and reflection.
For my boys, it was a brand-new playground. They took off at a run down one of the paths, delighted to find the labyrinth waiting at the end. Where others see a labyrinth and think Slow walk into insight, my boys see it and think Racetrack!
Scott and I corralled them and, in low voices, instructed them in the art of walking a labyrinth. (Key point: walk, don’t run.) We set off in a line: Luke and Scott together, then Matthew, then me. We all meandered slowly along the sandy paths with rounded edges, turning, advancing, going towards the tall rough-edged stone in the center, then moving away.
Not for the first time, I thought about what a brilliant concept a labyrinth is. You know where you want to go; you can see the center, the petaled flower or standing stone. It’s not like a maze with high walls, where you are wandering blind. You can see the endpoint clearly, and it ‘s not that far away. You could just step right over the little ridges to get to the center, but to do so would be like cheating on a test: you’d get the result you wanted, but without earning it, it wouldn’t be meaningful or satisfying. And without the walk, you wouldn’t get to feel your thoughts unspooling slowly, which is really its own reward.
Best of all, a labyrinth promises that you’ll get to the center eventually. You don’t know how, but you will.
When I think over my life, I see that it’s had more than a few labyrinths. Finding Scott. Surviving our reproductive losses and becoming parents. Publishing books. The paths to these ends have all been serpentine, with lots of switchbacks and seeming dead-ends and wandering through sand. But if you keep eyes on the “what” and you don’t try to obsessively control the “how,” it’s often a lot more meaningful than any “how” you could have engineered for yourself.
A labyrinth works as a metaphor for parenting, too. I know the kind of men I want my boys to grow up to be: spiritual, kind, reflective, honest, strong. I’m not always sure how to get to that endpoint; I second-guess many of my decisions, and sometimes feel like I’m floundering. But you try to go slowly and reflectively, and you do your best to trust that the switchbacks and apparent setbacks are a necessary part of the process. That’s the most you can do … and I guess it’s enough.
As I walked along, I thought of the boys. Did they know what this labyrinth was all about? Was it just a fun exercise, or did they sense that there might be something more here?
“Matthew,” I said to his back as I followed along in his slow footsteps, “the labyrinth is a way to think about life. You think you’ll never make it to the rock in the center, and sometimes it seems like you’re getting farther and farther away from it. But if you keep trying, you’ll get there eventually.”
“The rock is like Jesus,” said Matthew suddenly. “You keep trying to get to him, and it seems like you never will, but you do. It reminds you to always trust that you will get to Jesus.”
I think he gets it, I thought.
I asked him to say the comment again so Daddy could hear it. It made Scott catch my eye and smile. I knew what he was thinking, because I was thinking it too: This is a moment I’ll want to remember. The four of us kept on going, getting closer to the center, the winter sun casting our shadows on the sandy path.
That’s life: moment after moment, insight after insight, step after step after step.