As the path turns

I am a sucker for a labyrinth (the kind you walk, not the kind with David Bowie and freaky Muppets.) Any time I visit a camp, church or cathedral, I always check. If they’ve got one, I’ll walk it: indoors, outdoors, made of brick or gravel or canvas, whatever. One time, during an Episcopal clergy wellness conference, I walked this outdoor labyrinth twice a day for eight days.

Stone and herb labyrinth, Bishop's Ranch, Healdsburg CA
Stone and herb labyrinth, Bishop’s Ranch, Healdsburg CA

I love walking a labyrinth at night, or during the day. I love the spiritually different experience to be had when walking with others vs. alone. Sometimes it’s nice to have music playing, or to be in total silence, or to have the sound of the city in the background.

It’s not for everybody, the labyrinth. It takes a while to walk, winding all the way in and all the way out on that same path, and it’s monotonous, and you may start to wonder if it will ever ever end. (Some allegedly spiritual experiences are like that.) And you probably know this, but it bears reminding you that there is a difference between a labyrinth and a maze, where you can get lost or hit a dead end (think of poor Cedric Diggory.) A labyrinth is a single path, with no uncertainty or possibility of screw-ups.

I find the combination of repetition and movement and concentration on my next step to be soothing, like a lullaby. This walk is physical prayer, not unlike the benefit of using prayer beads: the repetition frees the mind and spirit to be available to the still, small voice of God. The walking, the turning, the doubling back are all part of it.

The other day at a conference, I bailed out of a meeting that was bringing me down, and after a little wandering found myself at the edge of a canvas labyrinth elsewhere in the building. I took off my shoes and my meeting nametag (that part seemed important, to shake off the mood I was in) and took my time walking the path painted on the fabric. As I went, settling into the repetition, I started to notice something.

At every turn, some previous pilgrim had left little pinwheels in the fabric as they pivoted around the corner. The path was smooth, but the turn-arounds were adorned with these beautiful little inadvertent designs twisted into the canvas.  I thought of the small pleasures and blessings that can come from turning, changing direction. I thought how, yet again, a blessing from God can be found in a tiny detail. We are not always meant to keep heading in the same direction, but we can trust the one path.

When true simplicity is gain’d /  to bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d / to turn, turn, will be our delight / till by turning, turning we come ’round right. (Elder Joseph Brackett, “Simple Gifts” Shaker hymn, 1848)

The One Where Everybody Likes Different Shows

I recently conducted an exhaustive, highly controlled and completely scientific study about TV-watching habits. By which I mean I asked the segment of the Facebook Nation comprising my friends to tell me their favorite shows. I was crowd-sourcing affirmation for an idea I had (the whole point of social media, after all, is crowd-sourcing affirmation): namely that people like different stuff. This is esoteric and hard to grasp, but try to keep up.

Reveal our unity, guard our faith, and preserve us in peace.                       The Book of Common Prayer, paraphrased

I had 117 replies to my query, with over 300 answers, and results are still coming in. I was excited that my very scientific hypothesis held up to research: even though one can identify commonalities, there is a lot of diversity in different people’s TV preferences. Admittedly, the people with whom I am friends have something in common: me. But in other ways they are a motley crowd, differing in: race, age, marital status, gender identity, Myers-Briggs type, astrological sign, political persuasion, geography, dietary practice. (It’s fun to see all kinds of different people from different circles of my life making cameo appearances on FB. It’s like one of those romantic comedies with everybody in it.)

You can see from this Wordle what my friends’ TV preferencesTV wordle2 are. (In case you don’t know how Wordle works: the bigger the title, the more often it appeared on the list. Make your own Wordle here.)

During the recent wind-down of the series Breaking Bad, there was a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth as viewers publicly shared their grief. I never saw a single episode of Breaking Bad, but one could hardly miss the disturbance in the Force when it ended. I felt and sympathized with my friends’ suffering without judgment, even though their pain wasn’t part of my experience.

Which made me think: Hey!wouldn’t it be swell if we could do that all the time? Why not cultivate the assumption of unity in our relationships and in our communities? Why not practice having empathy for one another’s pain even when (especially when) it falls outside our own experience? We could, you know, practice by starting small, perhaps with tolerance-dialogue around your silly love of soap operas and my perfectly reasonable love of The West Wing.

I’m not making this idea up, of course. Cultural hypnosis and media-fueled groupthink notwithstanding, I don’t think we have lost this skill, the skill of empathy for others and their differences. It’s just that we may need to renew our commitment to the practice.

In C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair, the creature Puddleglum finally breaks the spell keeping him and his friends trapped in the Underworld. “Suppose… suppose we have only dreamed and made up these things like sun, sky, stars, and moon, and Aslan himself. In that case, it seems to me that the made-up things are a good deal better than the real ones. And if this black pits of a kingdom is the best you can make, then it’s a poor world. And we four can make a dream world to lick your real one hollow.”

The re-acquiring of the skill of empathy first requires thinking for ourselves. Let’s do it.

Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.  And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (Colossians 3:13 & 14)