This is a piece that I wrote in the fall of 2004, shortly after arriving as the Senior Minister of First Christian Church, Wheeling, WV. My husband, Tim Graves, wrote a brilliant blog the other day about his continuing spiritual journey and call to follow the ever illusive Holy Spirit in 2012 in Oregon. In his blog he mentions a dead beaver. Now, it is not as gross as it sounds - really. His piece is actually amazingly poignant with multiple layers of meanings and interpretations. Being the extrovert who strings stories together in her head with the oddest of threads, his post made me think of the piece below that I wrote nearly 8 years ago. I share it because it reminds me of a wonderful day and a wonderful encounter with the Holy.
I came to know walking labyrinth at Andover Newton Theological School several years ago. The summer my mother died, I participated in the Faith, Health, and Spirituality Institute. As part of that fabulous week, the school’s labyrinth was set up in Noyes Hall for anyone to walk at any time. The labyrinth was a wonderful vehicle to walk off the pain, anger, and guilt of my mother’s passing. Around and around the labyrinth I walked, crying out to God and to her, asking forgiveness for not doing more; asking for relief from the oppressive grief. What a gift I found in its symmetry and simplicity.
The Mt. St. Joseph Labyrinth in spring. Since that time, I have tried to take advantage of opportunities to walk labyrinth whenever I could. Most often I have walked replicas of the Chartes Cathedral labyrinth. But recently, I had the privilege of walking a Classical labyrinth at Mount St. Joseph in Wheeling, West Virginia – and I was NOT alone.
I am the new pastor of First Christian Church in Wheeling, West Virginia. I am new to the community and new to being a senior minister. Grappling with all of the responsibilities of my new call, I remembered the advice of my church administration professor, and dutifully set aside Wednesday mornings for reflection, meditation, and prayer. The entire congregation knows this is my time to chat it up with God and this knowledge and their encouragement help me keep this discipline.
On a Tuesday afternoon recently, however, the piles on my desk made it very clear that there would be no praying (except possibly for a wind storm to blow the papers away), no meditation, no quiet in this room the next morning. I needed to get away. I called the Sisters of Saint Joseph to ask if the labyrinth would be free. It was. My spiritual discipline and I were saved.
I arrived at the Mother House on a clear, warm, sunny September morning. After getting directions to the outdoor labyrinth, I walked down the winding road, past the grotto with the Blessed Mother, past the workmen roofing an ancient outbuilding, to the hollow where the labyrinth quietly dominated the landscape.
A feeling of sacredness, of truly entering holy space, enveloped me like a comforting blanket. Clutching my journal and Bible, I knew that I needed to prepare myself, get into the right mindset, before I entered the circular gravel paths.
I decided to first explore the dilapidated building across from the labyrinth. This pavilion obviously was once a welcoming and well-used building for picnics and outdoor activities. While its deteriorated condition projected sadness, it also held hope. As the labyrinth renewed souls across the way, this space still echoed from the laughter and prayers of the Sisters. I could feel that it would be renewed in time. It’s stucco walls and massive log beams testified to the strength of the faith of the women in that place. The building was an oddly reassuring presence for me.
On the path between the building and the labyrinth was a pole with an adorable wooden house shaped box on top – right at chest level. I curiously opened its door to discover a journal, pens, and leaflets explaining the labyrinth. The Sisters invited guests to journal their experiences of the labyrinth to share with others. I read several of the entries; they were moving and some reflected my own reaction to this ancient spiritual practice. I replaced the journal, noticing with some disgust the number of flies swarming the house-box. Gross. I gazed at the labyrinth. No, I wasn’t ready yet.
I sat on one of the many log stumps around the labyrinth, and began to read the leaflet. My reading was soon disturbed. What was that noise? Obviously an animal noise. I searched the tree line for deer. Nothing. Back to reading. Another paragraph and there it was again. A definite animal noise. Search. Nothing, except that I detected a brown, furry, dead creature in the grass between the building and the labyrinth. Well, that explained the flies. Really gross.
