This Holy Week, we have installed a (borrowed) labyrinth in the middle of the nave. Labyrinths have a long tradition as an aid to meditative walking. They can be found permanently marked out in the floors of cathedrals, or temporarily laid out in canvas on the floor of the Minster. But to an ancient tradition, we have added a contemporary twist: inviting people to bring items for the local food banks, and to place them along the edge of the path. For God may be encountered both in suffering and in compassion; in desperate circumstances, in the face of the one who has need to come to a food bank, and in the face of the one who volunteers there.
The labyrinth is available for unguided walking throughout the day (9am-3pm) but also in led meditations (7.30-8.30pm Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday; 12-2pm Good Friday). Last night I introduced the idea to those for whom it was new, by walking the labyrinth with a commentary of my experience walking it earlier in the day.
There is no prescriptive way of walking, but a common one is to walk slowly into the centre releasing something to God; to spend time at the centre receiving something from God; and then to walk slowly back out to the edge, returning to the everyday world beyond.
That said, it can also be good to walk with no agenda, and simply for the sake of setting aside time in the presence of our own body – this is a tactile experience – and God and those around us – this labyrinth is easily big enough to take nine or ten people at any time.
I began by reading, slowly, prayerfully, through the Passion narrative in Mark’s Gospel; asking the Holy Spirit to give me a word to carry into the labyrinth, to turn over in prayer. Short words, one or two syllables, spoken with each breath in and out, can be an aid to reflective prayer.
The word that ‘caught’ as I read was ‘naked’ – when Jesus is arrested, a young man wearing only a linen robe is caught, but wriggles out of his clothes and runs away naked.
I took off my shoes – a practicality, to protect the canvas; but also a recognition of being on holy ground, and part of the tactile experience – and stepped into the labyrinth, slowly turning over the word naked, naked…naked I came from my mother’s womb and naked I shall return – the words that came into my mind are those of Job, when catastrophe robs him of his identity in work, of his identity as a father, and almost of his identity as a husband. But not of his identity as one who receives identity from God, in gain and in loss, in blessing and in suffering. As I continued to walk, I reflected on this, on the reality that we bring nothing and take nothing with us, on how that challenges our assumptions about privilege and entitlement. Things in my society – and in me – that I needed to release to God.
Walking a little further along the path, still meditating on naked, I was hit by the word shame. Not shame concerning physical nakedness, but the shame of being stripped of the image we construct and present to the world. The shame of having to go to a food bank. The precarious shamelessness of the powerful – including myself. Here was more to release to God, and an exploration of the ways in which I ‘dress’ myself, present myself, so as to hide rather than reveal my true self.
Arriving at the centre, I knelt and continued to pray, asking to receive. Almost immediately, Jesus spoke to me about the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25). Not in terms of ‘this is what you ought to do’ but as a fresh revelation that Jesus fully identifies with those who are naked, with those who are hungry. Not only with those who are these things physically, but also with those who are naked and hungry spiritually. That in my recognition of my own nakedness, and that of my society, Jesus was to be found.
And then another passage from scripture came to my mind – the more familiar we are with scripture, the more God can speak to us through scripture – Zechariah’s vision of the high priest Joshua (coincidentally, the Hebrew version of the Greek name Jesus) standing in filthy robes and being accused by Satan (satan means, the accuser). But God rebukes the accuser, and commands that Joshua’s filthy robes be removed and festal robes put on him, symbolising that God has dealt with his guilt. The vision continues with the promise of a day when God will remove the guilt of the nation in one day, and when each one will invite one another to sit under their vine and fig tree. In other words, a sudden and decisive change, and a sharing of resources.
It felt like a commissioning, both personal and corporate, to live out that vision, to live as those whose own guilt has been dealt with in order that we might be generous with our resources. And so the walk back out from the centre to the edge was a prophetic act, a response, a returning for the world God loves and for which he gave his Son, even though we rejected him.
And the reality is that it is hard to live that way on a daily basis, and that we need such moments when we can struggle to release into God’s hands what we ought not to carry around as a burden; receive from Jesus that which he wants to give us instead; and return to the world to share what we have received with others.
I know that other people have had experiences every bit as significant, and even more so. And for those who have not, the very least that has happened is that they have sat prayerfully in God’s house, and perhaps read through the Passion narrative – and that in itself is a significant moment.
The Labyrinth For Our Times is a real gift to us, and from us, this Holy Week.