Unknown Paths: Another Afternoon of Labyrinths

This is the fifth part of a series about a trip I took to western New York, something of a pilgrimage, to find and walk labyrinths. If you missed them, click here for Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four.

I walked four labyrinths on Saturday morning, and dealt with some questions about my relationships with others. After a quick sandwich, I headed toward the Finger Lakes for the afternoon. I had something like ten more labyrinths on my list: would I be able to walk them all? I had some ideas for more questions, a grab-bag of questions that came from a stream of consciousness meditation on “other people.”

The last two labyrinths I’d walked this morning were somewhat unique designs, but they didn’t prepare me for the first one of the afternoon.

5 Jefferson Street Park in Geneva, New York has what could be called a “contemporary” labyrinth. (“Contemporary” being a catch-all term meaning, “This labyrinth was designed in the last hundred years, and it’s very different.”) I personally prefer the more traditional shapes, because they feel more “mathematical” to me, but it’s fun to explore new ones like this.

However, this one was very difficult to walk.

It was built in the middle of the grassy park, with inlaid bricks for walls. The grass has grown over the bricks in a lot of places. Now, I have walked enough classical and medieval labyrinths that I probably could have walked one in this state of disrepair without much trouble. But since this design was so different, I was lost. I did my best, but it was a challenge.

On the drive there, I had come up with a remarkably appropriate question given the circumstance: “How can I be braver in unfamiliar situations?” I always find the unfamiliar to be so frightening, and I expect so much of myself. Walking this labyrinth turned out to be an example of that. By the time I reached what I thought was the center (but I wasn’t sure), I felt no satisfaction, no sense of peace. I just felt like I was off-kilter, awkward. Then I heard: “You don’t have to do it right. You just have to do the best you can with what you can see at this point.” That’s true for this labyrinth — after all, who is judging me? It reminded me of something I say a lot as a pastor: “God calls us to be faithful, not effective.” I faithfully walked this labyrinth, perhaps not effectively; but I did the best I could. The same might be true for all the other unknowns in my life: a new child, a new job, a new home, a new ministry. Perhaps it’s ridiculous for me to expect myself to be perfect at first. After all, isn’t doing a new thing a form of change? And as I learned at the last labyrinth, change moves at the speed of life. So does aptitude. Of course I will do poorly at new things. That’s what makes them new things.

6 I drove down the western edge of Seneca Lake, and parked at First Presbyterian Church in Watkins Glen. The labyrinth there is a 7-circuit classical, with a mossy stone path and inlaid pavers for walls. A nice bench sits in the center.

The question on my mind was this: “How can I forgive myself for hurting people?” I don’t forgive myself easily. Just as I have so little patience for my own learning curves at new things, I have even less patience with myself for causing people pain or harm, or even irritation. When I find out I have hurt someone, I tend to apologize immediately, but then I don’t let it go. I punish myself, by attacking myself internally, tearing myself apart. (I guess I’d say I hand over the reins to the Dark Voice, and let him do his worst.) Sometimes I will overreact in some way, by being overagreeable to that person; or if it was something at church, I’ll put in way more hours than I should to “compensate.” There are two reasons I do this: first, so the other person can see that I am truly sorry, that it’s not just words. And second, because I feel I deserve this punishment, and I don’t trust anyone to give me that punishment except myself.

Along the pathway, I heard a voice asking me, “If someone hurt you, what would you want from them?” I answered, “an apology.” “What else would you want?” And I realized, “nothing.” That’s all people want, I thought. They just want a sincere apology. They don’t want to see you suffer on top of that. (At least, not the people I interact with.) And that’s not what God wants either. God wants you to be filled to abundance. God does want me to apologize for my sins, but then trust that they are forgiven. Not to add punishment for something God hasn’t demanded that punishment. Wow — this idea about my own need for punishment is as distorted as my thought about whether people can change. I wanted to find out where this idea came from. Off to the next labyrinth.

7 I headed to Stonecat Cafe, a restaurant on the east shore of the lake. The parking lot was packed, and it took me a few minutes to discover the labyrinth. This one was really a mess.

