by Laura Reber
Her prophecy seemed a bit dramatic, but I noted it in my journal anyway, as Lord knows I needed some help with my seemingly endless transitions. I left the counselor’s office anticipating the rush of a new adventure and getting out on the road. I had just completed my year off from the previous 20 years work in fire service administration and I was searching for a job outside of Spokane, Washington. My entire existence thus far had played out within a five mile radius of my childhood stomping grounds. Perhaps that was what fueled my passion for travel.
This time my wanderlust was taking me to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I would crash with a friend of a friend to check out the area for possible relocation. The two and a half day road trip through parts of the country I had never seen gave me plenty of time to think, and to be amazed even before I reached my destination. I was processing the grief and anxiety of the previous four years of compounding loss, including my dad’s recent passing, on top of choices I had fully and intentionally made to change my life’s direction. Although I still believed the choices were good, it was taking more time and energy than I had expected to release whatever the heck I was supposed to release in order to find a sense of normalcy again.
I’ve always found driving long distances to be great therapy: to be alone with my thoughts, to pray, to sing, to cry, to scream, to laugh, and to experience the numbing “stillness” of the world passing me by at 70 miles per hour. This trip was no different, except for the words of the counselor rattling around in my head. “You will meet a shaman who will help you bury your baggage on a walk in the desert. Release. Reclaim. Recharge.” Okay. Whatever.
New Mexico’s state motto is “The Land of Enchantment,” and that it is. The people I met, the conversations we had, and the experiences of synchronicity were off the charts. But I would have to say that the greatest take-away from this trip was my introduction to the labyrinth walk by my host’s neighbor, Ruth, who joined us for dinner that first evening in a small Tesuque neighborhood in the hills above Santa Fe. With my host working most of the time I was there, Ruth would be my guide – my teacher and my healer, my shaman – as I navigated my walk through the desert.
The first morning I set out alone to discover what the city had to offer. Art, culture, gardens, gastronomy, shop-keeper-philosophers and architecture were some of the highlights. As I explored the grounds of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis near the city center I made my way to the front and observed people randomly walking around a design inlaid in the pavement. It was circular, with alternating red and grey stones. I quickly discovered it wasn’t random at all, but an actual pathway. I waited for the area to clear and approached this strange configuration. Like a child trespassing in an unknown place, I quickly walked the path, entered the center noting its brass inlaid Crusader’s Cross encompassed in a floral pattern, and then made a beeline for the Cathedral, hoping nobody noticed the awkwardness of my unfinished labyrinth walk.
Later that day, I reconnected with Ruth who had become an instant friend and confidant. I told her about my adventures in the city and mentioned my experience at St. Francis. She asked what I knew about the labyrinth walk, which was nothing, and then asked if I’d like to learn. I met her the next morning wearing the suggested hiking boots, prepared to head up into the high desert hills of Tesuque. On the way we talked about the life paths that led us to this point. The questions about where I would go next and the clarity I was seeking. When I said I was considering a career in Expressive Arts Therapy she told me about her life as a musician, and working in thanatology with Hospice. She plays music for the imminently dying, “to bring peace and comfort to their transition.”
As we approached the labyrinth in the desert, I could sense it was a sacred place. I removed my boots and socks and exposing my feet to the rough sand and worn rocks.
“Okay, so how do I do this?”
“There are no rules,” Ruth encouraged me. “You just walk.”
She went on to explain that some people will hold a question in their mind on the way to the center with expectation of receiving an answer on that way out. Others will pray or sing or dance their way through …as the Spirit moves.
“Release all expectations and see where it takes you.”
The sun rose higher in the morning sky and warmed the sandy pathway outlined with rocks pulled from the arroyos’ scarred landscape. On this my second labyrinth walk I mostly just found more questions, but released some of the awkwardness and walked out the same way I walked in, completing the circuit.
As my trip continued, I would come upon a new walk each day – literally a different labyrinth presenting itself wherever I went. Day three was a labyrinth made of brick pavers and overseen by cherry blossoms outside on Santa Fe’s Museum Hill plaza. I walked with a little more confidence now, feeling refreshed and reclaiming my openness to experience life with all its unknowns. Later, inside the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, I breathlessly navigated the Navajo exhibits as the Spider Woman revealed her own ancient versions of crosses and labyrinths in her woven blankets and baskets. Back in Tesuque, Ruth had prepared a Passover dish of fruit, nuts, honey, cinnamon, and nutmeg served with unleavened bread and fresh horseradish. We talked about her traditions, and taking the bitter with the sweet in life. We savored the food and fellowship under the cottonwood trees, serenaded by Tesuque Creek until the desert cold compelled us to go inside by the fire.
