“A labyrinth is a pattern with a single path that leads circuitously to the center. A maze has many paths, choices, and dead ends.”
–Information sign, Harmonist Labyrinth, New Harmony, IN
Daughter was delighted to find a hedge maze in Williamsburg. She zipped through it, reached dead ends, tried new routes.
As I walked through, I would occasionally catch a glimpse of her streaking by in her colonial dress, seeking out her own path, thrilled with the challenge and the utter novelty.
On our more recent trip this past week, I had the chance to walk a few different labyrinths. We walked on a granite copy of the labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral. My expectations were low, but once I started walking, I felt like I was a part of it. Daughter ran on ahead. I walked slowly, and Pseudonymous Friend was right behind me. We’d all diverge and then pass one another on different paths.
The next day, PF kindly stayed with daughter at the hotel pool while I hopped on the hotel-provided one-speed bike to check out some local archives. That didn’t take long, so I cycled over to the hedge labyrinth at the edge of town. It didn’t look that big, but once I was inside, I realized that it kept taking me on more and more circuits of the path. I’d think I was reaching the middle, but then the path would take me outward again. It really didn’t matter if I got to the middle then or later. The point was to just follow the path. When you’re up to your shoulders in hedges and can’t break from the path, you realize that there’s nothing to do but keep going. There’s no sense in racing to the middle or worrying when you’re get there. You’ll get there. Just let that go, and follow the path.
On the morning we left town, we stopped at the hedge labyrinth and all got a chance to walk it. Daughter raced ahead and disappeared. PF went ahead of me and took a path on the left. I went a few steps farther and entered on the right. As we walked, PF and I might spot each other’s heads above the hedges. I could hear Daughter racing past until her footsteps faded away. We were all in different places, but we were all headed to the same place. Some of us took longer routes, some more circuitous. There was no sense in wishing you were on the other path. You were on your own path, we’d meet up eventually, and the only thing to do was keep going.
I still can’t meditate in a labyrinth, but I certainly learned the act of letting go and accepting the path. I learned that letting go of choice and longing is an act of liberation, which frees you to take on the task at hand and find all of the possibility in the moment. I was glad to walk a labyrinth in solitude, but I was also heartened to do it with these people I care about, to realize that we’re all on paths, which lead us to pass by one another, meet periodically, and move on our own.
Pseudonymous Friend and Daughter and I were on a road trip to visit utopian communities in preparation for a new course. We visited a convent and a monastery, too ( and other communities as well). The convent and monastery grounds were beautiful and striking and peaceful in different ways. The monks and nuns exuded such joy. Joining one of these orders requires renunciation–chastity, poverty, and in one case, silence. Despite all the rules and renunciations–or maybe because of them–these contemplatives are, to the outsider, full. It might be joy, it might be contentment. I can’t speak to what they were feeling, but I caught it. As someone who is notably lacking in joy, I noticed this. I figured that a difference lies in the fact that they chose to renounce worldly possessions and liberties. But the Catholic school girl in me knows that this act is not a choice, that people who enter this life feel a vocation, a calling to join. This is their lot as much as mine is my own. They, too, are on the labyrinth, following their path, only they have conceded to it, knowing that this is what it is, and accept the joy and enlightenment and whatever else comes with it. I just feel gratitude that my path passed by theirs, periodically.
When we visited the monastery, we opted to join the monks for their 2:15 prayer. As we entered the church area, signs informed us that this was an area of silence. As we walked along the walkway, past the cemetery, the architecture, we had to resist the urge to chat with one another. We got to the church early and decided to move from the lower level up to the balcony but had to communicate through hand gestures and eyebrows. This taught us that there are ways of communicating other than the spoken word, but we only communicated for “necessary” things. (We made it up the choirloft, although I have no idea what transpired between us.) The practice of swallowing my words and chatter gave me the smallest glimpse of the spiritual practice of silence. In the midst of the prayers, a thunderstorm crashed and clamored. When we left the church, there was still a torrential downpour. At the top of the church steps we were still in the silent area, so we gestured to one another to RUN! We ran, trying to sprint but hopping over puddles, down the walkway, through the parking lot, where we could have talked or whooped or hollered, but instead, we kept running and kept silent, swallowing our laughter. We stopped under cover of the gift shop door, catching our breath, wet, exhaling, sharing a glimpse of the joy we saw all around us.
Although I went on this utopia road trip as a scholar and teacher, the human in me could not help but admire the people we met and the historical communities we encountered. There are dreamers and righteous folk, and seekers and organizers.
And then there is my daughter, who races through mazes and, even, labyrinths, who raced from the monk’s Liturgy through the torrential rain. Her childlike exuberance is not that of the child. She knows more pain and sorrow than many adults. No, she is joyous because she knows that the world is more full of weeping than any of us can understand. She knows the worst of it, and she runs and smiles because she can, in this moment. I thought she loved hedge mazes because she felt she had the agency to conquer them. But then I realized she just runs, everywhere. She runs because there is a maze, or a path, or a downpour to dash through, and the only way for her to greet it is with joy and wonder. For her, that is the only choice.