Walking By Faith
Autumn is a radiant season. On clear and sunny fall days, when the leaves on the trees are like stained glass silhouetted against the blue heavens, we are drawn to gaze at them. A walk in the woods is a rich experience with the pleasing sound of the swish and crunch of feet in the leaves, a warm palate of fall colors and a generous variety of seeds, nuts and mushrooms that can be found on the forest floor.
I remember a magical walk that I took several years ago, while attending a conference for environmental educators. The conference was held at the Ralph A. MacMullan Conference Center at Higgins Lake, a beautiful lake in the north-central mitten of Michigan. It was a gorgeous, crisp fall day and a friend and I decided to take a little break from the activities and hike through the woods on the grounds of the conference center.
The forest was in full autumn dress. We could see the blue lake shimmering in the sunlight through the trees and we could hear the waves lapping at the shore along the trail. Mushrooms were fruiting prolifically on the forest floor and the loose bark of old tree snags and fallen logs was hyphenated by shelf fungus like Turkey Tail and Dryad’s Saddle. We were enchanted by the great diversity of all the fungi and wandered from mushroom to mushroom, going deeper into the woods.
As we wandered, the deep blanket of leaves on the ground turned to a soft tapestry of pine needles and we entered a stand of pines. Our steps grew quieter on the piney carpet, and we did too. We spoke less and less and in quieter tones when we did say something. I was looking down, scouring the ground for more treasures, when I noticed a row of carefully laid rocks that continued on. I followed them with my eyes and saw that this rock line joined hundreds of other rocks in lines that formed a pattern of curves and turns. I had found a stone-bordered path, a spiraling Labyrinth, surrounded by a ring of tall pines with one lone evergreen growing up out of the center.
The mystery of this assembly, found there in the woods by chance, filled me with wonder. I knew a little about labyrinths and was drawn toward their designs and shapes, but I had never walked one before. They have been used for meditation and prayer practice and as a symbol for spiritual pilgrimage for thousands of years, before and throughout Christianity. Labyrinths can be found at sacred sites all over the world. One of the world’s most famous labyrinths is laid in the floor tiles of the sanctuary at the ancient Chartres cathedral in France.
I was delighted to find this carefully constructed labyrinth in the middle of the woods. There were no visible buildings near and we had really just stumbled upon it. I imagined the hands that built it, most surely engaged in a labor of love.
At the time of this discovery, I had been going through many years of challenging and traumatic experiences related to a primary relationship in my life and I had made some extremely difficult decisions to take steps toward my own healing. As I slowly began to emerge from the quagmire of fear, trauma, guilt and despair, I found myself in the midst of a deep spiritual awakening. At times I felt lifted and held like a child and I had profound gratitude for this grace touching me in my life and leading me toward healing.
It was with wonder at this touch of grace and this sense of being led that I stepped onto the path of that magical labyrinth in the woods. As I began to walk, I had an assumption that the goal was to make my way to the center and to stand with that tall tree there and look out from within. I slowly walked the twisting path, settling into a meditative calm with every step.
Suddenly the path turned and drew me back out toward the outside again. I noticed a sense of disorientation and doubt. Did I make a mistake? Did I somehow step off of the path? I paused for a moment and looked behind me. I could see that I had stayed true within the rock bordered path, but the center tree was now as far from me as when I began.
I chose to trust the path and went on. The way continued to move in and out, getting closer to the center and then sending me out again to the outer layers of the path. I began to relax into the rhythm of it and accept the meandering nature of the journey. A peaceful acceptance fell over me as I placed one foot in front of the other and surrendered to the process. When I finally came to the circle in the center, I felt quiet joy and gratitude.
The circuitous route that brought me in was like life and faith. We do not know what the next turn will bring as we journey through life. There are challenges and tests and times when we experience doubts and fears and loss. Faith is, in many ways, the act of blindly putting your feet on the path and learning to trust that unseen guidance will come. Just when you may feel far from that which you yearn for, suddenly there is a bend in the road that brings you in and shows you that you are moving in the right direction even though you felt off course.
At the center of the labyrinth, I hugged the tree standing there and then turned and leaned back against it, looking out. I could see the spiraling trail I had followed curving all around me and the ring of beautiful trees encircling the outer border. Again, I felt a deep welling up of joy and gratitude.
As I re-entered the path from the center for the spiral journey back out to join my friend, who was busily exploring, I had the sense that the beauty and meaning of this experience for me was in the wending way that had brought me to the labyrinth and then to step my feet onto that path. I could see how the journey of my life so far had brought me to this moment and I knew that the path would continue on. My labyrinth experience was like a kind of map for walking in this earthly life that is full of beauty and challenges, connections and separations and healing work. It pointed me toward the process of learning to trust that the Divine Mystery is always there, even when we may feel far away. It revealed a picture of what faith is.
“For we walk by faith, not by sight.” 2 Corinthians 5:7
(A version of this story was published in the November, 2019 edition of “Saints Alive!” the magazine of All Saints Episcopal Church, 171 Pike St., Pontiac, MI 48341)
Later, after walking that labyrinth, I found out that it had been constructed in commemoration of a beloved counselor at a neighboring church camp and that it was modeled after the famous labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral. Here is a diagram of the pattern:
If you have an interest in trying a contemplative labyrinth walk yourself, there is a website directory called: The Worldwide Labyrinth Locator, https://labyrinthlocator.com/home . Put your location into the search form and it will tell you where there are labyrinths in your area. You might be surprised how many there are! Since my first experience walking that path in the woods, I have gone to other labyrinths and each time it has been a different experience for me. If you go, you might simply follow the path slowly and quietly from beginning to end. You might bring a prayer, a question that you have been mulling over, or lay a burden down at the entrance and ask for help. However you come to it, may the experience be what you need it to be.