When God closed a door, God opened a window. Then my glasses were knocked out that same window and smashed by a passing car.
I had placed them on the sill so I could massage my temples during a frustrating conversation with my travel agent. My trip to Zimbabwe had fallen through. My sister suggested I remain in England for a music festival. Dad said I could always book an earlier flight home to Canada. I didn’t tell them I was praying about my travel plans — I rarely discussed my spirituality. As it turned out, my prayers led me to a labyrinth in France.
Walking labyrinths is a spiritual practice I use to centre myself. I have had life-changing experiences while praying in labyrinths. Surely this walking meditation at the famous Notre-Dame de Chartres cathedral would be more meaningful than all my other walks.
Chartres has the only surviving medieval labyrinth — it is the pilgrimage for labyrinth fans.
Being a modern-day pilgrim, I went online to find accommodation on the website www.couchsurfing.org. Hosts provide a bed for travellers and get to know their guests. My fingers paused over the keys as I thought about what to say in my requests to potential hosts. I felt hesitant about revealing I was a labyrinth enthusiast. But I couldn’t very well say, “I love the bar scene,” like other 25-year-olds might, and then arrive and hang out at the cathedral all day. Plus, why should I worry? My hosts didn’t hold back their true selves in their profiles. This was confirmed on my very first stop with Edward, a shirtless fitness instructor whose daughter was taking ninja lessons. I also stayed with Silke, an atheist cathedral guide, and with a couple who were totally Christian and totally gay.
Once in Chartres, about 80 kilometres southwest of Paris, I stayed with Jasmine, a language teacher and practising Buddhist. Standing on the cobblestone outside the 760-year-old cathedral, I looked up at the mismatched spires with awe and excitement. Inside, I stashed my notebook and shoes under a chair and stepped up to the entrance of the labyrinth. The stone was worn smooth from the river of thousands of feet walking before me.
Or was it the thousands of people in front of me? As I began my walk to the centre of the labyrinth, all the other tourists were cramping my style. I had somehow imagined having the cathedral to myself. Just me, God and, of course, my coming profound revelation — where was that revelation? As I walked, I began to feel the calm sense of gratitude I often experience in labyrinths. This was nice, but I sort of expected more from my Chartres meditation.
As I walked, it came to me: the tourists weren’t a distraction — they were my message. The kid sprinting the labyrinth; the young woman giggling every time the path made an abrupt turn; others walking with solemn sincerity or with smiles. A theme rose up in my mind: authenticity. Perhaps this message surfaced because couch hopping showed me the freedom that comes from honesty. My hosts’ openness made me feel comfortable expressing my interest in labyrinths and my spiritual life. I left the labyrinth determined to be as open at home as I was in France.
An article about the Chartres cathedral suggests that the labyrinth “symbolizes the inner pilgrimage we make to the centre of our Being . . . the kingdom of God within us.” The times when I’ve been most honest and vulnerable with those around me have also been the moments when I’ve felt most connected to God. I saw God in all of my hosts because they were being true to themselves. God in Edward had pet snakes. God in Jasmine loved her neighbourhood bookshop. God in Silke fed stray cats in her backyard. And God in all of them welcomed the stranger home.
Alison Brooks-Starks is a teacher and youth care worker in Edmonton.
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