Saturday, 22 December 2012

A Solstice Spiral

Many blessings to you all as Christmas draws ever nearer. Here is what I hope will be a "wassail  bowl" of blessings for you all from the Fen Court labyrinth - taken on the last day of term of  Sacred Spirals.  My fellow facilitator Joan walked the labyrinth on Friday and describes her experience here.We both wish you much joy as you walk through this holy season.

What better place to celebrate the solstice - and the world not
ending! - and to pray for all my companions on the journey - than the
heart of the Fen Court labyrinth in the heart of the City at noon on
21.12.12 - with a bag of mince pies at my feet all ready to celebrate
the approach of Christmas and the continuation of our beautiful world.
And thank God, they were needed!
The Fen Court labyrinth - its heritage as the Church of St Gabriel
seemed amazingly appropriate this close to the Nativity - felt
extraordinary on this dark midwinter's day, when the sun was so low in
the sky it didn't even get over the top of the lowest office blocks
round the courtyard.
I was reminded of John Betjeman's beautiful Advent image of "dark at
breakfast and dark at teatime" - well this midwinter solstice was
pretty dark at noonday -  but, beautifully, the lights were on in all
the offices, and a Christmas tree was twinkling festively in Fountain
House by the sacred spiral's south-west corner.
And all the flower beds were bare and brown - aside from the large
round bed which echoes the shape of the labyrinth, and was full of
orange and white and yellow winter pansies.
And the world didn't end as some misreading the Mayan calendar had
mistakenly predicted, but blessedly continued on its extraordinary
pre-Christmas way, with the City streets feeling like a midwinter
Walking to the labyrinth, the streets had been full of tourists
stopping to pose for photographs, with small children playing
hopscotch on the pavement cracks (remember the image of the labyrinth
as a hopscotch?), and early gaggles heading into pubs and off for
office parties chatting loudly about cocktails.
All the gift shops seemed to have their stands of blank-eyed grinning
party masks out on the pavements - a real carnival sight - and the
streets were filling with pre-Christmas revellers in gorgeous party
costumes and some of the highest stiletto heels I've ever seen outside
pictures of a catwalk or fashion shoot.
There is, I find, something about walking the labyrinth that heightens
awareness of even the ordinary streets on the way to it: and the
labyrinth of city streets on 21.12.12 definitely had a gloriously
solstice carnival feel to them.
But the Fen Court labyrinth itself, and the courtyard, were almost
weirdly empty.
There was just one man standing with a pile of red-bound reports
balanced on a tomb, making a call on his phone; the obligatory couple
of smokers by the smokers' poles, and just one office worker on a
bench with his lunch by the labyrinth itself, managing to
simultaneously read his newspaper, smoke a cigarette, talk on his
mobile, and eat his sandwich from an orange Sainsbury's bag, eyed by a
single optimistic pigeon beadily watching for crumbs.
So I stood at the centre of the labyrinth at noon - feeling odd to be
walking the labyrinth alone, but so glad to be able to pray and give
thanks for the spiral and grateful for my more usual companions - and
able to give great thanks for the world continuing so beautifully and
being able to stand there in peace. We have so many blessings!
And I was joined by the pigeon. A nice touch that, a nice touch of a
reminder of the presence of the Holy Spirit with us I thought - even
if it was only feeling hopeful about my bag of mince pies.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Passing on a gift

Once again, I am indebted to my fellow blogger Greenpatches for a beautiful link... Do spend some time with the Fingermaze meditation she's discovered: save it for a quiet space and let it speak to your heart. Thanks as always for sharing, GP!

Monday, 8 October 2012

Spirals in Space

The Helix Nebula, from NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day (a wondeful site, by the way). This photo, by Martin Pugh, appeared last week and I was drawn to the swirling spiral shape. Try looking at it full screen, and "walking" the shape as you would a finger labyrinth...

A photograph on a computer screen can only convey the tiniest whisper of the majesty of this nebula. Whether you walk inwards or outwards, you travel into a realm of extremes: the temperature of the dying star at its centre, or the incomprehensible distances of space around it. The nebula is seven hundred light years from Earth. I can write that quickly and easily, as I might the other facts and figures of the physics and geometry of this remarkable object. I can even have a notion of what those facts and figures mean - in one sense, I can know about it. But in another sense all I can really know is what has meaning in my own tiny frame of reference. Something is hot when it burns my fingers; it's far away when my legs are too tired to walk there.  If it's really true, as the ancient philosopher Protagoras and others after him claimed, that 'man is the measure of all things' how can we hope to measure anything beyond our own puny reach!