Day four was a gift from a woman working at an artists’ co-op in Madrid, south of Santa Fe. I admired the labyrinth motifs in her fire-smoked pottery. I told her I was just learning about labyrinths these past few days. She told me about the movement in the Santa Fe area to build labyrinths at schools, hospitals, and churches as well as private properties. She then wrote down the address to her own home on property in the desert south of Madrid and offered her personal labyrinth as part of my journey. By the time I completed my fourth walk in the desert, I knew I was receiving something significant. Something I would forever carry with me. These sacred spaces were allowing me to get past the constant chatter in my head and to rid myself of the old baggage I carried all these years. I had found a walking meditation providing a new way to listen and receive. I was experiencing Saint Augustine’s Solvitur Ambulando, “It is solved by walking.”
I decided to end my visit to Santa Fe a day early with a new sense of clarity and a readiness to move on. I wanted to be at the ocean for Easter. I spent my last evening with Ruth feeling like I was leaving an old friend – grateful for the time we had shared, the wisdom I had gained, and knowing we walked this path of life together whether or not we would meet again. She played a lullaby on a native flute as the flames danced in the oversized stone fireplace. The music brought peace and comfort to my transition as I released the life I once knew that was no more.
Since that original walk in the desert I have found there is a lot written about the labyrinth, including an online worldwide labyrinth locator. This ancient tradition found new light in a rediscovery movement with the writings and teachings of The Reverend Dr. Lauren Artress from the Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, California. The Veriditas website instructs, “The labyrinth is not a maze. There are no tricks to it and no dead ends. It has a single circuitous path that winds its way into the center. The person walking it uses the same path to return from the center and the entrance then becomes the exit. The path is in full view, which allows a person to be quiet and focus internally. Generally there are three stages to the walk: releasing on the way in, receiving in the center and returning when you follow the return path back out of the labyrinth. Symbolically, and sometimes actually, you are taking back out into the world that which you have received.”
Release, reclaim, and recharge.
After my one-year planned sabbatical turned to two-years of unemployment, I was still unable to extricate myself from Spokane and then found myself working at Whitworth University – my alma mater and the epicenter of my life’s five-mile radius thus far. The four years of grief advanced into a grueling seven-year whirlwind of loss, and I continued to heap changes on top of that fire. As for finding that sense of normalcy, I can only refer back to my favorite line from a movie: In Awakenings there is a scene where the mother of Leonard Lowe stoically proclaims, “There’s no such thing as a normal life, there’s just life,” as her son slips back into his catatonic state when medical treatments fail.
I Kings 19 tells the story of Elijah making his escape from the wrathful Jezebel. He journeys into the desert, and is provided for and instructed along the way by an angel. He is then told to “[s]tand at attention before God. God will pass by.” God’s presence was not to be found in the wind, the rock-smashing earthquake, or the fire, but in a still small voice. Elijah is then instructed to return the same way he came, with a new charge.
I’ve spent many hours re-centering at the labyrinth in nearby Suncrest, built by the parish of Our Lady of the Lake. I’ve carved my own temporary labyrinths in the sands of the Richland desert, in the depths of the Inland Northwest snows, and on the beaches of the Oregon and California coastlines. I’ve even taught a labyrinth workshop at Whitworth, renting the portable canvas labyrinth from the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Spokane. The imagery I love about the labyrinth walk is that it reminds me of life and how God is revealed when we stand at attention: as with life, there is only one way in and one way out. As you follow the path before you there is a central destination in your site, yet just when you think you’re about to arrive the path takes you off in another direction. You know, eventually, you will make it to the center so with faith and malleable intent you just keep walking one foot in front of the other. Sometimes you walk with friends, sometimes you walk with angels in disguise, and many times you walk alone. In walking the labyrinth, the entrance truly becomes the exit into a new reality as you are not the same as when you walked in. Releasing the cacophony of life and standing at attention in the center enables us to hear that still small voice, a gentle quiet whisper, knowing that God is near and providing a new charge with which to exit. This walking meditation reminds us that just as the entrance is the exit, in life an ending is a new beginning. And so it goes, one step at a time.
Laura Reber is a compulsive learner with a passion for experiencing life through travel, photography, and stories. She earned a BA in Music – Arts Administration and a Master in International Management from Whitworth University, where she now works as a training manager in HR. Laura also serves as chief person and food-bowl-filler to two basset hounds, with whom she enjoys sharing the four-season splendor of her backyard just a few miles from the Whitworth campus in Spokane, Washington. Her interests include transformative learning and expressive art therapy, and she is currently working on a book titled Images of the Sacred.