The finger Labyrinth is another form of tactile prayer, moving the index finger along a path. The Labyrinth is an ancient representation of the experience of the life of faith. A single, unbroken path wraps around a centre-point. Unlike a maze, it has no false starts, no dead-ends, no high walls or hedges to block our view. You cannot get lost in a labyrinth: as long as you keep going, you will reach the centre, or return to the edge.
You cannot get lost in a labyrinth; but neither can you take a direct route. Aiming for the centre, the path brings you close, only to take you away again. Setting out for the edge, the path folds back on itself, as if you have forgotten something. It takes trust to follow the path.
One way to trace the labyrinth is to imagine Jesus at the centre and to move towards the centre meditating on his words ‘Come to me’ (or, ‘Come to me, all who are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest’ or, ‘Follow me’), and then, having remained in the centre for a while, to move outwards towards the edge meditating on his words ‘Go … and make disciples’. This two-fold movement summarises the heart of the gospel: repent, and believe; return, and be sent; come in, and go out.
There is a thing that happens in the life of faith, where the path takes a turn away from what we expected. It often happens for the first time after an initial flush of enthusiasm and excitement, where everything seems more intense than before, gives way to the costly work of everyday life. It happened to Jesus’ first disciples, when his words and actions, so compelling to them, start to be met by hostility. It happens to newly-weds; or new parents; or those (like me) who have been in a new job or project long enough to question whether they were right to have taken it in the first place (and yes, it was the right decision; that’s the point, of pressing on).
And it isn’t a point we move past as we grow more confident, never to return to a similar situation. Jesus tells his disciples that they will all desert him – that they must desert him; that it is the only way to ensure that what Jesus has entrusted to them will survive – and that once they have deserted him, they will be restored, first Peter, then the others. In other words, the path of following Jesus turns away from Jesus and then turns back towards him again. Trust the path: for Jesus himself is the Way.
It happens when we experience illness, or discouragement, or any circumstances that overwhelm us or frustrate us … and sometimes it happens for no discernible reason at all, other than that we aren’t the one who has set the path. This wrinkle, this see-saw, is given voice – often understood only with hindsight – in the Psalms and the prophets, again and again.
This turning away is an essential part of the walk – and the labyrinth expresses that, reminds us of that reality, over and over. When God seems further from us than before, when God seems behind us rather than before us, just keep putting one foot in front of the other, keep that index finger pressed onto the page.
There is a well-known poem about someone walking along a beach with Jesus, and turning at length to look how far they have come, only to notice that at the hardest times in their life there is only one set of footprints in the sand. They ask Jesus why he left them when they most needed him; and Jesus replies that those are his footprints, the times when he carried his friend.
I don’t like that poem, because we were never meant to walk with Jesus on our own, but in community. Likewise, labyrinths make pilgrimage possible for those who lack the means; but pilgrimage is not meant to be done alone. Like the journey of faith it represents, walking labyrinths is best done in close proximity to others. Even finger labyrinths – so small that only one person can trace them at a time – are best traced in company, with sharing.