It is through living that we discover ourselves, at the same time as we discover the world around us – Henri Cartier-Bresson –
Last week, I journeyed to the structure of stone and stained glass towering at the top of Nobb Hill: Grace Cathedral. I went there looking for answers. Not that walking into a church would immediately reveal my life’s path to me, but hoping that in the midst of the uncertainty and muddled direction that I have been thrown lately, I could achieve some peace of mind.
The year after college is tough- real life suddenly presents itself. If you are like me and don’t have the stability of a schedule or a vision to cling to during this critical year (like JVC, a Catholic Worker community, the Peace Corps, or a secured job), you find yourself floundering a bit for answers- clinging onto the job opportunities you can find and questioning the four years of resume building college was supposed to do for you. Who wants a 22-year-old, inexperienced, too-recently-a-student working for them? In this economy a Masters degree is the ticket, unless you want to work for little to no money to achieve your dreams.
So I found myself at Grace Cathedral on a Tuesday evening, desperately confronting some of these insecurities and frustrations. Grace Cathedral, an Episcopal church in SF, installed a labyrinth into their floor in 2004, a beautiful example of how art, spirituality, and history can meet in harmony. Grace’s indoor labyrinth was based on the design of one of the original labyrinths (13th century) that can still be seen at Chartres Cathedral in France. The other two times I have walked into labyrinths, I have been pleasantly surprised at their simplicity and ability to stimulate peace of mind. It is a beautiful meditative practice, stripping down your thoughts and submitting a typically distracted mind to a simple task at hand: walk along a predetermined path. The center will come eventually and until then, all you have to worry about is your thoughts. I am not one who has mastered the challenge of meditation (yet), but the labyrinth’s simple form of prayer and intentional thought really appeals to me- in its movement, beauty of the form, and simplicity.
When I walked into the Cathedral, the distant roar of tourists and transit of Union Square below and the consistent splashing sound of cars gliding by on wet streets disappeared, absorbed into the thick stone walls of the church. My body was instantly soothed by the smell of dusty stone: old, smooth, strong, and solid. The emptiness and space that was created by the arched ceiling seemed to vibrate with the little amount of sound waves that were present: a perfect place to sing but also much room to send forth prayers and thoughts. The sun having set a half hour previously, the church was silent and echoey, a harmony of darkness and light.
I stepped into the entrance to the labyrinth with three thoughts in mind, hoping to sort out at least one. The three things I intended to search for in the labyrinth were clarity, confidence, and direction. Removing my shoes, I began to walk along the path inlaid for me on the stone floor. I thought to myself, “clarity, confidence, direction,” over and over, letting the words fill my body and thinking about each one in turn. When I thought about clarity, what came up was to not take things too fast: that this will inevitably rush finding something. Also, to surround myself with beauty…if anything will achieve clarity, beauty will. Finding what gives me peace and sticking to it goes hand in hand with finding beauty. Some of these things include: exploring, yoga, music, spiritual practices like the labyrinth walk, connecting with nature, and writing. When I thought, “confidence,” one main thought came through that was both reassuring and exciting: “I have everything I need.” I do indeed. I have achieved great things already and there is no direction but up for me in the future. The time is now to find what it is that will build my confidence even more, but I am surely equipped for success now. Finally, direction. While walking the path of the labyrinth, it was suddenly obvious that the direction I was seeking would reveal itself. The future will come, just don’t try to figure it out! Like walking a labyrinth, the end will come, just worry about how you walk the journey- what thoughts are you thinking? How fast are you walking? What do you notice? Walking the labyrinth is, indeed, a great metaphor for living life. Also, while I am waiting for that direction to present itself, I might as well use this time to explore and take advantage of the freer time I have now: the people around me, the place I live, and the ability I have to explore.
I walked out of the labyrinth reassured. I did not have the distinct answers that I was craving but I certainly know now where to find those answers: within myself and they will come with time.
I was also lucky that it was Tuesday. Every evening on this day of the week at 6:15 pm, a well-known San Francisco yogi teaches a donation-based yoga class on the labyrinth. It is a time for people of all ages, genders, colors, sizes, shapes, and fitness levels to experience the calming practice of stretching one’s muscles and brain, to challenge both bodily strength and the strength of mind- managing and emptying thoughts. So I ended my practice of self-exploration that day by breathing and balancing like a tree, photosynthesizing.
I came away from the Cathedral, graced indeed. I had been bestowed with the gift of myself- the reassuring and overwhelming thought that only I am ultimately in charge of my future. And I hope that this realization continues to drive me and fill the moments of frustration with calm, instead.