Lily Iona MacKenzie on Myth, Ritual, and Psychic Process
I’ve removed my shoes before entering Grace Cathedral’s labyrinth, considered in Medieval times the geographical and spiritual center of the world. The canvas surface feels rough against my bare feet, but pleasantly so, awakening them slightly from their usual sleep when encased in shoes.
I begin, keeping my eyes focused ahead of me, on the ground as I’ve done during previous walking meditations, raising them periodically to look at the stained glass windows.
Words fly out at me. Redemption. Savior. Mary. Disciple. Jesus. Love. Peace. Shards of intense colors—red, blue, green, and yellow made more vivid by the setting sun—flash by.
Before starting, I’d read of the three stages to walking the labyrinth: Purgation, Illumination, and Union. I’m in the Purgation stage, trying to shed the details of my everyday life, opening my mind. The idea is to surrender and let the labyrinth give whatever it will, to accept what comes forth.
I hear the sound of feet in nylons swishing on canvas. They sound like waves. I pass bandaged feet, toes with bunions, a woman with a metal crutch. I think of all the feet that have passed before me on this path and all those that will follow. I feel part of a pilgrimage.
Feet suddenly seem very vulnerable to me. They don’t get a day off. No vacations. I’m in awe of feet, my own seeming more precious. I promise to rest them more, give them footbaths, pamper them.
I keep watching for some sign that I’ve passed through Purgation and entered Illumination. Will death be like this? I wonder if I’ve left out the salmon I’m planning to have for dinner. Did I remember to tell my students the reading assignment for the next class?
Then I remember that Illumination is the time spent in the center of the labyrinth, quietly praying and receiving whatever wisdom is forthcoming. I’m anxious to get there now, wanting to see what will happen.
One of several musicians standing at the front of the cathedral lifts his oboe and plays. The music sounds like an animal’s voice probing the interior, an animal let loose in the city, rooting under the pews, sniffing at our feet. The sound is so intense it creates an ache in my chest.
I try to keep my mind on the walk and my breathing, but I think of how the sunshine filters through the stained glass and a shaft of light catches the edge of a pew as I pass. Is that Illumination?
I match the movement of my feet to my heartbeat, one foot, then the other. Why haven’t I ever noticed before that walking matches the heart’s rhythms?
The path is narrow. Someone wants to go by. No room to pass. I have to make myself skinny or step over into the next lane. We don’t look at one another’s faces. I focus on the person’s feet, legs, back. Most eyes are downcast, staring at the canvas. Purple boundaries that mark the path wind around and around.
For a moment I panic and think ‘What if I can’t get out. What if I get lost as I did once in the British Columbia wilderness.’ I almost bolt, but I calm myself. Focus on my breathing.
Remembering that a labyrinth is different from a maze quiets me. Mazes aren’t predictable. They can have many entrances and exits, trick corners, blind alleys, and dead ends. Riddles to be solved.
A labyrinth offers calm certainty—one well-defined path that leads us into the center and back out again. No tricks. No cul-de-sacs. No intersecting paths. The labyrinth directs you, guides you, leads. You follow. Knowing you’ll reach the center without having to think about it helps focus and quiet the mind, one purpose of using the structure.
Mazes sound more interesting. Less orderly and predictable. Like life.
I reach the center and sit on the floor with five strangers, trying not to let my voyeurism spoil the experience. But I can’t help glancing at one woman who is standing, balanced on one foot, a little like an egret. Maybe that’s the way to Illumination.
No big epiphany. I just feel pleased I’ve reached my goal, the kind of feeling I get when I’ve made a particularly steep climb and have finally reached the top.
Things I’ve read say that walking the labyrinth will help me return to some sort of center, assuming I have one or that I’ve lost it. Is this what enlightenment looks like? No lights? No great insight? The ordinary?
The center’s getting crowded now, and I rise slowly, controlling my impulse to rush out, eager to experience Union, the final stage, and reach home before the family does so I can start supper. I rework the path, preparing to reenter the world, taking the labyrinth with me.