I’ve been thinking for a while about labyrinths a short while back, we discussed this on Andrew Jones’ blog where the post title included the name, “Navigable Worship” which I like. Not only is it easier to spell, it also has the advantage of not giving you the feeling you’re going to get lost in the middle of it…. I mean “lost” as in you can’t find your way out. In this sense, Labyrinth can be a confusing term for some. As created historically in the church, there’s a single path to follow from start to finish rather than being a maze or puzzle to solve, so you don’t get lost in the process. Many labyrinths of this type are simply marks on the floor, so not finding your way out is pretty much a non-issue.
Recently our small gathering (house church, simple churchm or whatever; we’ve lately been calling it “iconic pony”) was on a kind of retreat together at a cottage in the Whiteshell Provincial Park. Lest you think this was spiritually motivated, I’ll dispell that right up front it was a pleasure / social weekend we’d planned. Normally the conversation when even a subset of our group is present will flow between spiritual and er, unspiritual subjects quite freely though. Based on email conversations in the days or week before, it was agreed that we did want to include a time that was more spiritually focused though, so fairly last-minute, I pulled together some ideas for a labyrinth that I’d been mulling over. The plan was to set up a small number of stations on Saturday morning, and leave it to each person to go through them on their own at their leisure sometime during the day; we would meet and discuss later that evening.
Now, I say “labyrinth” and I sorta prefer that word but “navigable worship” might better convey what it was. From a list of ideas I had compiled, I pieced together five stations that could be assembled fairly easily, and set them up on Saturday morning. At each station, I left instruction on where to find the next one: one in the dining tent, one down by the boathouse, one across the field, that sort of thing. The length of time allowed to go through the labyrinth was good because it allowed for leaving a lot of space between people working through the stations, and minimized “traffic jams.” There were a couple of occasions where people would be waiting for the next station to clear, but because of the way it was laid out, the person at the station wouldn’t usually know someone was waiting and therefore wouldn’t be rushed by knowing someone else was behind them.
Because Saturday was threatening rain, we gathered up the stations mid-afternoon when it started to drizzle fortunately it didn’t last, but with everything gathered up, the last person to do the labyrinth exercise was therefore given all of the materials for all of the stations, and he went through it differently than had the rest of us. As he completed each one, he moved from one place to another, simply selecting various spots to reflect and complete the tasks associated with each station. Of course, these were not the same spots that the rest of the group had experienced the corresponding station. Later in the evening with the kids being entertained indoors, we gathered with beers in hand around the campfire for our discussion. A short while in, it began to drizzle, so we picked up and crowded ourselves into the nearby dining tent so we’d have shelter. The drizzle gave way to a light rain that drove us indoors where the kids had just finished the story of Joseph and wanted to show us the play they had created. My youngest daughter (4 years old next month) excitedly informed me that she was “the billygoat.” When they acted out the story of Joseph and got to the part where his brothers kill a goat to apply its blood to the fabled coat, I believe we all rather enjoyed her interpretation of the death of the goat. That interlude past, and now over a selection of wines, our discussion continued inside around the table. Once the formal part concluded and the rain had stopped, the party and conversation therewith mostly drifed back out to the fireside.
I was very curious to hear people’s responses to the labyrinth, how they’d found it, whether it had been helpful or enjoyable, that sort of thing… and me not knowing if it would “work” or what I was doing in the creation of the whole thing, having never been through one myself. Bearing all of that in mind, and having collected thoughts during the process and afterward, some observations might now be made.
- I needn’t have been so apprehensive about whether or not it would “work.” It did, people “got it” and generally found the experience worthwhile. I believe the reason for this was probably the manner in which the whole experience is devised to make space for the Holy Spirit to do and say what he wants directly to each worshiper. A few questions may have been leading, but most were open-ended and allowed for more reflection.
- Most people were touched by or related with different stations, not everyone with the same one; there didn’t seem to be any that people genuinely didn’t like, at least not after they’d completed it. Some had a hard time singling out one above the others, but most were impacted with different truths or insights (or revelations, even) as the Holy Spirit prompted.
