Sometimes the Only Way is the Long One


Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit

During a 2013 vacation where each family member chose an activity close-to-home for us to share, my wife’s selection was a day at a local retreat center.*  Upon arrival, I was pleased to see that the center had created a labyrinth in the woods.  Labyrinths have come to have a special place in my heart.  A dear friend of our family who died in his early 20s was memorialized with a labyrinth designed for people of all physical abilities.  Andrew had spent the majority of his life in a wheelchair, but that never constrained his spirit. Back at the retreat center, “walking the labyrinth” became my activity for the morning.

I was reminded of this recently while re-reading Rebecca Solnit’s wonderful book Wanderlust:  A History of WalkingAn early chapter is titled “Labyrinths and Cadillacs: Walking Into the Land of the Symbolic.” (I told you it was a wonderful book!)  Solnit, who describes herself as “having been raised as nothing in particular by a lapsed Catholic and a nonpracticing Jew,” found herself walking the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco one evening and then muses on the “rules” and “moral” of the practice:

“…sometimes you have to turn your back on your goal to get there, sometimes you’re farthest away when you’re closest, sometimes the only way is the long one.  After the careful walking and looking down, the stillness of arrival was deeply moving.”

Trinity Church Labyrinth

Labyrinth in Memory of Andrew Lane at Trinity Church, Staunton, VA

Walking in symbolic space doesn’t require any particular spiritual or religious practice, but it strikes me that thinking about these truths are useful for everyone. We take journeys in work and life and the path is seldom straight. Short cuts often lead to dead ends. As Solnit notes, “Part of what makes roads, trails, and paths so unique as built structures is that they cannot be perceived as a whole all at once by a sedentary onlooker.  They unfold in time as one travels along them … Symbolic structures such as labyrinths call attention to the nature of all paths, all journeys.”

I hope you’ll take some time to think about your journeys, and have a good week.

More to come…


* You may not be surprised that for my selection in 2013, I stretched the idea of staying in the region and chose a family weekend in Pittsburgh to see the Pirates, cross another baseball stadium off my bucket list, and work in a return visit to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater.  My daughter’s choice had us spending three days at the beach, while my son picked out four ethnic restaurants around DC where we expanded our culinary palates.  When you have 21-year old children and you’re paying college tuition, this “make your own” vacation is a good alternative to a couple of expensive weeks out-of-town.

Listening and the Labyrinth: A Day of Silent Retreat at Dayspring

Lake of the Saints, Photo from Dayspring Retreat Center

Lake of the Saints, Photo from Dayspring Retreat Center

Candice was the final family member to introduce her activity to us in this year’s “plan your own vacation.”  We had spent a wonderful weekend in Pittsburgh to check another ballpark off my bucket list and took in Fallingwater on the way home.  Andrew has now taken us to three of his four ethnic restaurants as he worked to expand our culinary horizons.  (Tonight’s visit to Mike Isabella’s new Greek restaurant Kapnos tops the list in my book…and was the best Greek food I’ve had in quite some time.) We arrived home yesterday from three days at the beach – courtesy of Claire – and threw in an outdoor viewing of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off for good measure.

So the bar was high as Candice took control.

For twelve years, Candice has been a regular participant in Quiet Days and Ember Day silent retreats at Dayspring, a beautiful rural oasis in Montgomery County.  The Retreat Center was begun as a place for Sabbath rest and reflection by the ground-breaking Church of the Saviour, established in Washington, D.C. by Gordon Cosby in the 1940s as an alternative vision of the church.  She always returns home refreshed and revived, and suggested as one of her two vacation activities that the three of us join her for the August Quiet Day.

This morning, Candice, Claire, Andrew and I were among approximately 15 participants in a half-day silent retreat. Candice had bought each of us a new journal and, in addition to lunch, had provided readings on silent retreats, walking the labyrinth, Ember Days, Henri Nouwen, and other topics.  After a short introduction and meditation of poetry and song, the silent retreat began.

Each of us structured our day as we wanted.  Candice only asked that we join her down at the creek during the morning – one of her favorite spots on earth.

After a number of discussions over vacation, I had decided to focus on listening – and to put everything through that prism.  I felt it was an area where I was ripe for growth.

The picture perfect summer weather encouraged us to leave the lodge and travel through meadow, forest, and trails.  At one point I ended up at the Labyrinth.  I’ve read about the spiritual experience of walking the labyrinth, but until this afternoon had never tried it myself.  As the paper Candice provided us noted,

There is no right or wrong way to walk a labyrinth as it is an activity that becomes a metaphor for your unique spiritual journey.  Some people walk with the intention to address an issue in their lives, some walk for healing, others to pray and meditate.  Still others walk simply to open themselves to the presence of the Holy.

I walked with the intention of thinking about listening.  And what I found surprised me.  Having never thought much about the path of a labyrinth, I suppose I expected a more-or-less circular route that bore in towards the center.   But what I discovered was that early in the walk I was near the center, but then looked up a few steps later to find myself out on the edge.  That seemingly random relationship to the center was a key part of the process.  Since there is only one way to walk a labyrinth physically, it dawned on me that my conception of walking along a circular path and getting closer and closer to the center – or the truth, the Holy, or whatever you want to call it – was all wrong.  In thinking about this through the context of listening, I realized that we have to intentionally and continually listen – because our relationship to the center varies so widely along the journey.  It was one more thing to add to my journal of the day as I listened to what my feet and eyes were showing me.

I can’t speak for Andrew and Claire, but I found Candice’s first of two contributions to our family time together to be very meaningful and very rewarding.  Thank you, my love.

More to come…