The Labyrinth

August 31, 2003



Labyrinth (8/31/03)

Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas

University Congregational Church

This is Labor Day weekend, which, solstices and equinoxes aside, marks the end of summer. I hope everybody managed to get a vacation in this summer. There’s nothing like a little time away to make a person appreciate home. My summer vacation was spent studying—and playing—in Chicago.

One of the subjects that came up at seminary was labyrinths. Labyrinths have been around since ancient times, were very popular in the Middle Ages, and have undergone a renewed popularity over the past few decades.

A labyrinth is a meditation tool. I know you’ve seen them, or at least seen photographs of them. Many of the great European Cathedrals have labyrinths, and some of the churches here in Wichita have either permanent or temporary labyrinths on the church grounds. A labyrinth looks like a maze, but there is an important difference. A maze is built with the intention of confusing the person who walks through it. You’re supposed to get lost in a maze. And there are several tricks people use to try to find their ways of a maze, although there is always this nightmare scenario in the back of our minds that we will enter a maze, never to be found again, as we wander aimless and confused for the rest of our lives—or longer.
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This is not the case with a labyrinth. It is designed so that all you have to do is keep walking, and you will make it to the center. There are no decisions to be made along the way. You wind your way along the path, and eventually you have no choice but to arrive at your desired destination. Then you turn around and walk back out, following the same path—the only path that is available.

People are said to find great inner peace walking labyrinths. You are supposed to walk slowly, and there is no set agenda for your thought process. The idea is to let the labyrinth do its work on you. And somehow, you become absorbed in the mystery of life, and find great peace within yourself.

There are probably two types of people in the world: maze people and labyrinth people. People tend to treat this journey through life as either maze or a labyrinth. A maze person tends to sweat every little decision—right or left, forward or back, slow or fast—thinking that their ultimate destination is in doubt. Labyrinth people tend to think that their ultimate destinations are not in doubt, and go through life—the labyrinth—relatively unconcerned with the details. Labyrinth people assume they will naturally wind up where they belong if they just keep walking.

I think we would all like to be labyrinth people, but I confess that I am a maze person more often than I would like to be. And I imagine we all spend at least part of our lives as maze people. Life is mysterious, and frightening, and it’s easy to get lost along the way. Experience tells us that wrong turns and re-starts are a part of the journey. It seems to me that the maze turns into a labyrinth only after we figure out what we’re looking for. Once we know what lies at the end of our journey, the turns we make along the way become almost automatic.

So to push this metaphor to the extreme, we begin our adult lives in a maze, looking for direction and purpose. And what we seek makes all the difference. What motivates us? What drives us? What keeps us walking through the maze, plunging forward through life, when we keep making wrong turns? What makes us pick ourselves up and try again? I would say it is the conviction that there is something ahead that is worth pursuing. And we have to decide for ourselves what that is.

The prize—the center of the maze, varies from person to person and from culture to culture. In our culture, the most common driving force is success. We are a success-driven culture, which is probably a good thing. I mean, who sets out to be a failure? But the measurement of success varies, once again, from person to person and culture to culture.

Last summer I met two women from Sweden who are a part of the doctoral program in Chicago. Our discussion produced a sort of culture shock—for both sides. At one point, one of the Swedes told us that virtually all Swedish women work outside the home. The idea of a housewife, or homemaker, is not on the radar. She said that work outside the home, for men and women, was considered an obligation to the society. She also said that it was a necessity, because the society was structured so that a family required two incomes.

So I said to her, “But what if your husband is a doctor, or surgeon? You wouldn’t have to work then, right?” And she informed me that her husband was a surgeon, and yes, it was financially necessary for her to also work.

Now, this was culture shock to me, so I said, “But wait a second. Are you telling me that a doctor in Sweden makes the same amount of money as a person working at a fast-food restaurant? And she said no, her husband did indeed make more money than most restaurant workers, but very little more. I said the whole situation seems a bit unfair, and she agreed. She said, “What would you prefer to do with your life—be a doctor or work at a fast food restaurant?” And I said I would rather be a doctor. And she agreed. She also said that with that thinking, the fast-food worker should probably be paid more than the doctor, since he had a less desirable job.

