By Lize Burr
Last August, I wanted to go to Ireland. I wanted to forget the way Austin feels in the summer. I imagined spending a week in a cool, green place, far from the cloudless Texas sky. I also wanted to go to Ireland because I’ve experienced a deep awareness of God’s presence there. In Ireland, I feel different, lighter, free. But instead of Ireland, I went to Houston.
I went to Houston to stay at the Ruah Spirituality Center. When my spiritual director recommended that I go to Ruah for a few days of silence, part of me didn’t know what to say. I love Houston. I used to live there. But going Houston for a retreat at the Sisters of Charity motherhouse doesn’t have the same ring to it as a week in Ireland. I went with worse than no expectations—I expected to be disappointed.
Of course, this is the story of how I was wrong. My two days and two nights of silence at Villa de Matel, where Ruah is located, were restorative and grounding in ways I still find difficult to believe. First of all, it was cool in Houston. On the first evening, it rained. I sat on a swing sheltered by thick branches and watched rain fall on a wide green lawn. The next morning, I woke early and made tea in the guest dining room. No one was around. Being silent was easy. I stepped outside and headed back to the wide lawn. The sun was just beginning to rise above the trees when I took my first step in the Ruah labyrinth.
The labyrinth at Ruah is quite different from our labyrinth at St. David’s. Made of red brick set in soft grass, at 84’ in diameter, it takes time to walk. The design of a labyrinth slows you down with its doubling, circuitous path, and one of the techniques of walking a labyrinth as a spiritual devotion is to move slowly and intentionally. Another is to listen for what arises as you circle along the path. But how should we approach that listening, especially at times when our outlook makes us feel apart from God? In Walking the Sacred Path: Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Tool, Rev. Dr. Lauren Artress, the Episcopal priest who has developed and championed the labyrinth as a practice for contemporary Christian contemplation, writes, “The shift from tourist, who comes with an interested eye, to pilgrim, who comes with a searching heart, makes all the difference in the world.” The labyrinth itself takes care of this problem. Walking the path shifted something in my heart. In the center, I became aware of two virtues I needed to cultivate in order to write my master’s thesis and complete my final year at seminary. On the walk out, I felt different, lighter, free. Later that morning, I had the pure joy of floating alone in a pool, watching the wind in the trees. I didn’t miss Ireland for the rest of my stay.
Yesterday afternoon, I walked a labyrinth that’s about four miles from my house. Until last week, I had no idea it was there. My plan for July was to walk a labyrinth in New Mexico, but the most recent COVID-19 spike made me stay close to home. It was hot, and I should have gotten there in the morning. The labyrinth is in a stand of cedars, or, more accurately, there is a stand of cedars in the labyrinth. The path loops around them, sometimes splitting, sometimes widening. I learned to look out for trunks leaning in my direction. The cedars gave the labyrinth shade, and storms to the north sent a strong breeze. On the way out, I felt an urge to swing my arms in all kinds of ways, like a child playing a game on their own. The parking lot was empty. No one was at the preschool or the church. My arms made up patterns for the rest of my walk, and I bowed or praised each time the labyrinth turned. I felt different, lighter, free, and I didn’t miss New Mexico at all.
Are expectations or disappointments keeping me from being aware of God’s presence in my life? How can I turn around today?