- The acts that were engaged at each station were meaningful… a manner in which the station could be experienced, visualized, or participated in rather than merely be reading or hearing a point being made. For most, this allowed things to be “driven home” in a more powerful manner. In the overall experience, people seemed to feel nurtured; best comment was the person who said they felt their soul had been cared for.
- Movement between the stations was meaningful. For us, most of them had been placed too close together, and I would look for a way to place a longer walk between stations to allow for greater times of intentional reflection between them. In other words, the walk between can be as important as the stations themselves, and by lengthening it and giving instruction on using the time moving between stations, it is kept from being a simple relocation from point A to point B and becomes a time for prayer or to reflect and listen.
- It was disruptive for people to stop and talk to others during their labyrinth experience. For our setup, people in the labyrinth would have to pass by people who were just talking or doing some other activity, and it proved best if there was no interaction with them so that they could maintain the mental and spiritual space they were in as they moved between stations.
- Locations can make a difference. Though we don’t have a comparison, it seemed that being outdoors in beautiful surroundings enhanced the experience. Some found it peaceful and some were spoken to through nature in this way.
- The discussion afterward was very helpful, but a mobile group discussion is just distracting, whereas a personal mobile worship experience is uplifting. The discussion did enhance our view of some of the stations and did help us see some of them in different ways or from new angles.
- Having the time for working through the labyrinth spread out so much was a real bonus; giving a 20 or 30 minute “head-start” to the person before you makes certain that nobody is rushed through the process, but it isn’t practical if you’re pushing 30 people through an activity on a Friday evening. This limits how the labyrinth exercise can be used by groups, but there are ways to make it work a large group might try setting up two of every station so that there are actually two paths to complete the labyrinth; the exercise might be spread over whatever period is necessary to create space, even days, and start times could be scheduled. I found the outdoor retreat setting worked very well when other things were going on and people could steal away and go through the exercise. I don’t think I’d try it for an evening activity where it was the main attraction in itself. Other forms of the labyrinth may of course differ from our experience on this point.
- It makes a difference when you know what’s coming. I personally found it more difficult to engage each station because I knew what they all were, and what was next. The person who had all the materials before him when he started similarly saw the “props” for each station ahead of time, and would be naturally curious until he reached them. On the other hand, those who saw nothing of each station until they arrived at it probably had a much easier time engaging it with nothing preconceived.
One or two people thought that I had taken the labyrinth we had done from a book or gotten it as a prepared program somewhere I did not, it was just something that had come to me and I’d written it down. It was suggested to me afterward that it was a marketable piece and could be published for such use. I admit to being most intrigued by this idea and would be game to explore it if I found a publisher (any of you willing/able to make an introduction, let me know!). I think such a resource could prove quite helpful to many groups, and I may start casual work on filling out some of the other stations I’ve got brewing in the back of my brain. Before it became a helpful resource elsewhere, it’d need further polish and additions, including a section on labyrinth history and the object of “navigable worship” and how to approach it. Having said that all that though, I’m going to make the form and text of what we used (consider it a rough early draft) available in OpenOffice format (3MB file) and in PDF format (2.4MB file) under the same Creative Commons license that applies to the rest of the blog i.e., no commercial use, including publishing, without consent, and all uses include attribution… but if it blesses you, by all means, tell your neighbour, make a copy, and freely bless him too. (btw, get OO.o, and you’ll find a fabulous free office suite and also help Put an End to Word Attachments.)
On the drive home from the weekend away, my oldest daughter (just over 7 years now) asked me about the labyrinth. I talked to her about how in “kids church” they often get to do a craft or something participatory (though I think I said it differently) whereas in the “grownup meetings” as she knows, it’s mostly sitting and listening to someone talk, or even a discussion. Sometimes people like to learn in different ways though… In the labyrinth, I told her, the grownups also got to do and make things to help them learn more about Jesus. And one thing I’ve learned: sometimes you don’t really understand something properly until you’ve explained it to a child. With this conversation echoing in my mind, one experiment that I think might prove very interesting would be the creation of a labyrinth for kids. Not sure about that one yet, but there’s some possibility we’ll try a modified form of it with a different group this coming weekend.