Of course, I couldn’t let it go. So I said something like, “It would seem a little crazy for a person who just slid through life without care to be driving a Mercedes while a doctor who spent all that time in school and all those hours serving people drove a 1983 Yugo. This confused her, because she had never heard of a Yugo. But she said, “Oh, nobody would drive a Mercedes. People would hate anybody that flaunted their wealth.”

It’s a different culture. It really is. I bring up that conversation, which is permanently etched on my mind, simply to point out how the notion of success is conditioned by the culture in which we live. Our culture measures success in large part by the amount of wealth one receives for the work he or she does, and in that culture success is measured by how much of yourself you give to your society.

Still, this is the culture we live in, and I will go with my original thought—that once we figure out what is at the center of our maze—once we figure out what we are looking for—the maze tends to become a labyrinth. And the decisions get easier.

For most of us, the center keeps changing. When we are young, the center of the maze is graduation from high school or college. That is the finite goal, the destination of our journey, after which we can take a deep breath and look for a new maze. Typically, after graduation, the new center becomes professional success, regardless of whether we measure that success financially of by some other means. Once we feel we have reached the center of that maze, a new maze appears: perhaps marriage. And then children. Promotions. We jump from maze to maze, and the decisions we make along the way are determined in large part by what we envision at the center of the maze in which we find ourselves at a given time.

If each of us could pan back and look at our life, it would probably appear as a series of mazes floating around some mysterious center. Depending on what stage of life we were in at any given moment, we would see ourselves wandering though a different maze. We would see ourselves in the “graduate from high school” maze. There we are in the “find a mate” maze. Now we’re in the “get a job” maze. Now we’re in the “be a success maze.” Now we’re in the “parenthood” maze. But what is at the mysterious center? The mazes change, but is all of life just one big maze? Is all of life a puzzle without a solution, a collection of mazes without a center? What lies at the center of all those mazes? What is the center of all centers?

Let’s come back to that in a few minutes, and go back to the subject of vacations. Vacations are a microcosm of life. The first days of a vacation are like childhood, filled with wonder and excitement. Hurray, we’re off on our adventure! And we got our whole vacation-our whole life—ahead of us. Not a care in the world.

I always know the exact midpoint of a vacation. I’m a bit compulsive in that way, but there is usually some moment—say Wednesday at 2:47 in the afternoon—when I realize that I’m on the downhill side of things. It is a sort of middle age experience right there in the middle of vacation. There are more minutes of this vacation in my past than there will be in my future. It is a sobering sort of moment, and my family is always thrilled when I point it out to them.

And then, as with life, we put the idea of the vacation’s end out of our minds. But it sneaks up on us, and the trip back home is never quite as joyful, and there are a distinctive lack of, Hurray, we’re going home’s resonating through the car.

As I look back at my vacations, however, I discover that they really are a lot like life. It doesn’t matter where I was going. What mattered were the people I was with. And whether our destination was the Gulf of Mexico or the Smokey Mountains or the Wisconsin Dells, we usually had our most memorable experiences not when we arrived, but on the trip there and back.

I’ll give you a great example. Many years ago Leigh and I decided to take all three of our daughters to Biloxi Mississippi. We wanted a vacation where we just sat on the beach and did nothing. I have very little memory of those hours on the beach. But I sure remember the things that happened along the way.

On the way there we spent the night in Louisiana, and rising early, we drove past one of those old, above-the ground cemeteries near New Orleans. The sun was just rising, and we decided to stop and look at some of the old graves. This was a huge graveyard, and we couldn’t see very far in any direction, because the stone tombs are built up above the ground, stacked atop one another. It was interesting reading about the folks who were buried there. Many of them were witches, and practitioners of voodoo. But it was a memorable and scary moment, when we walked around a corner and stumbled upon the still burning remains of what had obviously been an overnight voodoo ritual. There was smoldering hair, and bones, and all manner of strange items sitting in front of the grave of an 18th century New Orleans voodoo queen. We decided it was time to head on to Biloxi.

