A new friendship on the periphery of my life went sour recently and the unresolved conflict made me sad. I woke up one day feeling discombobulated. Any shared healing is unlikely, due to circumstances. I was stuck with feeling bad.
I tried reading some inspiring writers. I watched part of a Christian TV show that sometimes encourages me. I prayed, sort of. All efforts failed and my mind kept buzzing.
It made sense to get some errands done so I headed out. Driving between stores, I remembered the saddest little labyrinth I’ve ever seen.
Sometimes it helps my state of mind if I walk a labyrinth and I’ve walked many: a beautiful carpet labyrinth in San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, outdoor labyrinths surrounded by exquisite gardens, Toronto labyrinths in Women’s College Hospital and High Park.
The one I was thinking of is nothing like those.
Today’s errands would take me near it. An hour later I drove into a church driveway and on toward the farthest corner of their property.
Years since I’d last seen it, the labyrinth was still there, faded lines painted on parking lot asphalt. It hid at the edge of crumbling pavement, bordered on one side by the neighbours’ privacy fences and on the other by unkempt park grass. When I walked over to enter the labyrinth I saw that it was half-covered by dirt and fallen leaves. Even after kicking away some debris and muck I couldn’t see enough of the paths with their unpredictable turns to follow the trail with confidence.
Labyrinths are not mazes; you can’t puzzle out the right way or decide which path to take. The meditative practice is to follow a path laid out for you so that you are free to let your thoughts wander and become aware of insights God’s Spirit may bring.
What to do?
I trudged across the huge suburban church parking lot. The church secretary seemed annoyed that anyone had opened her office door. I explained my problem and asked if I could possibly borrow a rake or an outdoor broom. I would be happy to clean the labyrinth but I couldn’t use it the way it was.
She frowned, and defended the state of the labyrinth by informing me that there were many other things the church had to spend money on.
Again I explained, “I’d just like to brush away some of the leaves and dirt that are covering the path, if that’s alright.”
“Anyone is welcome to use the labyrinth at any time” she replied, grudgingly, “but I don’t know where there would be a rake or a broom.”
I persisted, “Is there a caretaker around?”
“I don’t think so and I don’t know where he keeps the brooms and the door would probably be locked anyway.”
“Oh, okay, thanks.”
As I left I added silently, “For nothing.”
On my way downstairs to the exit I passed a man on his way up. Taking a chance I said, “Hello. Do you work here?”
He stared at me, puzzled.
I repeated, more slowly, “I’m just wondering if you work here.”
“Yes. I janitor,” he replied in a strong accent.
I asked if I could borrow a rake or a broom, gesturing outside toward the parking lot. “I need to clean up the labyrinth”
What are the chances he knows that word? None.
“You want to clean?”
“Yes. I want to walk the labyrinth but it’s covered in dirt and leaves. Do you have a broom?”
This word he understood. He nodded and turned to head upstairs. I followed him back past the secretary’s office with its glass walls, keeping my head down and hoping she wouldn’t tell me to stop bothering the staff. He led me around the corner to his (open) closet, getting out a broom and dustpan. I held out my hands but he said, “I clean. You show me”.
Off we went.
When we got to the far corner of the parking lot he pointed at the painted circles and asked, “What this is?
“It’s a labyrinth, a path we can walk while we pray”
“Pray? Like… Gott?”
“Yes,” I nod and smile, “We walk, and we think and God gives us ideas. Sometimes we ask for help. Like I have a friend in trouble and I’m asking God for help.”
I finally had the sense to ask his name.
We shook hands.
“Hi Damien. I’m DJ. Thankyou so much for doing this.”
Waving at the labyrinth markings he said with a smile, “I think this for children to play”.
After his first attempt to sweep the muddy leaves he walked all the way back to the church building to get a bigger push broom. There was no stopping him, so I went to where I thought the labyrinth entrance was and kicked away enough leaves to begin my prayer walk. Soon I heard the whoosh, whooshing of Damien’s broom behind me as I moved slowly along the circling path. I paused. It sounded like Mother God cleaning, cleaning up our messes.
As I turned one of the loops in the path, I saw that he was leaving.
“Thankyou so much, Damien!” I called.
Gratitude began to replace my hurt and frustration, although there were more tears before I was done. It was so healing to stand in the centre circle, complaining to God about the ugly and hard parts of life, wishing there was nothing but beauty and love. I gave thanks for those who had made this labyrinth, poor cousin to Cathedral carpets and lovely gardens. I closed my eyes to face the warm sun and listened to leaves rustling. I sang, “Great is Thy Faithfulness”.
When I left the labyrinth, feeling much better, I thought two things.
The church secretary didn’t understand that by being unhelpful, she was blocking the light I badly needed.
And, between language difficulties and his unfamiliarity with labyrinths Damien won’t understand how his kind gift helped me back to the sunshine.