Labyrinth of Misperception by Leslie Smith Townsend, Ph.D.

Make me to know your ways, O God; Teach me your paths.—Ps 25:4

On a summer day in June of 2004 the heat wave broke, and with it, the paralyzing humidity that enters your bloodstream, stirring fantasies of lying on the couch and watching reruns of “I Love Lucy.”  I sipped Guatemalan coffee from my Walt Disney World mug and sorted through plans for the day.  “Hmm, maybe I should walk the new labyrinth at Presbyterian Seminary.”  I’d been mired in a muddle of vocational indecision for months—not so much what to do, but how much and in what proportion.

I followed signs on the seminary campus, parking within a couple hundred feet of the grassy expanse where the labyrinth snaked in concentric circles.  The labyrinth’s design was carved into the landscape with a pattern of brick and grass spirals.  Along its perimeter, carefully tended beds of bee balm, blanket flowers, fern-leaf dill, and butterfly bushes drew bees and butterflies.  Two wooden benches flanked by fuchsia petunias on one side, snow-white impatiens on the other, offered places for rest and reflection.

I paused for a moment and read a bronze plaque embedded in the grass:

The design of this 66 foot diameter labyrinth comes from Chartres, France, where the design was painted on the floor of the Cathedral about 1200 C.E. to symbolically represent pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  Labyrinths have been around for over 4,000 years and are found in just about every religious tradition in the world. . .

The labyrinth, unlike a maze which is constructed to confuse and frustrate with dead ends and many trick turns, has only one path leading to the center and back out again. . .

There is no right or wrong way to walk the labyrinth—just follow the path. . . .

May the experience of walking this sacred and powerful tool bring you a greater sense of Shalom and Oneness.

Bowing my head, I prayed for wisdom and guidance and felt a pleasurable stirring of anticipation.  With my first steps, my mind shifted from guardedness to openness. Immediately, I came upon a dead end.  The path simply stopped, then began again with a two foot stretch of grass intervening.  What now?  I stepped across the grass break and resumed the path.  But here was a turn.  Should I continue walking straight ahead or take the turn to the left?  I turned to the left and wound around the path until I came to another dead end.  This can’t be right!  How could I meditate when constantly halted mid-flow?

“Calm down.  Perhaps there’s a lesson in this.”

By hopping across one grassy barrier or another, I eventually reached the center.  I asked for grace not to give into feelings of failure and defeat.  The scent of pine and wood chips hung in the air, reminding me of soothing hikes in the Appalachian Mountains.

I bowed my head in thanksgiving and resumed the path.  When I came upon an intersection, my hackles rose like the hair on the back of a dog.  If I couldn’t decide whether to turn right or left, leap ahead or to the side, how could I hope to make larger decisions?  Should I work full or part-time?  Seek creative fulfillment or financial gain?  With two children in college, one to go, and one in graduate school, perhaps I should bite the bullet of financial expediency.

“Make your own path,” a voice seemed to say, as another whispered, “Nothing matters—not this path, not your life, not anything.  It’s all the same.”

In all, I broke my meditation three times to re-read the bronze plaque.  Yes, there it was—the assurance of no dead ends, followed by a blessing of Shalom and Oneness.  I traced the engraving of the labyrinth with my fingernail.  True to form, there were no dead ends.  Had they made a mistake constructing the design?  I noticed that the engraving showed one path in, whereas the path I’d followed had two possible entrances.  Suddenly, it struck me—I’d completely reversed the schema.  The path was the grassy strip, not the brick corridor.  I’d taken the border for the path, the background for the foreground.

How like me to make things more difficult than they were meant to be.  I’d been wondering for weeks whether to contact Hospice about a part-time chaplaincy position that I knew was available.  This was the kind of work I’d done before and knew I did well.  Part-time pastoral work would pay the bills while allowing me time to pursue parenting and writing goals.  “But that’s too easy,” I’d told myself.

I began again, following my feet in a mindless manner, in and out, this way and that, till I reached the center.  On the way out, just before the path twisted one last time, an idea bubbled up from the depths of my mind: “Be who you know yourself to be.  Do what you know to do.  God will take care of the rest.”  How utterly simple!  Instead of inventing such lofty and complex schemes I was doomed to fail, I could pursue the path that opened right in front of me.  Make me to know your ways, O God; teach me your paths.

For the moment, at least, I’d arrived.