Grace Cathedral Labyrinth, SF
Grace Cathedral Labyrinth, SF

I did something I’ve been wanting to do for years last Wednesday.  I walked the Grace Cathedral Labyrinth.

For the past several years, I’ve been using spiritual practices such as the labyrinth, the Stations of the Cross, and more as a part of a Psychology in Relation to Theology course.  Several resources have been helpful, including the wonderful resources of Grace Cathedral, SF.  The Dean of the Cathedral, Alan Jones, is an author that I have admired.  His Soul-Making: The Desert Way of Spirituality is a worthwhile read.  But the beautiful labyrinth of Grace Cathedral is what drew me.  Last Wednesday’s visit did not disappoint.


Labyrinths are a bit mysterious to those who have not become acquainted with them.  Is it a maze?  Is it a product of New Age or liberal spirituality?  What good is it?  Labyrinths have a non-Christian origin, but were employed by the church of the Middle Ages as invitation to more frequent and personal engagement with God.  Before the dawn of modern-day psychology, labyrinths became places to find focus and centeredness in God, a means to both releasing the burdens of sin and struggle one carried, and finding renewal.  In other words, labyrinths were therapeutic – a means to intimacy with God, but also a means to emotional and spiritual rest and renewal.

Let’s take a closer look.  As one enters the labyrinth, she finds herself coming with the burdens of her day, her week…perhaps her life.  She enters on a path that is winding, much like life’s path.  The labyrinth way takes you closer to the center, but will then lead you to a long, seemingly endless path on the outskirts of it.  Again, it’s a lot like our life and spirituality…it’s up and down.  I prefer to fill my pockets with little stones when I do outdoor labyrinths (as you’ll see, this doesn’t work in indoor labyrinths), and as I move through I’ll place the stone as a symbol of releasing a certain burden.  Here’s a simple example.  I’m angry with my wife.  She was grumpy and un-affectionate that morning, and I’m holding a grudge.  I lay down a stone, symbolizing the release of that anger.  “Lord, forgive me for holding this anger in.  Take it.”  

This is the ancient way of purgation.  St. John of the Cross, the 16th century Spanish mystic, noted that God leads people into the dark night of the soul in order to purge them of “unnatural affection and attachment” in order to once-and-for-all attain “unrestricted freedom of spirit.” Purgation is a purging of our obsessive habits, thoughts, motives, addictions.  I bring many stones along, because I find that the deeper I go proceed inward, the deeper the rabbit hole of sin goes.  On this last particular pilgrimage through the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral, I sensed a deep insecurity welling up within.  Am I a fraud?  Do I have anything to offer?  I prayed, “Lord, I carry this insecurity around, and then I live to solicit the approval of others.  I’m done.  Here it is.”  If I had a stone last Wednesday, I would have laid one down.

After the long and winding road of the inward, ‘mystical’ journey, you arrive at the center, perhaps seeing it (as I do) as the foot of the Cross.  Dependent, needy, tired, and spent, I breathe in the Spirit, and breathe out the pressures I’ve absorbed, the self-reliance, the self-promotion, the Kingdom of Me, as my Pastor Fred Harrell said in his sermon last week.  Goodbye old Chuck.  Good riddance, old man.  Enter new man, new humanity, new creation, new life.  Breathing in and out, I find myself centered in Christ, and quieted in the moment.  It is often the most peaceful moment of my week.

I’ve engaged the mystical way, the way of purgation, of repentance, of receiving (with open hands) God’s grace in Jesus.  But, if left here, the journey is only mystical, and ultimately for me.  The way out of the labyrinth, however, is the way of mission.  Here is where I re-trace my steps in.  This time, I pick up the stones and chuck them into the nearby woods (if I’m outside).  I’m now re-entering the world, refreshed and renewed.  Goodbye burdens.  Goodbye to those encumbrances which have weighed me down, kept me from deeper relationship with God and others, prevented me from loving my neighbor wholeheartedly.  Released from my heart’s false allegiances, I can see others better.  I see the lonely man on the street.  I see the insecurities of the poser.  I see my wife’s needs.  My own needs have less power now.  I can see others, and thus live missionally, because I’ve first lived mystically.  I can leave the labyrinth with confidence and freedom that I did not have when I entered it.  Surrender.  Release.  Trust.  Freedom.  Life is different as I exit the ancient maze.

Now, a couple of confessions.  Not every time is transformational.  Sometimes, I am so self-consumed that I cannot get out of “me.”  This often happens when I’ve neglected this spiritual discipline for a while.  It’s hard to rest.  Often, I’ll give myself permission to make a bit of progress…to at least see what the problem is, and confess it.  But my resistant heart won’t even let me enter the labyrinth, because, in that moment, I hate it.  I despise it.  It seems to be an obstacle to my greatest desire of the time – to build my own kingdom.

Another confession.  I’m a spiritual ant.  Don’t let this blog entry fool you.  My heart is as resistant to transformation as anyone’s.  I’ll lash out at my wife in anger the night after my labyrinth walk, and she’ll likely say, “Some good that did.”  You see, wrapped up in all of this is the sin of trying to convince her, myself, and you that I’ve got some spiritual mojo that you don’t have.  The sooner you know I’m a phony, the sooner you’ll give yourself permission to be one too.  And, perhaps then we’ll actually have the kind of honesty it takes to meet God along the labyrinth way.   

Finally, given the fact that the Gospel is for phonies and me-addicts and spiritual ants, you and I need this discipline.  We need the embodied pilgrimage journey that the labyrinth offers.  We need the honesty it invites.  We need to feel our pockets full of stones which represent layer upon layer upon layer of sinful self-protection, avoidance, anger, envy, rage, secret lusts, and more.  I find that it’s been good to take what I’ve learned from my self-exploration in the labyrinth, and go to lunch with a friend for the sake of confession.  It’s just a way of living this stuff out more concretely, and allowing someone else into your brokenness.  And it’s also a way of living into the missional narrative of the Gospel…the self-giving way which is embodied in the broken, self-emptying Messiah – Jesus.  

So, find yourself a local labyrinth.  Or walk a virtual labyrinth in order to get your internal bearings:  

I’ll leave you with a funny story.  A client of mine who was paying $110 a session with me once took me up on my suggestion to do the labyrinth thing.  She was hesitant, so she read a bit, and talked to a spiritual director at San Pedro Retreat Center in Winter Springs, FL.  Then, she did it.  And she continued.  Her experiences of release and freedom in Christ were so significant that she gleefully exclaimed, “Why was I paying you $110 a session when I could have been doing this for free.”  Of course, I had to walk the labyrinth later that week to get over my bruised ego.  But…oh…to enjoy deeper intimacy in some of these rich ancient ways, and to live more freely!  Jesus showed up last week at Grace Cathedral, and we walked the pilgrimage together.  And like the Emmaus Road walk, I found myself satisfied after eating and drinking in His grace.  I think you will find yourself satisfied too…

Grace and peace. 

One thought on “Labyrinth – Wedding the Mystical and the Missional

  1. thanks for the great explanation of this spiritual practice! i’ve always wondered what that was for. but those paths are so narrow, and as you say there’s only one way — don’t you bump into people and/or pass them pretty often? (haha, i guess this is a nerd’s comment… i’m just having a hard time picturing it.)

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