On the last morning, one of the other leaders took a small group of us to the labyrinth on site.
Labyrinths have been around for millenia.
“The earliest examples, precise symbols found carved on rocks and painted or scratched on pottery, date to the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods…. Popular throughout the Roman Empire as a protective and decorative symbol on the mosaic floors of civic buildings and villas, they were also constructed outdoors at this time as a playground for children and as a test of skill for soldiers on horseback.
During the medieval period the labyrinth symbol developed into a more intricate form, reflecting the complexities of faith, life and philosophy in the medieval mind. Occurring first in manuscripts, it was subsequently laid in coloured marble and tiles on the floors of cathedrals and churches, most famously at Chartres Cathedral, where the labyrinth constructed in the early 13th century survives to this day, and indeed, has become an object of pilgrimage for modern visitors.”
There is only one way in and only way out—and you can’t get lost. Walking the labyrinth is supposed to bring you peace and clarity.
Still, I wasn’t sure I wanted to walk the labyrinth that morning.
I didn’t know why God had called me to walk the serpentine path that morning.
There was, as always, so much on my to-do list: people to see, emails to send, projects to finish before the retreat was over.
Still, breathing in, I entered the labyrinth.
Here is what I thought: I’m aware of all the things I’m releasing into the world as the rain gently falls on my head and shoulders: Control. Power. Sadness.
With each step on the path into the center of the labyrinth, I tried to breath, tried to slow down, tried to quiet my mind. My thoughts kept trying to break in, and my soul kept trying to release everything.
Step by step… in I went.
At the center of the labyrinth, I paused with the group of students I’m walking and praying with. We silently looked at the ground, our minds focused on receiving. Our breath mingled, the rain continued to mist around us, as the sky turned grey and wet.
As I stared at my feet, I remembered what it was like to do a different kind of pilgrimage from the Sun Gate to Machu Picchu in Peru:
At the top of the mountain, my traveling companions and I rested and enjoyed the sun. We’d climbed the Inca Trail as quickly as we could to get to the top and it was good to take a moment to look out across the valley. On the way up, I’d wanted to prove to myself that I was fit enough to climb, and subconsciously I wanted to be the first one to the top to prove that I was more fit than anyone else in our group. What a ridiculous reason to speed up a beautiful mountain. The absurdity hit me as I looked at the sun kissing the valley. I needed to slow down.
I took off my shoes and socks.
We headed down the mountain. My toes helped me find the way to smoother rocks, gingerly avoiding the rough edges. I was slower, choosing carefully where to step, stopping to look at the valley and the trees and the plants. The ground was cool and damp underneath my feet and step by step, we made it to the bottom.
And so, at the center of the labyrinth, I took a deep breath. I reached down and touched the soil and gave thanks for the earthy foundation beneath. I accepted the peace of slowness as the gift that it is.
I stepped back into the labyrinth. I breathed again and went into the world.
These are two of my walking stories. Walking is one of the things I do when I need to wait—wait for a phone call, wait for something to process at work, wait for a meeting to begin.
Walking helps my body wait, because otherwise I’m antsy and then cranky and then angry because I hate waiting.
This last summer I went for a long walk with two dozen friends while we waited for the Presbyterian Church to do something about climate change.
This was a kind of expectant waiting—waiting the way protesters do when they sit in a space, expecting to be seen and heard. This was like the kind of waiting we do in a doctor’s office for news about a diagnosis, expecting answers with hope or with fear.
It was a walk we did while we were waiting to be seen and heard by the church, expecting the church to respond to climate change when we really had no hope.
We were waiting for the church to decide if we would divest from fossil fuels, and so we walked 212 miles. We walked from Louisville, KY (where the PCUSA is headquartered) to St. Louis, MO (where the PCUSA was meeting for its biannual national gathering.)
Every morning began with prayer and every evening ended with a teach-in and worship. In between, we walked 10 to 20 miles. We prayed and sang and talked and listened and looked while we walked along the highway and through towns.
We listened and felt cars and trucks whiz past us and walked around decomposing roadkill. Sometimes we’d talk about the animals we’d seen on the road, our hearts breaking at the death we were passing. These animals were casualties of the cars, unseen and unfelt losses by most people as they went by. Some afternoons, we realized we needed to cover more ground in order to make it to the next stop of the day. Those afternoons, those of us with strength and energy took to running.
One late afternoon, I went with the runners. I run long distances — training for half and full marathons — so I’m a slow runner.
That afternoon, I was especially slow.
Frustrated, I wondered just how far behind I’d be at the end of the five miles we were running. I watched the next slowest person disappear around the bend. I was alone on the road. To be honest, my ego was bruised by how slow I was going.
And then I saw something in the road.
A little bump. It was a turtle.
She was in the middle of the oncoming lane. The runners who were faster than I am wouldn’t have seen her. Just as I saw her, I stopped to watched as three cars drove over her, her body in between the wheels. I prayed that they would miss her.
And then — when the cars were gone — I walked into the middle of the road and picked her up. I carried her off the road and placed her gently in the grass. I whispered a prayer as I took off, suddenly aware that our walk was about life.
Maybe I was so slow that night, so I’d be there to save that turtle’s life.
And maybe I was so slow so that my ego would have to be bruised and I could work on my humility.
And maybe it was a reminder of grace — that step by step, we could love the planet.
We could love it not just as a whole but in each little part. Each little part loved by God.
It was, for me, a reminder too that all of creation was waiting for a new thing—waiting for God and people to do a different thing so that life and love would prevail over the systems of hate and brokenness in our world.
In Advent, we turn our attention to waiting for God, waiting for God to show up and make the world better.
There is no end to the list of things we want for a better world—no more grief, sickness, war, no more poverty, sadness, hunger, climate change.
I walk while I wait—and I wait best when I do that in community, with other people.
What Advent reminds us is that we are waiting for God to be with us—and that when we are in Advent we are praying “come oh come Emanuel…..”
Emanuel means “God with us” … and so we are praying for God to be with us.
Come, God—be with us.
Come, God—wait with us.
Come, God—work with us.
Come, God—walk with us.
Portions of this reflection previously appeared in Presbyterians for Earth Care 2018 Advent devotion and on Presbyterians Today.