I finished reading the leaflet and began to read Isaiah 43. “I call you by name and your are mine.” That noise again! When I looked up, I realized that my furry creature was not quite as dead as I thought. Leaving my books on the stump, I tentatively walked over to him. The little ground hog was wounded, fragile, weak. He emanated pain and suffering. His piercing black eyes told me much. “I, too, have come to holy ground, human. I have come here to die. Why do you come?” A bit disconcerted, I decided that I needed to retreat to the safety of the inner circles of the labyrinth.
I rang the chimes at the entrance, putting the spirits on notice that I entered the sacred circle. And I began to let go of my outside distractions. Don’t think about the newsletter. Don’t think about the worship committee meeting. Don’t think about your sermon. Don’t think about the undone laundry and unmown grass. And certainly don’t think about that ground hog. Let God in.
Walking the path, my senses processed my immediate surroundings. The crunch of the stone beneath my feet. My muffled step where grass grew over the path. The cool of the shade and the kiss of warmth when I re-emerged into sunshine. There was the distant, steady hammering of the workers on the roof. Water trickled and gushed over stones and boulders in the nearby creek. Leaves rustled gently in the morning breeze. I was in the midst of and a participant in holy creativity.
But each step I took was monitored. My little friend surveyed my every move, challenging me. “I have come to give up my life to your god, human. Your god calls me by name. And you as well. That sacred circle is for letting go, giving up. What do you give up?” Don’t look at it. Don’t think about it. How dare that dying animal intrude on my quiet time! His eyes bore into me. And after much time, and many determined steps to ignore him, I finally realized that he was part of the creative process happening that morning. He was going to transition from this existence into another. He was right to challenge me. What transition was I going to make? Sacred ground is not space for the timid, for the unsure. It is powerful, frightening, demanding. I thought of Moses and the burning bush. I thought of Jacob wrestling the Angel. I thought of Jesus at Golgotha. How dare I enter sacred ground thinking I could escape? Things happen on sacred ground. Sometimes revealing and greeting card perfect things. Other times violent and painful things. You were never the same after being on sacred ground. You were different, transitioned. Why had I come this morning?
When I reached the center of the labyrinth, I found a pile of objects – symbols of things that prior walkers had “given up” to God. There were coins, shells, religious medals, rocks. What was I going to give up, let go of? My friend continued to stare. “Human, I give up my life to your god. What are you going to give up? Remember, it’s not about you. It’s about the divine circle. God calls you by name.” Truth finally sank into me. I had been so wrapped up in trying to be the “good” new minister these last few weeks, carefully logging each “well done” and “thank you” as affirmation that I was a good minister, a good person. It’s not about me. It’s about the Divine and the call to be community together. Mutuality. Our paths wind around each other like the labyrinth, not to form a destructive dead end maze, but to embrace and care for each other as God cares for us. The winding path allows space for each to grow, to be, and even to leave when necessary. But we need each other for it to work. There was no space for arrogance, conceit, insecurity, fear. “Give them up human.” Yes, dear friend, I see.
I meandered back through the labyrinth, listening, trying to tune into the interconnectedness of the lives around me. I had been called by name to join with others.
Mt. St. Joseph Labyrinth walked at night by Women at the Well group from First Christian, Wheeling, WV
When I left the labyrinth, I walked over to my comrade. In a miracle of last minute resolve, he pushed up on his front legs and crawled a few inches toward me and the sacred circle. “If I can do it, so can you. If I can give up my life to the Creator One, you can too. You won’t lose yourself. You’ll know yourself.” Smiling, I blessed my companion, lifting up a prayer of safe passage for him, promising to send help for his time of transition. Then I left, walking out of sacred space back into the world, immediately aware that I had indeed been changed in by the experience and happy that I had not been alone.