I found it just as difficult to walk this one as the one at Jefferson Park. I don’t even know what type it’s supposed to be — there were paths going every which way, and not a clear delineation between path and walls. It just felt wrong. I heard gunshots in the distance (must be a rifle range or something). Patrons on the back porch of the restaurant could watch me. I walked around it a little, but found no answer to my question, so I decided to table the question until the next labyrinth

8 I drove to Trumansburg, to a place called “Pilgrims Nest.” This labyrinth was so simple, and so fragile. It was a 5-circuit Medieval, made by mowing the grass. The path was mown, and the walls were not.

If the owners failed to maintain this labyrinth, it wouldn’t become difficult to walk or messy; it would simply vanish. How remarkable. (Someone whom I assume was the builder/owner did wave to me and tell me she was glad I was there; I thanked her as well, but didn’t have more of a conversation than that.)

I carried the same question from the previous labyrinth, which was: “Where did the feeling that I have to punish myself come from?” I thought about some experiences going back at least to age 12, and realized that it just goes back so far that it’s part of who I am. And to undo something that deep requires going pretty deep yourself. This might be something I want to work on with my therapist. What I can say now is this: this may be a part of me, but it is not a part of what I want to be. I also found the biggest leaf I’ve ever seen there, and took it with me to give to my son.

0 It was now about 3:30, and I knew that I had only about two and a half hours of daylight left. I really wanted to finish up the Finger Lakes area, and drive a little further to spend the night. I was getting concerned that I wouldn’t be able to walk them all before sunset. I drove into Ithaca, where there were four labyrinths I wanted to try. However:

  • I only noticed when I approached the first that its listing on the Labyrinth Locator website said, “call for availability.” I hadn’t called. So I skipped it.
  • The next one was at a place called “Ithaca Children’s Garden.” It was apparently built for kids! The parking lot there was overflowing, cars parked everywhere, kids and parents mobbing the place. As I drove away, I then saw the sign for “Scarecrow Festival.” Yeah, not trying to walk that one today.
  • I found the place for the next one, but there was no labyrinth. The listing on the website did say, “Date Installed: 2001,” so perhaps it was long gone, and nobody updated the website.
  • And the last one? I only then noticed on the listing: “Not open to the public.” (So why is it listed there? Just to taunt people?)

So, Ithaca was a bust. 0 for 4. But at least I still had time to do the last one in the area.

9 My final labyrinth of the day was at Littletree Orchards in Newfield. On a day with several unorthodox labyrinths, this was an amazing ending. The walls of the labyrinth were 6-foot tall wild grasses. The path had been mown through them. It felt like walking through a corn maze!

I had no idea what style of labyrinth this was when I started, but as I walked, I discerned that it was another style I’d never walked before: a simple spiral, slowly getting closer and closer to the center. I don’t know how many circuits it was. I didn’t count as I walked, and there was no other way to tell!

The question I’d been planning to ask of each labyrinth in Ithaca was still there: “What message does God have for me regarding my sense of guilt and self-punishment?”

My walk offered an answer: I couldn’t see where this was leading. It was very easy to follow, but the future was unclear. This felt like a transitional labyrinth, liminal almost, somewhere between a labyrinth and real life, like the border between a dream and waking up. “Life is not a labyrinth. It’s different. But it’s like one. There’s still a path. And in life, I am here. I am here. I am here. That is my message to you. I am here.”

So if God is here, walking with me on the path that I walk every day, then I can forgive myself, because I know that’s how I want to be. Just like I learned earlier that if God is here, then I can reach out when I am depressed, because I know thats also how I want to be.

I had intended to spend at least one more night in New York, perhaps finding labyrinths around Binghamton, but I knew this was it. I’d received what I came here for. After the storm — that’s what this whole trip was. And that’s where I am right now. I am feeling abundant life right now, and now is the time to make some plans for the next time I’m depressed. After the storm ends? Enjoy it. Enjoy it! Then go and live your life so you’re a little more prepared for the next one, by remembering that God is there, and God loves you. After the storm, remember the water, the baptismal water, the water that runs so deep, the water that flows always, even when it looks dark.

I walked out of the labyrinth, walked up the hill to my car, got in, and drove home.

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