In my 'random musings' blog, The Love That Moves The Sun, I recently posted this poem by John Masefield. It's one I've learned by heart and often say to myself when lying awake at night.

The Unending Sky

I could not sleep for thinking of the sky,
The unending sky, with all its million suns
Which turn their planets everlastingly
In nothing, where the fire-haired comet runs.
If I could sail that nothing, I should cross
Silence and emptiness with dark stars passing,

Then, in the darkness, see a point of gloss
Burn to a glow, and glare, and keep amassing,
And rage into a sun with wandering planets
And drop behind, and then, as I proceed,

See his last light upon his last moon’s granites
Die to a dark that would be night indeed.

Night where my soul might sail a million years
In nothing, not even death, not even tears.

The language of the poem reminds me of the nada - nothing - and the Dark Night of St John of the Cross, when sense, thought and even feeling are swallowed up and swept away in the darkness of God. It reminds me too of the epectasis - the endless reaching out - of the Greek writers of the early Christian centuries. We can never grasp God, never know God. But we can reach, and be reached for, in love, and God will always have more - and more - and more to give and reveal. As the author of the Cloud of Unknowing puts it:
'For why? He may well be loved, but not thought. By love He may be gotten and holden; but by thinking never.' (Chapter 6)
We need our wits, that's to say our faculties of reasoning, about us when we walk a puzzle-maze with its tricks and dead-ends. Walking a single-pathed labyrinth plunges us into another sort of mystery where critical reason might well become a hindrance. Often people do speak of encountering a kind of 'silence and emptiness' in the labyrinth, even in the busy cityscape of Fen Court. The city swirls noisily around us; the spirals of the universe swirl silently above us. By love God is gotten and holden, and so are we.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Trinitarian Labyrinth

Earliest drawing of the Shield of the Trinity, c 1210

Two of the blogs I've mentioned here before, Greenpatches and A Letter From Home, have been discussing how to draw a trinitarian labyrinth, starting with a Y shape. Below is my rather rough attempt: (please look at the more elegant version in A Letter From Home!)

Drawing and musing on that Y shape as a symbol of the Trinity reminded me of the ancient diagram known as the Shield of the Trinity - I've put a very early example at the top of this post. Here are some other versions (from the same source, good old Wikipedia):

At first glance such a diagram might look very angular, geometric, logical - attributes which perhaps we might not immediately associate with the labyrinth. But the Shield is an attempt, through senses and symbol, to engage with a mystery impossible to grasp with words. By tracing the curves of the labyrinth over it we get a sense of the perichoresis - the 'round dance' of the Trinity - which will engage the heart and remind us that we are approaching a mystery of love: love poured out; a love we are invited to enter, to share, and to mirror in our relationships.

Try superimposing the labyrinth over the shield... there's a beautiful balance between what is known and unknown; what can be said and not said. The dots coincide with words non est (is not). As Gregory of Nyssa wrote: God's name is not known; it is wondered at. And yet... the tips of the lines of the Y point to names by which the Divine Persons are known - names of loving relationship, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. At the heart of the labyrinth, the centre in which we rest, is simply DEUS - GOD.

Oh, and am I alone in thinking the Y labyrinth looks a little like an ear? (Remember the little girl dancing at the station?) Listen... 'I have called you by name' (Isaiah 43:1). 'Will you join the dance?'

Finally, I can't think about the Trinity without recalling the Rublev icon:

Here too we could gently trace a labyrinth, or simply a spiral, as a way of entering into the icon. Starting with the circle formed by the faces and bodies of the three Persons we move inwards. At the centre of the spiral would be the Son's two fingers (the humanity and divinity of Christ) pointing down towards earth, and to the cup of sacrifice. 'He made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant.' (Philippians 2:7)


Saturday, 25 August 2012

Now We Are 1000

I see from our "stats" today that we have just had our thousandth page view! While I know this is minimal compared with many blogs, A Gracing Maze is still quite new and it feels like a reason for a bit of a celebration - a quick dance round the labyrinth, perhaps?

If you have a look here you'll see that 1000 can symbolise a very particular kind of completeness; I prefer to think of it as a new beginning. I did read that some versions of Matthew 5:41 say "If anyone asks you to go a thousand steps, go with them two thousand." So here's to the next thousand steps on the labyrinth. Thank you so much for walking with me! You are most welcome.