But we’ve always been suckers for tourist traps, and we read about this great historical sight in Mississippi where Andrew and Rachel Jackson had gotten married. It was a glorious old mansion, built before the American Revolution. We decided to take a little detour and check it out. We followed the map, but were sure we had taken a wrong turn, because we found ourselves out on the middle of nowhere. Finally, not having seen a house or a car for twenty minutes, we saw a dilapidated sign pointing to this great historic site. The sign pointed down a dirt road.

Well, we had gone that far, so we drove a few miles down the dirt road, and sure enough, there was a glorious old mansion. But there was not a car in sight. We walked to the front door, which was locked, and rang a bell. Nobody answered. We started to walk away, and just as we arrived at our car, an old man stuck his head out the front window and told us to hang on—he’d be right with us.

This guy was right out of a Steven King movie. Seriously. And as he let us in, he locked the door behind us. As he showed us around—and by the way, it really was a remarkable place—he kept talking about how the British had stolen America from the French. This guy was absolutely hostile about the way the American Revolution played out, and was ranting and raving about how Americans should be speaking French instead of English.

As we were upstairs on this balcony overlooking the main entrance, the doorbell rang. Our host hobbled to the door, and told the family that was standing there that he was busy—they would have to come back another time. Okay, I’m getting spooked. And just then, as Leigh and I exchanged concerned glances and made our way downstairs, we saw this huge painting hanging in the dining room. It was a painting of a French general, sword in hand, circa 1750. And this general’s face was the spitting image of the old man who’s been showing us around. Exit Steven King, enter Rod Serling, and let me tell you, we figured it was time to hit the road. Remember, we were still a bit shaken by the voodoo thing we’d witnessed several hours earlier.

Our host wouldn’t hear of our leaving—not until we saw the old slave quarters about a half-mile back behind his house. He was unable to walk with us, but all we had to do was walk along this wooded area for about five minutes, and we would see the slave houses just behind the row of trees.

We made it about two-hundred yards before we all envisioned this crazy old kook jumping out of the woods with an axe in his hand and screaming something in French as he mutilated us beyond recognition. I’ve never felt more like I had wandered into a maze than in that particular moment, in rural Mississippi, walking with my wife and three young children along a row of trees, searching for some ancient slave quarters, and thinking this little summer vacation was about to end badly. We sort of worked our way around some trees and shrubs, quietly and quickly made our way to the car, and vowed never to drive down a Mississippi dirt road again.

But those are the memories that last. It’s the journey, not the destination, that matters most. All I remember about Biloxi is it was hot as Hades and there was lots of white sand; but none of us will ever forget our experience with the deranged Frenchman.

And that brings us back to the subject of mazes and labyrinths. I said earlier that I tend to be a maze person, but wish I were more of a labyrinth person. And I’m working on it. Labyrinth people go with the flow, they don’t sweat the details, and they don’t obsess over each and every decision.

I said earlier that life seems to be one big series of mazes with the center—the destination—changing, depending on where we are in life. I also said that if we could pan back and look at the big picture of our lives, all those mazes would seem to be swirling around one mysterious center—the center of centers.

And I asked the question, “What is the center of centers?” I can think of no better way to end this admittedly puzzling sermon about mazes and labyrinths than to refer to the great theologian Tielhard de Chardin. Tielhard de Chardin was a brilliant theologian and paleontologist, who early in the 20th Century had great difficulty resolving a literal reading of the Bible with the fact he kept finding all these ancient dinosaur bones.

When asked to define God, he said that God is the “center of centers.” God is the center of centers.

When I first heard this as a young child, I thought that he was saying that either Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain was God. You know, “Wow, that Wilt Chamberlain is the center of all centers.” But I managed to get past my original thoughts on the matter, and I think Tielhard de Chardin was awfully close to the truth. As he saw this seemingly chaotic universe spinning around in all its Darwinian glory, he came to the conclusion that God is the center of centers.

And something tells me that understanding all the implications of that might have something to do with becoming a labyrinth person instead of a maze person. Because once we understand that our ultimate destination is God, regardless of the decisions we make along the way, it doesn’t matter so much whether we go right or left, forward or back, fast or slow. Because life isn’t a maze. It’s a labyrinth, and all roads lead to the very God who created us in the first place.

That being the case, I guess we should all slow down, and even in the presence of voodoo queens and crazed Frenchmen, enjoy the walk.