The long and winding road

Nestled into the hills above Malibu, California, the Serra Retreat Center is a beautiful place to spend a few restorative days away. From a scenic overlook near the main meeting hall, you can see the Pacific and enjoy the ocean breeze.

I was at the Center to speak to a group of pastors. In between sessions, needing a bit of alone time, I would wander the campus. It was a tranquil place to walk, think, and meditate in the cool, fresh air.

On one stroll, I happened across the little jewel in the photo above — a labyrinth, its path laid with stones, its focal point a cross. For centuries, labyrinths have been used in a variety of spiritual practices. They may look like mazes, but typically they are not: there are no dead ends. You can’t get lost or trapped.

And perhaps most importantly, there are no Minotaurs around the next corner waiting to ambush you.

Labyrinths are not puzzles, though they are appropriate places to bring one’s puzzlement. They are meant as aids to quiet contemplation. You enter, and give yourself to its winding path. Slowly, one step at a time, you simply go where the labyrinth takes you. As you do so, your mind wanders too, but peacefully, freed from the distraction of having to solve problems or figure out where to go next.

Somehow, this seems an apt metaphor for reflecting on the maze of troubles that is the COVID-19 pandemic.

In some ways, things seem to be getting a bit better in places. Curves are flattening; some businesses are cautiously reopening.  But other businesses, sadly, have closed, as COVID-19 made already difficult situations first worse and then impossible. Perhaps, God willing, we will soon see an end to the pandemic, at least for now. But even if all physical traces of the virus were to vanish tomorrow, we would still be dealing with its collateral effects, the tangled skein of economic and psychological consequences created by the public health crisis.

The maze of complications has been daunting. But I wonder: is it possible to see all of this as a spiritual labyrinth rather than a maze?

Certainly, the path is tortuous. Back and forth it winds. No sooner have we navigated one switchback than we are confronted with another. There is no direct path to a goal (which surely maddens the more management-minded among us).

But we enter the labyrinth with the understanding that the path has been carefully laid. We are invited in, and asked to just keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Left.

Right.

Repeat.

I know. Most of us are neither monks nor mystics. We don’t live a cloistered existence. Contemplation? A leisurely stroll that doesn’t go anywhere? Who the heck has time for that? We’re just trying to get food on the table, conserve toilet paper, get the kids to do their homework, and keep from catching a dreaded disease.

I get it. Still, I wonder. Life may feel like a maze, full of tricks and traps. But what would it mean to walk a maze in grace (yes, that was intentional)? Or even to see it as a labyrinth instead, an invitation to trust the one who’s laid the path, to quiet our anxious problem-solving minds for a while, and keep walking?

One foot in front of the other.

Keep walking.

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