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 is the second of two labyrinths I walked on a brief trip back to the Pennridge area. This labyrinth is at Lenape Park in Sellersville. Two decades ago, my wife and I lived within walking distance of this labyrinth for four years. (Unfortunately, it wasn’t there until much, much later!) But it was nice to be back in a familiar spot, especially in a month where I’d already taken two nostalgia pilgrimages to old stomping grounds.
The labyrinth itself was a very lovely 7-circuit classical, with a grass path and dirt walls. Along the walls were planted a lot of small shrubs and bushes, and it seems very well cared for.
The question I walked in with was this: If it all starts with Baptism, then where is it going? I wasn’t sure what kind of answer I was looking for here — a question about death, or purpose, or meaning? But I was open to where it took me. Now buckle up, because this is going to get a bit abstract.
At the center of this labyrinth there are seven stones in a row, inlaid with colored gems. The first with red gems, the second orange, and so forth, through the ROY G BIV colors. Just past the violent-gemmed stone is a stone eagle. When I reached the center, I interpreted this collection of items to signify light, because the gemmed stones indicated the seven traditional colors of light’s full spectrum, and the eagle represented to me St. John the Evangelist, who is often symbolized by an eagle. John’s gospel begins with the magnificent prologue (which I had recited from memory several times at worship in recent weeks), the strangest and most cosmic Christmas story, the story of the Word made flesh — also a story of the Light that shines in the darkness. To walk this particular labyrinth at this time of year (the fifth day of Christmas), with the Light of the World fresh in my mind, led me to see the center of the labyrinth as light.
So I started to think about the labyrinth in these terms: if the labyrinth signifies my life’s journey, then baptism is my entry into it, and at the center of my life’s journey is the light of God. The whole journey is spent circling that light, sometimes moving closer, sometimes further, always revolving around it. But this didn’t quite answer the question I had posed: the center of a labyrinth is not its endpoint or terminus. The center is the midpoint — no matter the shape or style or size of a labyrinth, reaching the center always means that you are halfway, because you wil walk out the same path you walked in. So this doesn’t mean that my life will end or culminate with the light of God — it’s not about the “light in the tunnel” experience that’s been described in near-death experiences. It means that it’s the center of my life, the core around which I traverse and soar, crawl and journey.
And then I had a thought that is line with the eternity overlay concept that I wrote about a few months ago. The eternity overlay is an idea that’s been percolating in my mind for decades, about the way that God interacts with the world, and what eternity and eternal life might mean. My theory involves the idea that God doesn’t interact with the world by affecting the future, as though God were an actor in reality the same way we are, but rather God works from out of time, and therefore God’s interaction with us changes the very world we’re in, in the present. Like overlaying a new reality on top of the reality we “used to be in”…it’s a strange concept, and hard to talk about. But the idea I got in this labyrinth ties in with it, so perhaps this example can help explain it.
The idea is that baptism is indeed the beginning of my journey through the labyrinth, but it’s not the entrypoint. The entrypoint perhaps is birth.
Birth is the entry into this along the plane of the labyrinth, the way to get into the concentric circles from outside. But baptism is the entry into the labyrinth from above, as though coming down from the heavens to overlay the life we’d lead otherwise. If you think mathematically, birth brings us into the labyrinth along the x and y axes, and baptism brings us in along the z axis.
There’s an interesting connection with John’s gospel here. When Jesus is talking to Nicodemus at night, in chapter three, he tells Nicodemus that he must be born anōthen. The Greek word anōthen can be translated as “again” or “from above” — it means both of those things. Various English translations make the choice of describing this as “born again” or “born from above.” The way I describe Baptism here feels in the same ballpark as “born from above.” But of course “above” is just a metaphor — this new birth comes from a direction that’s as strange to us as “above” would seem to a creature who lives in only two dimensions.
Okay. That’s the eternity overlay piece. So if baptism is a beginning, but not chronologically, and the Light is the center, but not the terminus, then what does that say about my original question — where is it all going? Well, who’s to say, really? Could it be that where I’m going is the same places I’ve always been, but in new ways? (That seems like how I’ve been spending the past few weeks.) Could it be that there’s a pattern in my whole life that I’ll discern at the end, or that there’s a pattern that I’m already discerning that will become clearer or more beautiful? Could it be that the stories of one’s “life flashing in front of their eyes” at the moment of death could be an image of this?
I think I would like that. I have little desire in an afterlife (this one is plenty for me), but I would relish the opportunity to perceive the whole of my life, from Minersville through St. Johns and Sellersville to Bangor and beyond, as a whole. To just perceive and take it all in. That would be a beautiful and perhaps even eternal (in the sense of “out of time”) end.
I journaled about all of this in my car, sitting in the parking lot of Lenape Park. The labyrinth was behind me. I looked up, and suddenly noticed that what was in front of me, what had always been in front of me, was the East Branch Perkiomen Creek, the water that flows through Perkasie and Sellersville on its way to connect eventually with the Schuylkill River. And it was frozen. Water has followed me throughout this month, along all the trips into my past — the West Branch Schuykill in Minersville, the Nescopeck Creek in St. Johns, and now the East Branch Perkiomen here in Sellersville. The waters of baptism keep flowing and flowing and following me. And here, where I’m pondering the way that baptism works in terms of time in my life, here the water apears to be stopped, frozen over. Yet of course, I know it is not. Somewhere below the surface, that water is still flowing, flowing, flowing. It never stopped, and it never will.
I feel humbled, overwhelmed, and at peace.