Labyrinth - An Invitation to Full-Body Prayer
I walked my first prayer labyrinth before I had ever heard of spiritual direction or contemplative spirituality or even mysticism. It was in a big, dimly-lit room at a youth workers' convention -a huge painted canvas spread across the floor, peppered with a variety of "stations" at which the walker could pause and engage with a question or concern around their role as a youth leader in their church. I remember one station still: an old-fashioned TV, the screen showing nothing but static, a pillow on the floor in front of it. This station invited us to sit and spend some time contemplating those things in our lives which might be creating ongoing "static", preventing us from "tuning into" God in the way we desired.
That first experience of the interactive, full-body prayer that is a labyrinth cracked open the door to a new world of spiritual practices. I soon found myself seeking out labyrinths every time I traveled. The cathedral at Chartres, a churchyard on the coast of Ireland, a hill overlooking Las Vegas, a hermitage nestled in an Ozark forest, a park hidden in a corner of Salt Lake City, a sweltering field in an Illinois summer--every labyrinth I walked offered a unique experience and never did I walk without gaining insight, comfort or a challenging invitation to walk deeper into my spiritual journey.
This journey spilled out into my ministry. Once introduced to the idea that prayer could be a physical, interactive or even creative process, I began seeking out opportunities to introduce this interactive spirituality to the teens I worked with in the Deaf youth ministry. I built prayer experiences for Christmas gatherings and girls' retreats, created a small, portable labyrinth for summer camp, and watched as the students I worked with--as well as the adult staff--responded with deep enthusiasm to the experience.
The Story Labyrinth
I had taken a break from prayer station building for a couple of years as I transitioned from "youth leader" to spiritual director, but when I saw that the theme of last year's Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, NC was "Story", I immediately knew I wanted to create a labyrinth which would invite participants to travel deep into their own stories and back out into the story of the world. My "Story Labyrinth" proposal was accepted, and the festival seemed excited about the idea.
There are many ways to put together a temporary labyrinth installation outdoors--ideas range from votive candles in candle holders (BEAUTIFUL at night, but I cannot imagine how many candle holders it would take for a 45 foot labyrinth!) to little plastic baggies filled with sand and individually tied with bows. Some people use spray paint to install temporary labyrinths, or athletic field chalk. As one of the values of The Wild Goose Festival is sustainability, I wanted to both steer away from anything environmentally questionable and use materials which could be repurposed once the labyrinth was taken down.
The solution I found lay in a box of over-sized nails and several skeins of multi-colored yarn. I chose yarn in rainbow colors as a subtle prayer for the LGBTQ community who had been much in the news that year due to North Carolina's "transgender bathroom ban." As I drove the nails and unwound the yarn to mark the path festival goers would walk, I lifted up my intention that all persons be loved, accepted and welcome, and that the beauty of the rainbow of diverse people be recognized as a gift from God to be cherished by all.
Prayers Must Weather The Storms
Most of my preparation time before the festival was spent designing and writing the stations for the labyrinth. As an author who is especially engaged in the power of experiencing and telling Story as a spiritual practice, my enthusiasm for the process may have outweighed my preparation for the outdoor nature of the festival and the weather of the North Carolina mountains. The stations looked beautiful the first day we set them up, but heavy rains and winds quickly created challenges I hadn't prepared for. After a trip to the hardware store for a roll of plastic, plastic bags and duck tape, we had reinforced the stations to the best of our ability, but it was clear that creating resilience to the elements would be need to be a higher priority in future planning.
Interestingly, it was the rain that proved to be the catalyst my husband (and partner in the labyrinth construction) needed to confront a deep seated anger he had not previously recognized, about God and answered prayers. "All I have done for a month is pray for beautiful weather for your labyrinth," he told me as we huddled under a neighbor's tent during the second rainstorm. "If God is my father and he cares about me, why couldn't he at least make it not rain!?" It may seem a trivial issue, but his anger was both real and unexpected, and he spent a good chunk of the festival processing it. It's amazing how something as unexpected as mountain thunder storms can invite us to explore our expectations about God and our pain over promises we feel God has made and broken.
Creating and Engaging
When I designed the Wild Goose labyrinth this year, I worked to make it more weather-resistant but just as inviting. In lieu of laminated paper signs (which had leaked and smeared in the rain), I created a tri-fold "Labyrinth Guide" which walkers could carry with them through the labyrinth, pausing at each station to read the explanation or directions in the guide. This year stations included an invitation to surrender a burden by dropping a stone into a glass bottle and watching it float through the water to settle on the bottom, an opportunity to create personalized prayer beads, and a chance to carry a stone through ones labyrinth journey, only to paint a message of hope on it just before exiting the labyrinth.
Our labyrinth was beside the river this year, and festival attendees were drawn to the quiet contemplation of this little corner of the festival from early morning until after sunset. Children walked as quickly as they could through the labyrinth, men sat in long silent contemplation at the center, women turned their black "burden stones" into works of art covered with sunlight and flowers. Some walkers carefully read the guide, interacting with each station in an orderly manner, others glanced at it and left it at the entrance, preferring to walk the labyrinth in their own way for their own purpose. This is the beauty of the labyrinth--it invites each person to engage it as they are, in whatever way which moves them.
Carrying the Journey Home
Disassembling the labyrinth at the end of the festival provides me with the opportunity to gather up the prayers of the walkers and bring them home. I carefully wrap the yarn into a ball, ready to be turned into a gift of beauty by loving, creative hands. Last year's labyrinth was woven into a beautiful altar cloth by a dear friend who grows a labyrinth of varied berry plants outside her northern Wisconsin cabin. Her "Labyrinth Jelly" is some of the best of you will ever taste. This cloth serves as a constant reminder of the prayers of the festival goers, and a foundation for my own prayers.
This year's labyrinth yarn was muddied to a dull brown by the intermittent mountain rains. Unsure of its usefulness, I brought it home anyway, and when I offered it to a friend whose creative heart leaves me in wonder, she received it with eagerness. "This will be such a beautiful thing," she said, eyes filling with tears. "I'll create something beautiful even in its dirt, and it will be cleansed by the water once it is made. What a beautiful addition to the story!" And so the undesired rains allow us yet another chance to contemplate beauty and mercy.
Each time I create a public labyrinth, I'm left in awe of the beauty of interaction and shared prayer. I gather up the notebooks in which people have written their stories, the posters where we have shared our inspiration or the things we tell ourselves, about ourselves, or the papers on which we have written those things that keep us from engaging the world in openness and vulnerability and I feel deeply blessed to have had a chance to provide a shared holy place for those who walk the age-old path of the labyrinth.
Tessi Muskrat Rickabaugh is a graduate of Shalem Institute’s spiritual guidance program and an interpreter for the deaf. A child of the Ozarks, she makes her home in Fulton, Missouri, USA, where she offers spiritual direction in person and online in English and ASL (for deaf seekers). A Native woman of Cherokee and Irish descent, Tessi engages her heritage as a member of the Long Hair Clan by curating The Barefoot Journey, an online community of people who foster peace and openness toward self and others through engaging the raw beauty of story. She leads monthly women's circles (Sister Circles) and facilitates spiritual direction groups.Find her writing at TheBarefootAuthor.com.
A note about the photos: Tessi made all the photos except the one with her in it. Cory, her husband, made that one. The photos were color edited by Tessi's sister, Julianna Martin of InFrame Photo and Video in Lebanon, Missouri.