PS I see that my other occasional-random-musings blog, The Love That Moves The Sun, has (at the time of writing) had 666 page views. I don't think I'll pursue the number symbolism on that one... It would be nice if you could visit and change that, though.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Hopscotch and Heavenly Blue

A guest post today - Joan Burkitt-Gray , my friend and co-facilitator of Sacred Spirals (places still available - book now!) writes about walking the Chartres labyrinth earlier this year. The pictures are Joan's too.

"Visiting Chartres Cathedral was something I’d always wanted to do... and a big birthday seemed a great time to let this particular dream come true.

So just the dark beauty of the cathedral itself, and the glory of the blue glass, deep blue, Chartres blue, cobalt blue deep, rising tier upon tier, would have been enough....but the labyrinth was open, blessedly open – and blessedly uncrowded – and I was able to walk it three times. (I only really realised just how blessedly uncrowded the cathedral had been the next morning, when the queues outside Sacre Coeur were so long we decided not even to try to get in!)

The first time of walking the labyrinth at Chartres it was such a blessed surprise first of all to see it so easily open and soavailable to walk: right in the middle of the nave, with all the chairs pushed back to uncover it, and allow us all easy access.
And absolutely no need for any conspiracy theories about the cathedral staff not liking the labyrinth, and so keeping ithidden under chairs: it's right in the middle of the nave, it’s absolutely huge, occupying practically the whole of the nave: and a worshipping cathedral does need chairs in the nave for the congregation to sit on!

The surface of the labyrinth is beautiful: golden limestone pitted and pocked with eight centuries of wear, with the oh-so-precisely carved and fitted markings of the labyrinth path carved and set into it in deep slaty grey-blue stone, every step and every segment precisely designed, carved, and fitted and cared for, with gloriously painstaking precision: set into the careful path, you can see centuries of careful repairs and patches as well as the foot-wear of the countless pilgrims before us in whose steps we keep walking and praying.
And of course, there’s the wear from the feet of countless tourists too, many of whom seem to think the centre of the labyrinth marks the best place to head for to pause quickly and photograph the cathedral. It probably does actually, adding countless photograph-prayers and countless photograph-pauses to the other sorts!
My first walk of the labyrinth was sheer joy – a sheer prayer of gratitude, ending in the glory of the centre with the blue of the rose window to the west and the gold of the altar to the east, surrounded by the heart-openingly heavenly blue light of the windows all around.

And I was so struck by how the labyrinth is a slow path: and how, unlike the smaller city labyrinth I’m used to, you really do lose all sense of where you’re going, and just have to trust the path: not for nothing is the path of the labyrinth used as a symbol of grace, a symbol of the grace of God like a thread leading us through life.

But walking the labyrinth – if you trust all its turns and stay with them and don’t just rush to the centre and leave  is a slow path that cannot be hurried, a slow path that takes God’s time – and walking it slowly made, I found, also a great prayer for those times of feeling stuck on the slow path, times of feeling mazed in confusion on a long and uncertain path, times of not wanting to wait on God’s way, God’s time.
But it’s also a swinging, balanced, cadenced path, with some long straight paths swirling what feels like practically its whole circumference. You can’t see or know the carefully planned symmetry of the flower-at-the-centre-with-rhythmically-alternating- long-and-short-paths-leading-to-it design of the labyrinth when you’re walking it, only experience it and keep going through all its swooping turns and changes of direction.

But it gives a powerful sense of following God’s path in God’s good time and God’s way: and of turning back to God at every twist and turn of the way, new angles of beauty opening up at every turn. The continual turning on the labyrinth path is often used as an image of repentance: and it can also give an amazing sense of whichever way you turn, God is there, that nothing can really turn you away from God, that there is nowhere where God is not.
And the second time of walking gave me a different gift: I’ll call it the gift of hopscotch and a teddy bear. Because, returning from lunch, I found the labyrinth closed: well, not quite closed exactly, but with a determined circle of chairs blocking it, like the circle of wagons protecting an encampment in an old cowboy movie. But I – like a few other determined labyrinth walkers – squeezed through, and rejoiced in the gift of being able to walk the labyrinth again, rejoiced in the process, rejoiced in the present moment, rejoiced in the blessing and creativity of all those medieval forebears who’d laid the stones and carved the marble and set the beauty of the blue glass, rejoiced in the product of their skill and artistry.
All those medieval masons and glaziers had left such a beautiful product (and the skill needed to design and carve a labyrinth meant it was also a place where the master masons of a cathedral often proudly left their names).

