Walking the labyrinth in Lent

by Peggy Ryan


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The university where I teach has a beautiful schedule for Lent, full of varied and prayerful activities. I was thrilled to see that the labyrinth was planned about midway through our forty days. 

I know that this symbol predates Christianity and, in fact, like many other symbols, was adopted by our church to unite us with the Holy One. Since the Middle Ages, walking the labyrinth has always represented going on pilgrimage for believers. On this cold Wednesday afternoon in Lent, the faithful gathered to walk the labyrinth with God.           

We began this ancient and sacred tradition with one of our university ministers reminding us that the labyrinth involves two of the Lenten pillars, prayer and fasting. 

"Okay, the pillar of prayer is evident, but fasting?" I thought.

"Ugh," I wondered, "was I not supposed to eat today?" The second pillar was quickly delineated as fasting from noise, from routine, and from being unfocused. 

What a gift to be offered the opportunity to unplug for a while and to walk symbolically with others on the journey. I know almost everyone there: students, staff and faculty. We share a mission and the "dailyness" of our lives.  And, now, we would share in this Lenten prayer.

We began the ritual with a Taize song, written from Psalm 51:

Turn our hearts to you, O God.
With you there is healing,
wholeness and forgiveness,
freedom from fear,
lasting peace.

In true Taize style, the song was repeated for about five minutes. The college students who are choir members filled the space with grace-filled harmony. Afterwards, there was a period of silent meditation. 

As this beginning prayer came to closure, we were invited to name a word from the song that touched us. I choose "peace."

Peace, lasting peace is what moved me. I sat in that comfort and familiarity and remembered all the DACA students on campus who have to go through each day not knowing what will happen next. 

Peace, lasting peace is what moved me. A student had shared with me the night before that her cancer was back. 

Peace, lasting peace is what moved me. We each brought our struggle and our worry. 

Peace, lasting peace is what deeply moved me.     

Then, we were each invited to walk the labyrinth when we felt called. I immediately recalled how God always calls us when we are ready. All we have to do is answer.   

Before entering the labyrinth, I remove my shoes, pause at the entrance and ask the Holy Spirit to allow my feet and my soul to connect. 

I am so struck in this moment by the connection between the journey of Lent and the walking of the labyrinth. Isn't this what we really want to have happen during Lent – for our souls and our feet to unite?  In other words, Lent is about our actions matching our deepest interiority.

The labyrinth takes us on a journey to that interiority, to our inner self, our center.  And, just as with Lent, it is not always clear at the beginning of this walk where we are headed. The twists and turns are deceiving. As I walk the labyrinth, I purposefully take each turn as a reminder. 

As I move closer to the center, of what must I let go? Who comes to mind? Where am I with the deepest desires of my life? Each turn gives me a chance to open myself up to how God is present. We walk together.

As each of us makes our way through the labyrinth, we meet one another on the path. Our campus minister instructed us to do whatever comes naturally. Bow, move out of the way or simply smile in recognition. 

For some reason, on this Lenten afternoon, I am feeling called to hug each one I meet. This embrace resonates with a deep connection I felt for my prayer companions. We are walking the road together. We are accompanying each other in a sacred ritual. 

Lent also asks each of us to reconnect with those who journey with us. We give alms during Lent in order to remind ourselves that we are one as sisters and brothers in the Body of Christ.     

In the Gospel read on Palm Sunday, we meet the woman with an alabaster jar (Mark 14.3). She lavishes her love onto Jesus. Despite rebukes from others, Jesus receives her with compassion and trust. 

Weaving around this circuitous walkway, I begin to reflect upon where I find myself in the story of the anointing at Bethany. As I continue toward the center of the labyrinth, I ask myself, "How loving am I in these days of Lent?"  "Who and what get my attention?" 

In these turbulent political times, staying joyful and hopeful are arduous tasks. Yet, these virtues are at the heart of our Christian life. Who finds them in me lately? The Lenten call to prayer and fasting offers opportunities to fine tune my commitment to bring light to each day. 

There is a popular song in Spanish on the radio right now by Chyno Miranda called "Quédate Conmigo." The lyrics say:

No te vayas / Don't leave
Quétate conmigo / Stay with me
Dame de tu luz / Give me your light
Dame de tu cariño / Give me your love

I reach the center. Standing in a deep awareness of God's presence, I ask, Dame de tu luz / Give me your light.

Praying for wisdom, healing and humility, I ask, Dame de tu luz / Give me your light.

For the needs of each of my pilgrim companions on the journey, I say, Dame de tu luz / Give me your light.

Uniting my heart with those who walk through the desert in order to enter this country and find a life of dignity for their families, I ask, Dame de tu luz / Give me your light.

I bring our fragile Earth into the center with me. Dame de tu luz / Give me your light.

I think of places of war and famine and ask for peace and fullness of life. Dame de tu luz / Give me your light.

I walk to the center of the labyrinth and through Lent to reignite this light within me in order to share it freely. Lent offers me, and all of us, the opportunity to literally become centered once again in God. 

There is a wonderful verb in Spanish, reverdecer, meaning to grow green again. I move to the center to touch once again the hope, joy, mercy, love and goodness with which I am gifted by the Holy One. We refresh ourselves and become freshly alive in God. 

As I wind my way back to the beginning, which is also the end of the labyrinth, I am reminded that I may leave the center, but the center never leaves me. There are no beginnings or endings for God. There is simply one continuous journey of love. 

At a march for just immigration reform last December, I carried a sign that quoted Pope Francis, "Our Church has been without borders." This is because God has no borders. 

On this path we walk, we are called to the lavish love of the woman with the alabaster jar.  We are called to walk the journey of each day lavishly loving each person we meet. 

[Peggy Ryan, a member of the Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa, Wisconsin, is a new adjunct professor in the School of Social Work at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois.  She holds a Doctor of Ministry degree from Barry University in Miami Shores, Florida, and a MSW from the Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois in Chicago.]