I have a bit of a love/ hate thing happening with public labyrinths. I love the fact that they are in public and accessible to anyone who happens to be passing. I love that it is bringing an ancient spiritual tool into the here and now, giving people the opportunity to take some space in the midst of everyday life. I love that the secular community is embracing more spiritual ideas and seeing the value of including such things as labyrinths in public spaces.
The bits I struggle with are completely selfish. They have everything to do with my own desire for some peace and quiet and to have a meaningful experience of walking the labyrinth. Many people have no idea about the significance of labyrinths, observing it as a nice pattern in the paving or concrete. Many people do not have a sense of holding a sacred space or recognising that they may be part of someone else's at a particular time.
These conflicting ideas were brought to light last weekend. While in Canberra for a conference, I was invited to travel with two people in to the National Arboretum where a labyrinth had recently been installed. I was keen to go on the adventure and so tagged along. We found the labyrinth as part of a series of small gardens. It was in a very open space, with a stunning view across Canberra.
When we arrived, there were two mums with their four young children using the labyrinth as a soccer pitch. There was much laughter and squealing. As you can imagine, this fed straight into my dislike for public labyrinths. As we approached, read the plaque about the use of the labyrinth and made our way to begin walking, I was pleasantly surprised. Call it good timing or, perhaps, a sense of the sacred, the mums gathered up their children and moved to the next garden space. It didn't happen in a hurry, or in a way that felt we had ruined their use of the space, but it left us with the ability to walk without dodging toddlers and soccer balls.
As the three of us walked the circular path slowly, we caught the attention of other visitors nearby. Some came closer, read the plaque and joined us on the walk. I wonder if they might have just walked by if it wasn't for us walking with intent? It was Fathers' Day, and a dad with his two preteen girls came and started walking. Actually, that is not quite true - the girls were power walking, racing each other. An elderly couple came and sat and watched us walking.
One of the girls called out to her dad (who was walking slowly and reflectively), "Dad. what's the point to this? There are no choices. No challenges."
He looked up and smiled at her, "I think you've missed the point."
"Dad, lets go to the playground over there."
"You go," he said, "I'm going to finish walking."
He seemed to walk out of the labyrinth with a different gait, a different outlook.
As he left, the older couple joined us in the labyrinth. They walked with a certain curiosity and intrigue as to what this might mean. They were unsure what to do when they met me on the narrow path coming the other direction. Our eyes met and we smiled as I stepped aside for them to pass.
It was certainly not a quiet, reflective experience walking that labyrinth. It was, however, still transformative. It taught me something about my own bias and need to retreat, but also led me to appreciate the great need in our society for bringing the sacred places closer to the people.