But my post-lunch labyrinth walk also reminded me to enjoy the process too, and to enjoy the fruits – to have fun and enjoy the process, like a little girl who was delightedly walking the labyrinth with me, hopping and skipping and running and jumping along with her teddy bear in her hand. Have fun too – and that reminded me that actually one reason so many of the medieval cathedral labyrinths were later closed or destroyed was that, in the age of the enlightenment, oh-so-rational clergy thought that they just looked like too much fun and an opportunity to waste time.
One name for them became hopscotches, and yes, children did use to play a version of hopscotch on them, and some French childrens’ hopscotches still have elements of a labyrinth in their design.

And at this point the cathedral guardian came up and told us all that the labyrinth was now closing and would we please leave straight away and go straight to the exit. I walked – the little girl and the teddy bear skipped and hopped. And that brings me to the gift of the third time of walking the labyrinth, the gift of no harm done, the gift of the second, third, fourth and for ever chance. Because it wasn’t long before the cathedral guardian came over to where I was sitting by the labyrinth to say, kindlyit was opening again and I could walk it now. No harm done... there I was, back on the graced path after a pause – the path much more crowded now.

And somewhere near the circumference, on one of the longer stretches of the path, I stepped aside again to let someone pass: and this time couldn’t find my way back to the right path. There was by now a steady stream of people heading in both directions, and I could no longer tell which was the path that would lead me to the centre and which would simply lead me straight back to the end – that is, of course, in a labyrinth,  also the beginning. I stood confused.. and then simply decided to make a new start, to head straight back to the beginning and start again. No harm done. I’d lost the path and no harm done. I could simply go straight back to the beginning and begin again. It was a powerful feeling of a second chance, of no harm done.....of the faith of the second chance, third chance, a path of love, a path of resurrection, walked in a faith of love, a faith of resurrection."

Monday, 23 July 2012

labyrinthine bits & pieces

A cloudscape over Fen Court, seen from the labyrinth there.  Yes, we do see some sky in the City of London - and beautiful it is. I've chosen this picture because I've been taking part in some fascinating online discussions with other spiritual directors about labrinth walking as a tool for prayer and discernment. One very interesting strand was about contemplation: does a person need to be a contemplative to walk the labyrinth? That deserves a post of its own (which I've promised to the person who posed the question); but I was struck by how many people felt it was essential to walk the labyrinth under an open sky. I did feel wistful reading of the beautiful settings some of my fellow walkers are blessed to be able to enjoy. I think, though, that the labyrinth can be a truly Gracing Maze wherever it is walked. The Urban Quiet labyrinth is usually spread out in a church or hall; Fen Court offers a tantalising glimpse of sky between the City towers.

I wanted to share with you some labyrinth resources I've discovered recently. First, two blogs I enjoy reading: the author of Growing Greenpatches  shares and illustrates some labyrinthine experiences, while A Letter From Home has ideas for drawing your own.

At the Gratefulness website you can "walk" an online labyrinth, choosing whether to be carried around or walk under your own power.

I've treated myself to two new (to me, anyway) labyrinth apps for my iPad. Finger Labyrinth HD offers 10 different labyrinths to "walk" with a choice of colours for the lines or background. If you want sounds there's a choice of natural sounds or music, or you can use your own music from iTunes.  You "walk" with your finger, with or without trailing virtual "clouds of glory". There's a short but useful "how to" section and some history (though it says Ely Cathedral is in London!)

iPause offers six labyrinth designs, new age instrumental music or, again, your own iTunes selection. Watch a marble roll around the labyrinth of its own volition, or move it yourself with your finger.

Please share any labyrinth resources you've found!

Friday, 6 July 2012

Couldn't resist...

...sharing this with you! (yes, I'm at the desk, supposed to be working...)  If anyone, especially any bishop, decides to revive this tradition please let me know - preferably with photographic evidence!

Monday, 2 July 2012

Going round in circles?

