It was almost like a dance, wending my way toward the center along a path that sometimes seemed to be taking me ever further away, spinning within the spinning of the world, and therefore feeling still. At the start was a short walk straight in, but then a sharp u-turn curve, and a lull of a stroll to another bend, where I would steady myself for a graceful pivot, then proceed. The ground was smooth and bright with sunlight, dappled with tree shadow and garnished here and there with a red or yellow leaf, ornamental remnants of last year’s fall.
Labyrinths. The roots of the pattern reach far back into history, and labyrinth petroglyphs have been found in Europe that date even to prehistoric origins. Mosaic pavements with labyrinth symbols survive intact from the time of Ancient Rome, and the symbol was adopted by the Christian church during the Middle Ages. I found the following abstract of an article by L.K. Porter that succinctly summarizes the phenomenon:
Throughout the eleventh and twelfth centuries, unicursal, serpentine, and often times circular labyrinth designs were inlaid into the floors of several European cathedrals, including Notre Dame of Chartres, Ravenna, and Amiens. The labyrinth’s re-emergence into popular culture through a new spiritual movement began in the early 1990’s in California. The labyrinth pattern borrowed from Medieval European cathedrals has been recreated across North America in various mediums, including inlaid stone, painted concrete, and even portable canvas. This movement has spread across North America to large metropolitan areas and small communities alike.
So I suppose that my seeking and walking this particular labyrinth, which is at Trinity Church in Santa Barbara, is consistent with a kind of California spirituality, but I don’t mind being a cliché. I had recently enjoyed a morning walk at the labyrinth at St. Mark’s in Los Olivos, and someone had suggested this one, a little oasis right downtown. I came with my friend Chris, and we first peeked into the church in need of a restroom. We could hear strains of organ music, and a young man who was practicing paused, came to the door (with a yapping chihuahua in his arms) and offered us directions. The church had a welcoming, calming ambience, and the labyrinth is right out front. A sign explains that it is a replica of one on the cathedral floor in Chartres, France, and that it is a simple path to follow, not a maze of choices designed to confuse.
I started, and Chris waited and then followed, but sometimes we found ourselves walking side by side within the labyrinth, or facing one another. We acknowledged each other at such times, but for most of the walk, we were each in our own space and thoughts…or the peaceful absence of thoughts. I formulated variations of a phrase that flickered between thanks and asking, and I tried to hold onto some sort of mantra. But my head resists even the gentlest of direction, and at times my thoughts shaped themselves into prayers, the earnest kinds I used to pray as a child, but even those fell away into the sunlight. There was traffic from State Street, the voices of passersby, someone shouting, the brief chatter of a bird…it all merged into a kind of music. And it was warm, almost too warm, and I could feel the breathing of the earth like a very near being, someone real and dear and intimate.
We often walked away from the center in order to reach the center, seeing it draw near only to discover we were headed away from it, and feeling it recede only to realize we were getting closer. Of course it was a metaphor on many levels: faith, trust, the inability to see the big picture sometimes, the oddly contradictory sense of purposeful meandering, the need to keep going even when we can’t be sure, the hope that maybe eventually it will turn out okay, and that in the meantime some of it is okay. I hunger for this message so badly now, I may be forcing it. But I felt a sense of completion afterwards, although I had accomplished nothing. And I felt I had remembered and practiced something that needed to be remembered and practiced…an old tune I hadn’t played in a very long time, a thing I’d almost lost.