Labyrinth #38: Villa Pauline Retreat and Spiritual Center, Mendham, New Jersey

I enjoy walking labyrinths. Labyrinths are maze-like structures that have been used as spiritual tools for centuries. There are many of them around, and I am in the habit of trying to visit a lot of them. For more information about labyrinths, check out The Labyrinth Society. Find where labyrinths are in your area at the Worldwide Labyrinth Locator.

This labyrinth is nestled behind the Mallinckrodt Convent house of the Sisters of Christian Charity in Mendham, New Jersey. A huge brick structure, once the mansion of a stock market mogul, has been in the care of the Sisters since 1926. It’s now used as a retreat center.

It felt to me like the most perfect spot for a labyrinth I’ve ever encountered. On top of a rolling hill in this beautiful township, framed on two sides by the brick walls of a consecrated place set apart from the rest of the world, wherein millions of prayers have been uttered over the last century, prayers for hope, prayers of lament, prayers of joy, prayers for direction. The remaining sides are marked by a ramshackle grove of evergreen trees, and a grassy field that leads down to the road below.

This 11-circuit Chartres replica labyrinth (complete with petals in the center, and lunations on the outer circle) is situated right at the border between an edifice dedicated to the human search for spirituality, and nature’s call to reality. It is balanced. Perfectly symmetrical, perfectly liminal.

Merriam-Webster defines liminal as “of, relating to, or being an intermediate state, phase, or condition.” Places where one thing ends and another begins, like where the sea meets the land, or times like graduation time, when one phase of life ends and another begins.

As I approached the building from the parking lot, I saw a small sign directing me to follow a path around the side porch to the labyrinth. The side porch was lightly cluttered with stones marked with spiritual saying and words. I walked past small disused entrances, leading perhaps to gardening equipment or a boiler room. This building proclaimed age and care and meaning.

The labyrinth has a long brick entrance path, many of the bricks engraved with names of those who presumably donated toward its creation. I stood at the point between the entrance path and the labyrinth proper, and I pondered my question.

What should I look for?

That was close, but I don’t like to use the word “should.”

What do you want me to see?

That’s it. “What do you want me to see?” I began to walk, and my first reaction was how tight the corners are – I had forgotten how narrow the paths can be on Chartres replicas. And the fact that the walls were not raised in any way made it easy for my feet to slip a bit around the corners. I soon found my bearings again.

I thought about a theory I’ve considered about how labyrinths work. My idea is that the twists and turns of the path in some way mirror the twists and turns of our brain matter. And certainly my own thoughts live in my head in some very twisty, and sometimes twisted, ways. Walking the labyrinth, then, is a way of physically “unwinding” those thoughts, giving the knots a graceful way of untying, of setting my mind free of those thoughts, if only for a brief time.

“I want you to see what is in front of you, because that is all there is. But everything indeed is in front of you, if you would but look.” Who said that? Was that you, or was it my own untwisting meanderings? I looked around at the scenery as I walked. The cedar tree. The stained glass. The bushes surrounding the labyrinth, alternating bright green and ruddy. Indeed, everything is in front of me right now, isn’t it?

But what I had really wanted to ask, what I tried to encompass in “What do you want me to see?” was something more like “What should I be looking for, or focusing on?” I just wanted to avoid that nasty “should.”

As I walked back out from the center, I realized that this feeling of peace and oneness I have right now is not simply because I am seeing the world in front of me and accepting it, but because of where I am. It would be nice to believe that I could see everything I need to see in any moment, in any place, in any circumstance. Maybe it’s possible. But it’s not easy. But here. Here in a labyrinth, the liminal space between my inner and outer lives. Here in this labyrinth, in the liminal space between the prayers of holy women and the wisdom of majestic trees. Here is where I can see everything there is to see – precisely in the liminal spaces where God comes to me. Where the ocean meets the land. When the day meets the night. The shore, the sunrise, the sunset, the horizon. The thin places. The thin moments.

Keep seeking those, and open your eyes whenever you’re there. Open, open, open, and I will see what God wants me to see.

Right now, I see peace.

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