...I think I must have been lately! My apologies for not posting anything for such a long time - and welcome to the new members who I see have joined me in my ramblings! I admire your patience and optimism; there will be something worth reading here soon (and I can say this because my colleague Joan - see the Sacred Spirals page by clicking the tab above - has written something about her time walking the Chartres labyrinth, which I shall be getting around to posting in due course). Actually I think it has been right for me to focus on the one little bit of path in front of me for the last month or so, for it's been filled with both delightful stepping-stones and and a few obstacles I might have stumbled over. I was reminding a group only yesterday of my favourite saying that walking the labyrinth is a way of praying that no angel can pray - yet of course there's a flip side to being human and that's my potential for over-business and the resultant over-tiredness; I need to take one step at a time, and those steps have of late been concerned with teaching, facilitating and various deadlines. But I'm longing to get back to blogging, and I'll be there soon. In the meantime, thanks again for walking with me - and watch this space!

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Playing by ear

Waiting for the train on a bright spring morning... It's the school holidays and the station is full of loud children being taken on day trips to London. I'm standing by the 'help point', where the yellow hearing loop symbol is painted on the ground...

The design caught the attention of a little girl.  While her parents were busy buying tickets from the machine she hopped into the painted symbol and ran with tiny steps along the lines of the ear, first one way along the outer contour and then, with a skip, she turned the other way into the centre, then back out again. An impromptu mini labyrinth walk!

When I talk about the labyrinth, especially to people for whom it's a new experience and who might be slightly wary, I might invite them to consider the spirals in nature.  From galaxies right down to the whorls of our fingerprints - yes, including the shape of our ears, inner and outer - spirals and labyrinths are part of our world and once people begin to walk they can feel a surprising sense of recognition, of at-home-ness. What a lovely illustration of this from a child!

Friday, 30 March 2012

Walking the Labyrinth at Edgware Abbey

pausing for prayer at the centre

  Last week the Urban Quiet travelling rainbow labyrinth was greeted with Benedictine hospitality at Edgware Abbey, out at the end of the Northern Line, and I spent a day walking it with a group of Oblates. For most participants this was a new experience: I was struck again, as I so often am, by the power of this simple, incarnational prayer. Despite knowing that there is only one path, the walk can still feel risky. How far is it? Will I really find the way out? What will be waiting for me at the centre, and what if there seems to be nothing there? But all took the risk, and a beautiful "dance" was woven as we walked in company. It was good to hear connections with the Benedictine way: here were Oblates living Benedict's Rule in the world spending time in this sacred space to reconnect with the community before returning, refreshed, from one "home" to another. The in-and-out path of the labyrinth with its historical associations with pilgrimage felt like a good image for that, as did the rhythm of walking at our own pace and stepping aside for others, and then sitting still in a circle together for the psalmody and prayer of the midday office.

the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God

It was almost the feast of the Annunciation, so we prayed with the gospel story before walking. We imagined God's loving gaze on the world and his choice to "empty himself, taking the form of a servant" and make his home among us; we imagined Mary walking first to visit Elizabeth, then to Bethlehem, carrying the incarnate Word at her very centre. Afterwards, Sister Barbara brought in a polished piece of wood, the cross-section of an old tree from the garden, and we all traced the rings with our fingers marvelling at the tree's growth from a tiny sapling to old age. So Christ is rooted in our humanity.

During the afternoon I invited everyone to write one word on a post-it note summing up what they had received or felt led to pray for and place it on the labyrinth - a bit like the distillation of a Benedictine Lectio Divina, a sacred reading of all that God had spoken to us during the day. Then we ended the day by walking the labyrinth again together to the echo of words the incarnate God might well be addressing to us:

 Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams. (W B Yeats)

Wednesday, 11 January 2012


Welcome to A Gracing Maze! First, a note about the name (it's not just a play on words that I couldn't resist). I often find myself explaining that a labyrinth is not a maze: a maze is a puzzle, full of tricks and false turnings where we can easily get lost, while a labyrinth has only one path which always in to the centre and out again, however much it twists and turns. But this is a modern distinction. In earlier times the words 'maze' and 'labyrinth' were interchangeable. No one knows exactly what 'labyrinth' means - it came into Greek from a more ancient language. A 'maze', however, is obviously 'amazing' - a good word for the experience of prayerful labyrinth-walking, which can be a taste of what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called radical amazement: what we feel when we sense a touch of the Divine.

So a labyrinth can be A Gracing Maze. It doesn't demand that we come with gifts of cleverness and cunning. It offers a place for us to receive gifts, graces, if we walk with open hands and heart.

I hope you will want to be part of this blog (maybe to join as a follower) and share your experiences of walking the labyrinth, especially in the city. You are very welcome.