Lily Iona MacKenzie's Blog for Writers & Readers


Walking the Labyrinth

I remove my shoes before entering Grace Cathedral’s labyrinth, in medieval times considered the geographical and spiritual center of the world.  The canvas surface feels rough against my bare feet, awakening the soles from their usual sleep.

Keeping my eyes focused on the ground ahead of me, I begin, periodically looking up at the stained glass windows.  Words fly out at me.  Redemption.  Savior.  Mary.  Disciple.  Jesus.  Love.  Peace.  Shards of red, blue, green, and yellow flash by, the colors intensified by the setting sun.

There are 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 and open 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, feeling 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 watch 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 Illumination is supposed to happen in the center of the labyrinth when I’m quietly praying, receiving whatever wisdom is forthcoming.  I’m anxious to get there now.

A musician standing at the front of the cathedral lifts his oboe and plays.  The music sounds like an animal’s voice probing the interior, the creature 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, 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.

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.

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