The Circular Pilgrimage

Alcyon Center Seal Cove, Maine
Alcyon Center
Seal Cove, Maine

The summer after graduating from high school, I worked for the Maine State Forest Service, wandering around wood lots looking for the gooseberry bushes that cause white pine blister rust. I can’t tell you the number of times I’d start out planning to walk in a straight line from one end of the lot to the other, only to find an hour later that I’d made some kind of lopsided circle and was back to where I’d begun.

I didn’t realize at the time (God, how many times have I said that?) that this was going to be the pattern of my life.

So many memoirs I’ve read detail the author’s linear journey from a youth mired in a swamp of sex, drugs, and rock and roll to a mountaintop of serenity, compassion, and enlightenment. Much as I’d like to see my life that way, beginning in ignorance and leading step-by-step to wisdom, my journey seems to have been more labyrinthine.

Which makes me wonder if the reason you see more and more labyrinths on church grounds or at retreat houses is that other people also see the labyrinth as a more appropriate symbol of their spiritual or psychological (Jung has a lot to say about labyrinths) journeys, too.

Labyrinths have been around since antiquity in every culture and just about every spiritual tradition. They come in a number of styles, but the one most popular today is based on the labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral in France, built around 1200, apparently as a substitute for the pilgrimages people were making to Jerusalem. If you were too poor, too infirm, too sick, or too old to journey that far, you could go to Chartres and walk the labyrinth.

While most people I know who regularly walk a labyrinth do so to meditate, pray, or find serenity, I find the experience frustrating. I get impatient with all those damn loops and turns.

Which is what the labyrinth has to teach me, I guess.

Redemptorist Center Tucson, Arizona
Redemptorist Center
Tucson, Arizona

If you’ve never walked a labyrinth, know that your goal is follow the circuitous path from the outside to the center, which, symbolically, can represent wholeness and authenticity, the so called “true self,” enlightenment, repentance, healing, whatever your interior goal might be.

What’s frustrating is that as you start out, the center is immediately in front of you. If you walked a straight line, you’d get there in seconds. Then, you swing to the left, but that’s okay, because soon you loop around and now the center is even closer to you. You walk toward it until, just before you get to the center, the path veers and you find yourself circling the center without being able to enter it. From there, it’s one goddamned loop after another, taking you further and further from where you want to be, every now and then moving towards the center again so that you think, “Ah, now I’m going to get there,” before taking you to the outer edges, as far away from your goal as possible. Until eventually, finally, and at the same time suddenly, you loop back and you’re standing at the entrance to the center.

And this has been the template of my life, whether it’s playing basketball or the banjo, writing a novel, or stumbling through grief. There’s that initial “Oh, this isn’t going to be too bad, there’s my goal right ahead of me,” followed by anger and frustration as I get further and further away from where I want to be.

After my daughter died, for example, I could see what happiness looked like—hell, most of the people I knew were happy, happier than I was anyway—but grief’s path turned away: into my den with a box of cigars and a bottle of scotch. Six months or so after Laurie died, however, my wife and I took a trip to visit some of her friends and family in Colorado. We stayed in a motel that looked out over the Rockies, and I bought a cowboy hat and a western belt buckle, drank margaritas, and pretended I was Tommy Lee Jones in Lonesome Dove.

“There. I’m over it,” I thought.

And the next few months were okay, until I went to a school band concert and saw a girl with hair the color of Laurie’s leaning forward at the piano, eyes intent on the sheet music. I recalled my daughter’s practicing scales in the living room over and over until I thought I’d scream, my nervousness as I sat in the audience at her recitals, the way my heart kicked when she hit a wrong note.

Then I saw Laurie not at the piano but in a hospital bed. No hair. Eyes deep and recessed like sunken marbles. Drugged voice: “Whazz up, Dad?” And I began the long, winding trek through grief, one that has taken years to walk.

Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust, Brunswick, Maine
Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust,
Brunswick, Maine

The good news is that a labyrinth is not a maze. You can’t get lost. There is only one path to the center, and what you have to do is to trust that no matter how far away from your goal you seem to be, you’ll get there. I look back and see that no matter how lost I felt, I wasn’t. The work has been to have the faith (in myself? in God? probably some combination thereof) and the patience to believe that the path, the one C.S. Lewis in his book A Grief Observed, said often feels like “a circular trench,” leads to the center: to wholeness, to healing.

And it has. Eventually, finally, and at the same time suddenly, I found myself less self-absorbed, laughing more easily, singing more often.

But as for walking in the woods, I still need to bring a compass.


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