July 2006. A warm and sunny day in San Francisco. We go and have a look at Grace Cathedral, a two-minute walk from where we are staying. Inside, I am delighted to find a colourful silk altar cloth – a Catherine wheel of pinks, purples and golds flying out from the centre. The cathedral has a peculiarly homely feel, and we are made to feel welcome, (can they tell we are agnostics, I wonder?). We pause to chat with someone – a priest, a vicar? I am unsure of the right terminology. He tells us they are preparing for a big event. Is everyone good-looking in California?
Walking around, enjoying the sun streaming through the beautiful stained glass, I discover a pattern on the floor, a labyrinth design. I suddenly remember talking to a friend some years previously. She told me she was looking for a labyrinth to walk. At the time, I thought it an odd idea. Now I was drawn to find out more. I was curious about the few people who were walking the labyrinth, apparently deep in thought, on a quiet weekday morning in the cathedral.
I recently found out more about what the labyrinth means and why people walk it. It appears in Greek mythology. Daedalus built the labyrinth at the request of King Minos to keep the monstrous man-eating minotaur (half bull, half man) inside. In the myth, it was said that visiting prince Theseus was given a linen thread by the princess Ariadne that would help him find his way into the centre, slay the minotaur along the way and then back into the outside world again. Medieval pilgrims adopted the idea and constructed labyrinths on ancient dancing ground. One should walk the labyrinth when one has a question. There is one path (unlike a maze, which has several paths on which you can lose your way). The single path winds like a well-ordered large intestine towards the centre and out again.
Ignorant of all this at the time, we went outside into the sun, and found a courtyard at the back of the church. A white labyrinth was inlaid in stone. A drunk dressed in rags was fast asleep on the long white bench around the edge of the labyrinth. “I need to walk this,” I told my husband. He was happy to sit and wait. So, slowly and deliberately I walked the meandering route from the outside inwards to the centre and out again to the edge, over and over. Alone in the centre I asked the question that was uppermost in my mind, and had been for several years. Disappointingly, there was no flash of light, no roll of thunder, no ‘road to Damascus’ moment, nothing. Slightly put out, but still feeling at peace with the world, I meandered back to the outside and returned to my bemused husband. “Done?” he asked. “Done” I replied.
Since then, in times of uncertainty about the next step to take, I’ve often thought about the metaphor of the labyrinth. At the time, we can only take the next step and then the next, one foot in front of the other. It’s only by zooming out and overhead that we see the bigger picture and where those steps fit in.