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Living the Labyrinth

A few years ago, I returned from a trip of a lifetime to Paris. I come from a blue-collar background and may be the first from either side of my family to travel back to Europe since my ancestors arrived from Wales hundreds of years ago. Believing, as a child growing up, that I might one day travel to some of the great European capitals would be akin to, say, believing that I might travel to Mars. But that did not stop me from yearning to go.

The first time I began to sense that it could actually happen was when I was in seventh grade. First, one of my teachers was very well traveled and brought her slides of Europe to class to show us. Here, before our very eyes, was a woman who had decided to go to France, not just once, but many times. She had Kodachrome slides to prove it. The skies were bluer in Paris, the flowers redder, grasses were greener on the other side. Second, I was encouraged to take a foreign language. Our choices were Spanish and French but for me there was no choice. I had seen the slides. I rode a bike, for gosh sakes, and this was the home of the Tour de France. And so began a lifelong journey as a Francophile. Mais oui! 

A little over a year ago, I learned that the Spalding MFA in Writing program, from which I graduated, would be traveling to Paris for their study abroad residency this July. Last year I was able to travel with a group of alumni to Rome and Tuscany and had a wonderful time. I knew I had to go this year with the program to Paris and the program was kind enough to work with me to allow it to happen.

I will write more about the trip in general in future blogs. I took many notes and photographs but for this piece I want to share a bit about my side trip to Chartres and to the Cathedral. The program offered a side trip to Chartres but it took place on a Wednesday. Through my research, I learned that the labyrinth in the Cathedral was covered in chairs except for Fridays when it was open to the public to walk. I made sure my schedule was open on the last Friday of our trip and took the Metro to the Gare Montparnasse where I caught a train to Chartres. The train ride was wonderfully uneventful and I alternated looking at the French fields, trees and patches of houses along with reading my tour book to be as prepared as I could be for the Cathedral. Upon arrival, I left the train station and walked the street up a hill toward the spires you could see from most everywhere in Chartres.

The Cathedral was magnificent and became increasingly so as I drew closer. I took a few photos of the outside and then headed straight for the entrance. There were several tour groups gathered around outside, receiving their introductions from the respective tour leaders before entering. I skirted around these and went inside.

As with most cathedrals I have visited in Europe, it is dark and cool which lends to a quiet and spiritual atmosphere. I wonder if my research had been right, will the labyrinth be uncovered and will I be allowed to walk it? After wading through a few initial groups of visitors, I receive my answer. Right in front of me is the open labyrinth and several visitors are already walking it, people of different ages, men and women, each walking in his or her own way. Some walk quietly, in an even pace, keeping their eyes on the path. Others walk and stop and close their eyes at different points, some at the turns, some at seemingly random points. Another stops every time she faces the stained glass of the Cathedral, raises her hands and her eyes and mouths something that only she and God know.

I notice several are walking the labyrinth with bare feet. I had always wanted to do this when walking labyrinths in the past, but had resisted. I am not sure this is the time or place. I had already walked the streets of Paris for the first four days of the trip, so much so, that my feet are not in great shape. I put my reluctance aside and find a dark wooden chair, taking my right shoe and then my sock off, taking care to see if I am causing a panic. When it appears that I am not, I remove the left shoe and sock and place all beneath my seat, stand and lay my backpack in the seat.

The stone floor is cool and feels wonderful, almost as if I have put my feet into a shallow stream. My feet had been so bundled in the socks and walking shoes, bundled to protect them from the surfaces that I had forgotten what it feels like to walk barefooted. I stand there at my chair, my feet solidly standing on smooth stone, realizing I was in one of the most famous and ancient sanctuaries of pilgrimage. Records indicate that there has been a church at this site since the 4th century AD.

The labyrinth itself was constructed in the 13th century and measures a hair over 42 feet in diameter. It is an eleven-circuit design divided into four quadrants. In the center is a design called a rosette, a center circle surrounded by six “petals.” When looking down upon the labyrinth at Chartres one can easily see a flower whose stem is the entrance and exit. The turns of each quadrant are such that one can see a cross when looking down. One walks the path that meanders through each of the four quadrants until reaching the center and the rosette. Walking the labyrinth is symbolic of pilgrimages – a symbolic pilgrimage to the Holy Land and back, a pilgrimage to God, a pilgrimage to one’s own center perhaps. In early years, Christians could not easily travel to Jerusalem so they would designate a holy place they could travel to, such as the Cathedral at Chartres, as a substitute. Once reaching the cathedral, they would finish their pilgrimage by walking the labyrinth.

I realize I am a pilgrim too.

But I am not here seeking a place, rather I walk the labyrinth to find questions and answers that will help give my life and art direction. Step by step my bare feet take me away from my backpack that contains my traveling possessions. I have been warned about thieves and pickpockets but know I cannot walk the labyrinth weighed down. I leave it behind. Standing at the entrance of the immense circle, I become aware of my breathing and slow it down, deliberately. I stare at the stone, the path ahead, and offer a prayer of anticipation, of gratitude and, as always when I walk a labyrinth, a prayer for forgiveness. I take the first step, my right foot steps firmly into the path. My walking is as slow and deliberate as my breathing.

