Walking That Human Path
The stories I heard were nothing short of fantastic. "You think of a question, begin to walk and by the time you are finished, you have an answer to your problem." This is what my boyfriend says about walking the labyrinth.
"I want to know what to do with my life after graduation. I want to know if I should get a job. If I do get a job, what kind of job? I want to know where I will be in six months. Where will I be a year from now? Will I be stuck waitressing at Houlihan's?"
"It isn't a magic eight ball,"he says.
I don't expect much from mystics. Supernatural powers maybe, but they aren't begotten by a maze made of bricks. If you ask my boyfriend why he bartends in New Jersey and not California, Vancouver or Colorado, he'll tell you that it came to him on the labyrinth at Bon Secours in Baltimore. He began without any sense of direction and in twenty minutes came away with a purpose. This is what the labyrinth does for people. I have a pamphlet with a description of the labyrinth and a participant says,"I cried through the entire walk. It was just what I needed to do. When I walked out, I felt a heavy burden lifted from my shoulders. I needed to cry and the labyrinth walk enabled me to let go and do what I needed to do." The labyrinth provides clarity on life. I'm curious, that's why I came. My boyfriend says it will help me choose a path for my life after graduation.
Bon Secours is a convent. The labyrinth is the"focal point of a one-acre sacred space set aside as Holy Ground to commemorate the 175th anniversary of the founding of the congregation of Bon Secours of Paris." Driving off the main road, the sign reads: Sisters of Bon Secours. I'm down with that. Nothing to spook me into religion. A priest once described my family as sailboat Christians, blowing with the wind. I sail a dinghy -- a rubber life raft without a mast.
"Have you thought of a question?"my boyfriend asks.
I really want to know if my hair would look good dyed fire engine red. "No. You?" I answer.
"No, but I have a few rough ideas outlined.
Shit. A guy broke up with me once because he said we were,"Unequally yoked.'" I asked him what we had to do with eggs.
"Yeah, well I got a lot of questions." We're parked in the lot. His eyes are closed. Is there a limit to how many times you can walk the labyrinth in a day, a month, a year? If I keep walking, would it keep banging out answers? I'd have the question of life answered in a day and a half.
Baltimore City is beyond where I stand. It's hard to see the city through the trees, but I saw signs for it on the beltway. We took a beaten path to the nuns' cloister. A road with a lump in the middle and Bon Secours' land just beyond the gravel. I'm keeping an eye out for the brick dungeon that doles out answers to the laypeople. But there is open space surrounded by the Wellness and Spiritual Center. The nuns live on this hill of plush grass and clean air while the city springs up around them. This place was here long before Fells Point had pool halls and dance clubs.
"You ready?"he asks. Wind whips at his face, and his words chap his lips.
"Sure." We don't hold hands on the walk to the labyrinth. I don't want to be reminded of flesh.
"Do you have a question yet?"
I wipe at my nose with the back of my gloved hand and snap at him. "I'm working on it."
The labyrinth is absent of walls. "Made of bricks,"he said. It is the bricks. Twenty-five feet in diameter of bricked over grass. They are laid circular on the earth's floor, still wet from last night's snowfall. Slush obscures the pattern leading to the center of the labyrinth, but a few slick, shiny bricks reveal it to be more than just rings narrowing inward. I view the bricks from the edge and see that the entrance is also the exit. To leave, I must retrace my footprints out.
His voice drops a pitch to a smooth mellow tone,"Before you begin, clear your mind. You may walk as fast or as slow as you like. When you reach the center, stop and reflect until you feel ready to continue outward." My spiritual guide for this afternoon can pour a martini from his crotch.
My pamphlet quotes a Rev. Dr. Lauren Artress Veriditas,"It helps them see their lives in the context of a path -- a pilgrimage. They realize they are not human beings on a spiritual path but spiritual beings on a human path." I'm here because he asked me. A girlfriend of a believer, overlooking an intricate set of bricks and ready for answers that everyone says are only steps away.
He's ready to go first, but I jump ahead. "Got it,"I say. I hit the first brick and take off. It's not until the fourth or fifth step that I actually form one solid question.
This thing has worked in the past. Modeled after the labyrinth on the floor of Chartres Cathedral in France. Tried and true since 1220 AD. The pamphlet says the labyrinth has appeared throughout history -- Ancient Egypt, to Crete to Celtic, Scandinavian and Native American cultures. Christians and
Non-Christians, the confused, burdened and sorrowful. I'm expecting greatness from this walk. For the labyrinth to spark direction in me without having to attend Mass. That's why the nuns built a model here, spicing up religion with spirituality.
These women don't wear habits. I'm so sure they left them in Paris with a note for the Pope saying,"Clothes don't make the sister'". In my mind, they rebelled like daughters of the sixties and escaped like pilgrims. I've been to Plymouth Rock, seen the wax museum. Everyone came to the New World wanting freedom from religious persecution. My nuns without habits aren't any different. I think this as I reach the center.
He is already there and now, as I join him, he won't look at me. I am quiet only because his face says so. The skin is flaking beneath his beard, but he makes no motion to cover his cheeks. I fidget to pull the scarf above my nose. Something is supposed to be waiting here for me. It said so in the pamphlet. An answer to my question needs to fill my brain like a bolt screaming eureka.
