Life as a Labyrinth

7125995_origThis is Holy Space/ God is here – you are welcome/ This is your space to be with God/ And God’s space to be with you/ Make yourself at home/ Be yourself/ Be real/ There is no rush/ Let God love you

Just over a year ago, I began my walking meditations in the morning. I went outside and “walked” my prayers, because I needed to remove my head (read: my ego) as the primary operating system for my spiritual life. My mind, intellect and will had taken me about as far as they could go on that journey. I had knowledge; I had discipline; I had something to show for all my hard work: hundreds of pages of prayers and journals and an annotated reading list a mile long. But the fact of the matter was that little to none of this “spiritual” work was actually reaching my spirit any more. So when I had an opportunity to ask a wise woman how to change that, she told me to take a hike, literally. And so I did, every day, for months.

And my head was happy, because she still got to be in charge of directions and my heart was sad, because she had to actually feel what I was feeling. Instead of watching from a distance, my heart experienced disappointment, frustration and sadness. Sometimes, she felt lonely and confused. Previously, I could direct those emotions to my head where my ego would take over, fix the glitch and reason it all away. Our hearts have no such tools. To contain the paradoxes of our lives, they must soften, expand and adapt. In our hearts, we discover that our lives are not something to be solved, but rather something to be lived. By placing my head beneath my heart, I knew pain, but I also experienced authentic joy, connection and wisdom.

Switching the GPS for my spiritual journey from my head to my heart had some unexpected fall out. Simply put, I felt lost. All the maps I had used were obsolete; my best shortcuts took me to dead ends and dark corners. I could no longer get where my ego had been telling me I needed to go for the first forty years of my life. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my final destination had changed.

I had always thought of my life as a journey. The ultimate destination was heaven, but there were a lot of stops on this side of the grave. I witnessed the lives of my parents and their friends. I watched TV shows and movies; I read lots of books and they all seemed to say this: Life is about having a goal. Make a plan and make progress. Go to school, get your degree, get a job. Fall in love, get married and have kids. Raise your kids, work hard and retire. You’ll die, but you’ll rise again on the other side, better than ever. In this schema, life is about forward motion. You could expect some ups and downs on the journey, maybe even some detours, but you always knew where you were headed, because you had a plan. “Life as a journey” looked something like this.

mappa_via_francigena

If Rome is the birthplace of Western Civilization, picture Canterbury as heaven. For a scholar of British literature like myself, it’s not such a stretch. Can you see how it works? Though the way may be far, the journey is all mapped out for you. Anytime you get sidetracked, you can just get back on the road and head to your next destination. There are lots of people with you, safety in numbers and all, so you can never truly be lost.

But over the last few years, between the Great Recession, career changes, teenage children, and a dark night of the soul, the way disappeared. However, I didn’t know how to travel any differently. Even though I had switched operating systems, I just kept trying to make “progress.” It’s what our culture expects us to do. Make something happen. Keep something from happening. Set a course. Stay on course. Find a new course. Move on!  I had done it pretty successfully too, but as I listened to my heart, I finally had to admit that the “life as a journey” metaphor just wasn’t working for me any longer. It’s hard to move forward when you don’t know where you’re headed. So instead of a map, I found this image to rely on.

labyrinth1

In the center of my labyrinth is God and somewhere in the midst of the maze, I am. For the life of me, I couldn’t tell you where. I don’t have a map, or a plan; I have no idea where my next stop will be, or how long I’ll stay there. However, I am also no longer plagued by the question, “Am I making progress?” In a labyrinth, who can tell? When it seems like you are at the furthermost point, you can take one more turn and walk right into the heart of it all.  When you’re confident you are almost “there,” you can pretty much count on being wrong and finding yourself back in the outer ring once again. It is the way a labyrinth works.

Though the image would have terrified my ego, “life as a labyrinth” makes perfect sense to my heart. I may not be able to see where I am headed, but I know I’m never lost. There are simply no wrong turns. There is only one winding path and it leads directly to the heart of God. I cannot go astray as long as I am heading in the right direction. If I ever wonder what direction that is, I simply sit in silence and stillness until I find myself pulled in the direction of Love. And if I ever get scared, turn my back and start walking the other way, all is not lost. The labyrinth is my life; I can never walk out of it. I’ve just made the walk home a little longer.

*The poem is an excerpt from www.labyrinth.org.uk. The heart image is from talented artist, Whitney Krueger.

Lessons from the Wild

My book group just finished reading Wild, by Cheryl Strayed. I found it disturbing, frustrating and beautiful, in that order. Wild is an autobiography of a woman who does a solo hike across the Pacific Coast Trail. As Cheryl nears the end of her journey along the PCT, she encounters Crater Lake, whose creation story is a perfect metaphor for what has happened in her life and so many of our own.

Mount Mazama was located in the Cascade Mountain Range in Oregon. At one point it had reached almost 12,000 feet high. It was a natural skyscraper: beautiful, majestic, impressive. Only the ancient Klamath tribes of that area ever witnessed how it towered over its neighboring peaks, like Mount Washington, Jefferson and Hood.

Up until 8,000 years ago, the presence of Mount Mazama was a fact of the skyline, a place you could count on to be there, like the Pacific Ocean, the Rocky Mountains, the nose on the end of your face.

It was there for hundreds of thousands of years, and then one day, it wasn’t.

Underneath its purple mountain’s majesty was a seething mass of heat, a cauldron of change, an eruption waiting to happen.

Mount Mazama wasn’t just a mountain after all. It was a volcano and when it erupted, what had been permanent was gone. What had been high was made lower than low. It wasn’t just leveled. It was cratered out.

The native peoples must have wept and trembled for what had been, for what they had seen, and for all that had been lost in the cataclysmic change.

How long did it take their eyes to adjust to the emptiness that had once been something? How long did it take them to pick up the pieces? How long did they look with disdain at the wound that had once been their mountain?

But the death of the mountain isn’t the end of the story, not for Mazama, not for Cheryl Strayed and not for you and me.

Invitations keep showing up in my mental mailbox these days to see changes in my life with a new set of eyes. The pattern of Mount Mazama keeps repeating itself over and over again.

What we think is the ending, is just a new beginning.

What we think is destruction is really a transition.

What we think is broken will be made whole again – not in the same form, but in some different and life-giving way.

The real bummer is that it takes longer than we want it too. We have to be patient. We have to wait. We have to hold on.

In my spiritual tradition, we talk a lot about the three days from Good Friday to Easter Sunday. Even Rob Bell, who I saw at a conference this last week, emphasized how much patience and perseverance it takes to get from Friday to Sunday.  But I am not talking about three days here.

While “three days” are a great scriptural metaphor, they are a lousy model for how patient we actually need to be.

What changes in our lives actually resolve themselves in three days? For most of us, the disruptions in our lives take a lot longer than that to heal. For Cheryl, for you and me, it usually takes more like years to acknowledge and accept that what we thought was permanent was actually a passing formation.

But if it takes years, we’re still lucky. It took centuries for Mount Mazama to become Crater Lake.

When the holy mountaintop blew up, all that was left was a sharp-edged, gaping crater. But season after season, year after year, the caldera started to fill with rain and snowpack and spring melts. Centuries later, Crater Lake is the deepest lake in America at 1,900 feet and one of the deepest in the world. It is so deep that it absorbs every other color but blue.

I have never seen it, but I will take Cheryl’s word for it as she gazed upon the silence and stillness of the water, that it is a beautiful, sacred center, found in nature, in her and in all of us: “what a mountain and a wasteland and an empty bowl turn into after the healing begins.”