Saturday, June 16, 2007

June 16, 2007 - Labyrinth

I arise today at Presbyterian Camp Johnsonburg, where I’ve spent the night. It’s our church’s Family Retreat weekend. I like to attend at least a portion of this event each year, before heading back home to finish my sermon and conduct Sunday worship services.

Most retreat participants are families with young children. It’s a nice opportunity for them to get away and spend time together and with other families. Because Robin, our associate pastor, advises the planning committee, I have little to do, other than be here and enjoy the kids and their parents at play. It’s a refreshing change.

This morning, between the fishing and rowing on the lake and the noontime barbecue, I take a stroll over to the camp’s labyrinth – a walking-path in a sort of spiral pattern, whose boundaries are laid out with smooth stones. The camp staff put it in a few years ago, at the height of the labyrinth craze, as Christians were rediscovering this medieval devotional practice.

Most modern labyrinths are modeled after the famous one in Chartres Cathedral, in France. The idea is to spiral your way slowly into the center, then turn around and make your way back out again. Nothing could be more simple – or, more weighty with non-verbal meaning.

Johnsonburg’s labyrinth is pretty rustic, which is part of its appeal. It’s overdue for a little spring cleaning, but I don’t mind. Bright green seedlings poke their heads up amidst the stones, and the walkways are dusted with the crumbling detritus of last fall’s leaves.

From walking other labyrinths in times past, I’ve learned the best thing to do is to simply empty my mind and see what happens. This one has a rude wooden cross set up on a cairn of stones in the middle. When I reach it, I stand there and contemplate the cross for a moment, then realize I was probably meant to carry a stone in with me and place it on the pile. No matter. I see someone else’s stone lying on the ground nearby, evidently toppled from the top of the cairn. I pick it up and drop it onto the pile. Recycling is a good thing.

As I make my way out again, it occurs to me that this labyrinth-walk has some parallels to a human life. The first part of our lives is spent on a Godward journey, a spiritual quest. At one point or another – typically, closer to the end of life than its beginning – most of us start to become more concerned with what we’re leaving behind, than with what we’re attaining for ourselves. This is a fundamental turning, and for Christians it can occur as we’re contemplating the cross of Jesus. In one sense, it’s the vision of the cross that allows us to complete that turning.

Not that religious people have a monopoly on this kind of thinking. It’s a common- enough experience, in any human life – part of the process of maturation. The adult developmental psychologists speak of it as a season of generativity, as we come to think more about giving back than getting (see my November 20, 2006 blog entry for more on this).

Political scientists speak of second-term Presidents becoming increasingly concerned with their “legacy” – with how future historians are going to view them. That’s just one example of the secular form of this turning, which is expressed in Christian spiritual terms as a mid-life call to repentance and renewal.

At 50, I’m already a bit past the mid-point of my life (according to the average life expectancy for American men). The cancer adds a whole new ingredient. Sprinkle some positive CT-scan results into the actuarial stew, and you’d be well-advised to set the kitchen timer to go off a little sooner. I don’t think I’m being morbid or pessimistic as I say that. It’s just the facts – and, incidentally, the reason I got turned down last fall, as I tried to buy additional life insurance. Maybe I’ll be lucky, and live well into my 80s or 90s, as I always figured I would. My cousin Andy, who’s always touting the value of “good MacKenzie genes,” will insist I’m being alarmist in even thinking this way. But the actuaries, squinting through their Coke-bottle glasses, think not.

Cancer has carried me to the center of the labyrinth, to the place of turning, a bit sooner than most people. At the moment, I’m alone in this peaceful, woodland spot – yet, if I envision the company of all my fellow travelers walking beside me, most of them look older and grayer than me.

Of course, when I look at myself in the mirror, I realize I’m a good bit grayer than I used to be. It happens. Yet, still, I don’t feel ready to make the turning.

Enough of this. Back to the children.


Kay said...

Wonderful blog! It was a family project of ours building a labyrinth on our church's property. Even my granddaghter helped. It was such a powerful experience. Once our labyrinth was completed our church held a dedication ceremony and we all walked it. Often before work, during a lunch hour or after work, I would walk the labyrinth. I have enjoyed many many spiritual experiences.

Vicky said...

Carl - Sorry to be off topic a bit here, but since I'm new to your blog, I am wondering if you've shared in any particular place, with your readers, how your family is dealing with your cancer?

Anonymous said...

I've long wished I had a labyrnth nearby. I love kirkridge....spent a thanksgiving weekend there one year....also did a couple years od the "reading literature with Charles Rice" weekends since I enjoyed working with him so much those few years during the Feast week.


Tom Clarke said...

I couldn't have said it better in a million years.

Jess said...

I've really enjoyed reading your blog and the personal journey you've shared as a cancer survivor. You're an inspiration!

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