Would I know a Bon Secours nun if I saw one? Do they wear a dangling crucifix like my grandmother? Young women joining the cloth probably choose this convent because of the lack of habits. These women sound progressive, more so than my pilgrims on the Mayflower. I kick at the snow under my feet. Since I've stopped walking to reflect, my body is stiff with cold. Rolling my shoulders into my back and stretching my thighs, I keep warm and wait. My boyfriend's hands rest sternly at his side. If we were in the car, I would force my hand into his and admire the fact that I can't see my fingers beneath his palm. We agreed not to touch, that is not allowed. It would disturb the meditation.
He does this thing with rubbing his hands together and then wrapping them around mine. I'm trying to signal for that now. Cold interrupts my power of focus. Cold, lack of movement, too much movement, visions of warm kisses and nuns not donned in black. He's still not looking at me. I'm still waiting.
I like this guy. He makes me snort instead of laugh. This thing is tradition in his family. It's got to work for me. There must be a glitch in the system. Maybe I didn't follow the directions. They were simple: think of a question, walk to the center of the labyrinth, receive an answer then exit. There's nothing here. Perhaps I thought too much about sweaty bodies and alcohol at the Have A Nice Day Cafe.
He leaves. I wait. Watching him retreat outward, I want to know what he does that I fail at. The labyrinth must reject those without clear minds. No voice, no booming light, no realization, only frozen air fills my inside cavities.
I don't do meditation. That's what I get. Take too much notice of the bare trees, slush marks on the bricks, the way my boyfriend glides as he walks, windburn of my pores.
Should I lie when he asks what the labyrinth offered? "A little of this, a lot of that. Life's a whole lot clearer now." I won't talk first. If he talks first then I can just be like,"Yeah, I totally got that too"and know what I was supposed to get but didn't. But I always talk first; I never shut up, and he'll see the lie. He knows that about me. I can't scam him.
What I asked was simple,"Is continuing with school right for me?" I repeat the question again, in case the labyrinth didn't hear the first time, maybe I mumbled in my head. And I stand, bobbing at the knees to keep warm, checking out the nuns' stone cloister and wondering what they do tucked away. They must have a garden. I hear all nuns have gardens. The labyrinth still offers no answers, no illumination at the center.
I too leave.
I feel like a fake. People come away with burdens replaced by enlightenment. They become tied to God and consider themselves part of something larger, an active member of the universe. I've got dry skin and numb fingers. A boyfriend who walks stone faced and illuminated. It's hard to tell if he thinks about me as he winds his way to the exit. I think that even if I can't have unity I can still be a damn good girlfriend.
He can be the spiritual, highly meditative boyfriend and I'll settle as the satisfied with my life no matter what you say kind of girl. But if I'm a stray thought on his path to enlightenment, I'd be happy. Then maybe that would make me a part of the labyrinth since I don't really have what it takes.
I'm giving up on this meditation thing. A man walks the grounds of Bon Secours, looks like he's waiting for us to get off the labyrinth. I'm too easily distracted. He's older and maybe just lost his wife. To cancer or heart disease. Come to remember and offer prayer for her. I'd like to leave a man like that behind when I go.
If I live in New York City after graduation, I'll be broke within a month. If I live at home, I'll be crazy in a week. My mom wouldn't appreciate that thought. But either way, I could see my boyfriend whenever I want. A plus side to life after May. I cooed when he said,"I'm retarded for you"back before there were I love yous.
An epiphany on my life is all I want. My writing professor says that epiphanies come at the end of short stories. My life would make a boring read then. I just need something so I don't leave empty handed. In the car, in about five minutes, I want to say,"Yeah, I felt something"and not have to lie. Maybe I should write that in 782 years of the Chartres labyrinth's existence, I'm the only one not to receive, not to gain unity, not to become an enlightened spiritual being.
I pass him on the labyrinth. He moves slowly to the side, still heavy from inner thought, and I trot by. It's a fast walk. My ass fishtails on the wet bricks. I'll start with my nuns without habits.
The exit is within sight, and the wind makes my eyes tear. I break into a run for the car. I've forgotten he's behind me, watching me race across the lawn.
Maybe I can find out what these nuns do with their day. I could call. Talk to his mom. Read a book. I'm sure they have a website.
My boyfriend comes towards me from the labyrinth. He looks concerned. He thinks I hated it.
"No, I didn't,"I speak first. "Just got the urge to write about it."
"You had me scared. I thought you hated it. Or were cold."
"Yes, very cold. Hated, no."
"What did you think of it?"
We're in the car and my eyes are still tearing. It is not all because of the cold though. "I liked it. I don't think I got all what you did, but it was an experience that I felt needed to be written."
I'm sitting here, blowing air into my gloved hands, and I get it, fifty feet from the labyrinth. School or no school, I can always write.
"Yeah, I got something from it,"I say.
"I'm happy for you." His look of concern has yet to disappear, but he's smiling. "You had me worried."
I wipe my face and laugh. He tells me the labyrinth offered a solution to his difficulties at work. "Less hours, no more sixteen hour days,"he says. It's a carefully constructed plan involving a meeting with the boss and some time off with a possibility of grad school in the future. I document the type of stone on the buildings and the color of the signs in the parking lot -- royal blue. "That's what I got from the labyrinth,"he says again.
We pull out of the parking lot, back down the road with the lump and onto the street that will take us to the beltway. He chatters about how the labyrinth helped him again and all the times before.
I'm not any further in the process of deciding my life. That is not a loss. In the pamphlet it reads,"We are discovering a long-forgotten mystical tradition that is insisting to be reborn in our day." Forget supernatural powers and spiritual forces, the labyrinth at Bon Secours is just the willingness to listen to our selves.
Albry Montalbano earned her BA in Creative Writing at Susquehanna University and is currently attending The New School University for her MFA in creative nonfiction.