From The Attentive Life
Have you ever walked a labyrinth? For many years I thought that a labyrinth was simply a kind of puzzle to solve. Then I heard that a labyrinth “prayer walk” would take place at one of our local churches. I decided to go, mostly out of curiosity.
When I arrived, on the floor of the gathering room was a very large canvas on which had been embroidered a circular design that at first glance looked like some sort of Chinese maze. Our leader for the day explained that the labyrinth was neither a game nor some New Age fad. It is a pattern embedded in the floor of an ancient cathedral in Chartres, France.
The labyrinth, she explained, is very different from a maze. Mazes are games meant to bewilder and entertain. The labyrinth, however, is a spiritual tool, a prescribed path, a sort of “embodied prayer” meant to help us put aside our chattering and cluttered mind and walk deeply in the presence of God.
She pointed to an opening on the edge of the labyrinth and suggested we begin there, then proceed at our own pace through the path, which circles back and forth and in and out, until we reached the center, which in the shape of a six-petaled rose symbolizes the six days of creation. She also suggested we reflect on our own lives during the walk, or on the life of Jesus, and that we use some word of scripture for meditation.
I decided that I would use the time to consider my own life path, especially since I was at a point when I was seeking to shed some of the baggage and clutter of the years.
When I came to the starting place, a very odd thing happened.
I felt some kind of inner check and realized I was not ready to begin. Others stepped onto the canvas and began their walk with no hesitation, but something held me back for several minutes.
I stood puzzled, wondering what was inhibiting me. And then the thought came: Was this like my prebirth time? Was I feeling something of the apprehension that came to me as a baby, feeling the disturbing pressure that would soon thrust me out of the safety of the womb into some unknown place?
My mother was not married. The seventeen-year-old daughter of a Presbyterian minister in Canada, she had lived for nine months with what was (in those days especially, and for a clergyman’s daughter) the shame of being pregnant “out of wedlock.” Her mother had made all the arrangements for her to leave home until her child was born and then to return. Her father never acknowledged then or later what had happened, if he even knew.
Perhaps in those moments as I waited to start the labyrinth I was sensing some of the anxiety that she must have felt alone in Toronto, away from friends and family, her relationship ended with the man with whom she had become pregnant, her heart uncertain as to what would happen to the child she was bringing into the world.
Some words of Alan Jones help to express what I was feeling: “The issue is not so much the question of life after death as a sort of hesitation before birth. I am unwilling to allow myself to be fully alive. Parts of me are left unborn and uncared for.”
If Vigils is “the womb of silence,” it can recall for us the darkness of the womb in which we were formed and from which we were birthed – and remind us to pay attention to what God was doing in us long before we saw the light of day for the first time. And it can call us to pay full attention to all that God has created us to be.
The author of Psalm 139 expresses this most beautifully:
For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the Earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.
We often speak of contemplating God. But how wonderful to think that God was contemplating us before we were born.
The Psalm writer let these words lead him into his own night vigil:
How precious to [or, concerning] me are your thoughts, God! How vast is the sum of them!
Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand – when I awake, I am still with you.
If only you, God, would slay the wicked! Away from me, you who are bloodthirsty!
The psalm is traditionally attributed to David. Imagine him as a young shepherd boy out in the hills, away from family, lying back, looking at the night sky and perhaps saying to himself:
God is thinking of me right now, just as I am thinking of these sheep I watch over. I know their names. He knows my name! And he knew it before I was born, even before my father Jesse and my mother conceived me.
Even though I am the youngest in our family, and my brothers often ignore me and my father doesn’t think I will amount to much, God doesn’t ignore me.
Even if no one else ever hears of me, God knows I exist.
The Lord is my shepherd!
When I wake up in the middle of the night, sometimes I use the words from David’s psalm to make that my own Vigils time and remember God’s presence: “When I awake, I am still with you.” The phrase reminds me to pay attention to the God who is at work in our lives even before we were born.