My latest Life Lines column:
I was at the tail end of a silent weekend retreat a few weeks ago when I began reaching my silent prayer saturation point. Although the Dominican Retreat Center in Niskayuna, N.Y., was the perfect place for a spiritual respite, I’m used to taking my doses of silence in the summer when long walks on quiet paths or the rhythmic paddling of a kayak across a perfectly still lake help ease the what-should-I-do-now syndrome that sometimes sets in for me. Silence is not my natural habitat, so I need all the outside help I can get.
On silent retreat in upstate New York in the middle of winter, cabin fever can make the quiet even more challenging. On this particular morning, I was looking at about three hours of silence before Mass would begin, and I was feeling restless. I wandered into the conference room to stare out the window for a while. Over in the corner was a portable wooden labyrinth, which the Dominican Sisters had told us we could use as part of our prayer practice at any time during the retreat. Although I’ve long been intrigued by labyrinths, I couldn’t imagine this portable model doing me much good, but I was getting desperate for a spiritual diversion. I took the lap-sized labyrinth back to my seat and read the set of simple instructions. Not much to it. Whether walking with your feet or your finger, a labyrinth is failsafe. It’s not a maze; there are no wrong turns.
I put my finger into the well-worn groove and slowly started moving it along the path. Not knowing exactly what to do, I began by praying for all those people whose fingers had traced the path before me and all those who would come after me. Then my prayers shifted to those on pilgrimage – physical and spiritual. Somewhere along the way, however, the groove became a mirror of my own spiritual journey without my even realizing it.
I found myself wondering how long it would take to reach my goal. There would be long stretches when I felt as though I was making real progress, and then suddenly an unexpected hairpin turn would send me backwards. Sometimes my finger would move close to the center, my “destination,” and I’d think I was almost there, but with one long curve I’d find myself back on the outer edge, barely hanging on. Finally, I accepted the fact that I probably still had a very long way to go, and suddenly I found myself exactly where I needed to be. It felt all too familiar, those feelings of angst and worry, impatience and frustration over where I’m going in my spiritual life and why I’m not getting there fast enough. I don’t often accept my journey for what it is; I usually want to cut a new path and make my own way rather than accept what’s in front of me.
I started moving my finger back in the opposite direction, which is what you do in a labyrinth. You achieve your “goal” and then you leave it behind and begin the journey all over again. This time, however, I approached the path with less cynicism and more joy. Just one short trip through the labyrinth had proven I need not worry about whatever turns were waiting ahead of me. Wouldn’t it be nice if life were like that, no wrong turns?
Truth is, if we ground our lives in God and steep our souls in prayer, our interior journey can become very much like a walk through a labyrinth. Although our path may shift and twist, our way will be sure. We may look ahead now and then and wonder how long the journey will take or get frustrated with our lack of “progress,” but once we stop trying so hard to figure out every blind curve and detour, we’re likely to look up and find we are exactly where we need to be.