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We need to see the monster hidden in the dark recesses of the world’s labyrinthine history; we must remind ourselves there are clews to help us find our way back out again. – Phil Cousineau

Several years ago, while sitting next to my friend Ethel at a women’s conference, I heard a speaker describe her experience participating in a silent retreat. I knew I wouldn’t be able make eye contact with my friend, imagining what would likely happen if we were to try something like that together. We’d probably get kicked out for giggling and generally not being able to behave ourselves. Or we’d need to sneak off to a nearby Starbucks so we could unleash all the ridiculous pent-up words we had running through our heads.

I never claimed to be a model of Christian maturity.

I’m going to be honest here. When I first heard of the concept of walking a labyrinth as a form of spiritual practice, I responded in very much the same way. I may not have giggled, but I’m sure I rolled my eyes. Labyrinth walking sounded to me like some weird kind of mystical nonsense, nigh unto sorcery perhaps. In the church where I grew up, we didn’t go in for a whole lot of symbolic spiritual hijinks. We memorized verses. Had sword drills. Attended Vacation Bible School.

I tried walking a labyrinth once, one located on the grounds of a facility where I was participating in a weekend retreat. I tried hard to think spiritual thoughts, feeling like I was squeezing my brain cells as tight as I could. The result was very much like what I remember from teenage slumber parties, when my friends and I all swore faithfully we weren’t pushing the gadget on the Ouija board.

I got nothing.

The classic tale of the labyrinth comes from the realm of Greek mythology, in the account of Theseus and the Minotaur. Each year, in exchange for the promise of leaving his country in peace, King Aegeus of Athens sent seven boys and seven girls as tribute to King Minos of Crete. Minos sent the youths into a labyrinth and toward certain death from the Minotaur, the monster which dwelt in the maze.

One year Theseus, the son of Aegeus, stepped up as a manly Athenian man and offered to take the place of one of the youths offered to the monster. Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos, was so taken by Theseus and his brave manly man-ness that she provided him with an enchanted ball of golden thread—a clew—which he could unwind as he navigated his way through the maze. By following the clew, Theseus was able to find his way out of the labyrinth and return to safety. The modern word clue derives from the one which describes the thread which Theseus followed.

The idea of labyrinth suggests a journey marked by unexpected twists and turns. Somewhere, lurking within life’s maze, is a monster bent on keeping travelers from reaching the desire of their hearts.

In her Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, Adele Ahlberg Calhoun describes the practice of labyrinth walking as one of following a circular path prayerfully and attentively. The discipline, she says, is an exercise in becoming quiet, slowing down, and paying attention to God’s voice. The practice offers the participant opportunity to consider obstacles in his relationship with God as well as the grace he gives to overcome them.

On the morning we discussed the practice of labyrinth walking, our company of pilgrims again separated into two groups, each choosing a different variant of the Tour du Mont-Blanc.  Several brave manly men opted for the strenuous route via the Fenetre D’Arpette.

This path crossed a snow-covered boulder field before reaching the highest point on the trail, leading hikers to a spectacular view of the Trient glacier.

Any prior illusions I’d held about being able to keep up with the big boys on the trip had, by this time, been shattered; not that I was feeling the need, any longer, to do so. I was content to join the group taking the gentler Bovine Trail and was rewarded accordingly.

Even on this less challenging trail, however, our hike began with a steady climb. In the words of our group leader, the Bovine trail “ain’t no ride on a pink duck;” an expression he coined after seeing a child riding playground spring animal shaped like a duck, which was pink.

Our leader chose one of the women to set the pace for our group, one who had struggled earlier with the physical demands of the trip. We all celebrated with her when she led us to our destination within the estimated time frame posted on the trail head marker. She’d conquered her Minotaur.

Our two groups reunited in Forclaz, Switzerland, where we would spend one more night before returning to France. There, in the safety and relative comfort of a rustic traveler’s hostel, we shared dinner, photos, and stories of our separate adventures. Each traveler seemed to have chosen a path well suited to what he or she needed from the day. We had each wound our way through mountain valleys and passes, in a way which suited our strengths and abilities.

The hostel’s sleeping quarters consisted of bunk rooms; each of which held roughly ten weary hikers, snorers and non-snorers alike. After a full night of listening to my fellow hikers and waiting for morning to arrive, I donned my rain gear in preparation for the return to France.

And I discovered my own monster waited for me within the mountain maze.

Next: Arrival

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Sources cited:

Calhoun, Adele Ahlberg. Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2005.

Cousineau, Phil. The Art of Pilgrimage: A Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred (pp. 134-135). Kindle Edition.