I try to clear my mind of all thoughts as I am usually able to do when walking labyrinths in the States but I am having trouble. I am quite aware of where I am and it is nearly impossible to separate that from my walk. I wonder if I should try and separate it. I shall walk other labyrinths again, ones that I can get lost into. Is it not okay to be aware of where I am? Is it even desirable to understand and ponder that I am in France, that I am walking, arguably, the most famous labyrinth in the world? But then I ask myself, is this a spiritual experience or a tourist experience? I think about the history of this cathedral, the history of this labyrinth, the thousands and thousands of pilgrims’ feet before me and the thousands that will come after. And I begin to settle into my walk. I begin to open up.

Then I notice those around me, the ones walking the labyrinth and I become aware that we are all at different points in our walks, some traveling inward but at a different pace, some traveling outward. There is an etiquette when walking a labyrinth, a dance if you will, when you encounter others, where you sense how to move, to pass or to be passed, to step outside of the path to allow others through. There are no rules but somehow there is no confusion, pilgrims begin to converge and steps are taken, allowing each to continue without interruption. It is a beautiful thing to experience with strangers.

But then I become aware of others in the cathedral, others on the labyrinth. Children running along the paths, chasing each other without getting outside the lines, running right up behind you until you move aside to allow them through. A middle aged man with a camera walks, oblivious, through the middle looking for the best vantage point to shoot the stained glass. A young woman in a ball cap with her blonde ponytail, like a fountain pouring from the back, her thumbs securing the straps of her backpack, stops on her way across the labyrinth and turns in all directions. An older couple, speaking what sounds like German, strolls toward the front of the cathedral, taking the most direct route through the labyrinth. A tour guide brings her group of about thirty-five, wearing headphones, to the very center of the labyrinth where they surround her as she describes the interior of the nave to them, in French, through her wireless microphone. After just a couple of minutes, someone from the cathedral comes to the tour guide and tells her what is going on and instructs the tour members to stand in a circle outside of the labyrinth, observing us, while the tour guide continues to speak that lovely language. 

I must confess that at first I was disappointed at best and irritated at worst at the insensitivity of people. How could they not know something was taking place? How could they not see that we were engaged in a spiritual walk, one that required some semblance of reverence and quiet? I continued to walk, like the others, stepping aside when necessary, pausing when required, never uttering a word.

I then thought, this experience is what it is. I decided to practice mindfulness. I would not be robbed of this moment. I meditated and prayed, like I always do when walking any labyrinth —what am I supposed to learn from this walk? What am I to experience, what insights do I need? And I walked.

And the words of Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani in my adopted state of Kentucky, began to bubble up within me. One day Merton was standing on the corner of Fourth and Walnut (now Muhammad Ali Boulevard) in Louisville, when he suddenly had an epiphany that he loved all of the people around him, everyone on the sidewalks, in the cars, everyone, that they were his and he was theirs, that “we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers…”

I continue to walk the path until I reach the center, of the labyrinth, of the ring of tourists, of me. And I pause and close my eyes, and I feel their eyes on me.

And then my epiphany comes. This is life. This is my life. And in my life there are many people, all on different paths. There are few days that I walk my path when I am not interrupted, few that the world does not enter into, sometimes giving me pause, sometimes knocking me off course. There are days I know I am called to write. It is the first thing I think of when awakening, but phones ring and people knock. Crises arise, there are hugs to be given and received, hands that need to be held. Creditors smile and stomachs growl like little puppies waiting to be fed, customers to be satisfied, friends to be visited.

I do not live in a solitary world.

Then again, I realize, I do not wish to.

Those who are running and rambling about this labyrinth are no more oblivious to my walk than I am to theirs. Those walking on the labyrinth are not any more spiritual than those walking across it. We are all walking our own paths and in a way I am interrupting theirs by maintaining my route. This is the world in which I live, in which we all live. And if I can only find my spiritual connection, if I can only find my muse, my words, when there is silence, then it is unlikely I will ever succeed.

As I travel from the inside of the labyrinth toward the outside, I experience a tremendous sense of love for these pilgrims all around me, all of us traveling to different places, arriving at different destinations at different times, but at the same time each of us travels together. I will continue to find inspiration in the silence but I will miss out on so much if I neglect to find connection among the noise and activity. A little girl, arms waving and fists clinching, skips and sings down the labyrinth path toward me and I step aside. She is also barefoot and looks up and smiles and it is one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen on my journey. She continues, happiness radiating outward like the circuits of the labyrinth on which she dances.

I resist the urge to hug those across whose path I come the rest of the way but it is difficult.

I come to the opening of the labyrinth, the same from which I entered and I turn back and face the interior of the Cathedral and watch all who are in my view, just for a moment. I too am smiling and with open eyes I pray a prayer of gratitude and anticipation and a prayer for forgiveness.