Labyrinth: Reflections by Tony Whitaker

On Father’s Day 2015, we gathered for worship at the labyrinth in front of UNC hospital, having devoted the month of June to exploring the question, “What happens after we die?”  Many have watched their father’s die in this place or other similar spaces.  We shared in a time of both remembrance and prayer/meditation, participating in the ancient spiritual practice of walking the labyrinth.  A labyrinth is a kind of maze, laid out in a circle. 

Tony graciously shared the following reflections from his experience at the labyrinth on the hot June day.

It’s smaller than I expected, stark and hard‐surfaced, with no landscaping for ornamentation or shade. I don’t know what to expect from it… or from myself. But that’s part of the appeal. I stand at the entrance, hesitating, trying to clear my mind. This doesn’t work very well, so I just start walking.

Almost immediately, the path presents itself as a linear and chronological symbol of my life’s journey. Like my physical lifetime, it has a beginning and an end, with an as‐yet undetermined amount between. This could be interesting. I like it so far… although I’m insecure about my style… and unsure about proper protocol. Is someone staring at me? Do I have to meditate? How slowly should I walk? Is it better to focus my thoughts… or to simply let them come? Will I control this thing, or allow it to control me?

I begin to see each step as an increment of elapsed time, an irretrievable expenditure of life energy. I equate my initial discomfort to the natural immaturity of my childhood years. I gradually move beyond it, into metaphorical adulthood. This is much better.

Most of the path is a series of gentle arcs. These are fairly easy to maneuver, like my comfortable life. But these segments are connected by intermittent sharp turns, mostly 180‐degree switchbacks. I see these as representing significant life changes or challenges, requiring more concentration and skill to negotiate. I notice that I am executing some of these turns mechanically, and some more gracefully. I begin to anticipate upcoming turns, and try to maintain good form around each one.

I can’t see much of the path ahead, nor the end. I spend a significant amount of mental energy dealing with this uncertainty, constantly wanting to know my real‐time ratio of “distance walked” to “distance remaining”. This is a recurring distraction.

Today is Father’s Day, and my Dad is on my mind. He recently completed his well‐walked journey, and is now watching me… even if as mere metaphor… or only as an element of my own (self‐) consciousness. I feel his presence embedded in his absence. I’m aware that it’s not only my turn to walk… it’s my only turn to walk.

I think about my children, grandson, soon‐to‐arrive granddaughter, and their descendants. The familiar succession of life, death and new life seems magical, divinely‐derived, and strangely better than living forever. My role is limited, but critical. I love the part, and embrace it.

I am acutely aware that others are journeying all around me. These are friends of mine. We meet, almost brushing, as we walk. The path seems purposefully narrow, perhaps perfectly so. I suddenly understand that it is impossible to walk this close to others without being affected by them. I affect them too… seen as small adjustments in their position or posture. As we meet, I try not to encroach too much, but making sure not to pull away. I put creative energy into maintaining the perfect degree of separation between our bodies. This feels like more art than science… each friend deserving a customized approach. This closeness seems good to me.

There is a much younger walker behind me, getting ever closer. I’m clearly holding her back. Maybe this means that the younger generation wants me to hurry up and get out of their way. I remind myself not to stretch the symbolism too far… as I pick up my pace.

I now see the end of the path ahead. I have been expecting this part to be emotionally complicated, but it is not. The final section is round… large and unrestrictive… a qualitative change from the narrow linear pathway. The circle opens up to welcome me. It is easy to step into, a perfectly natural thing to do at the end of my walk. Inside the circle, I am centered… comfortable… peaceful… thankful.

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