What I learnt while walking


This summer my husband and I fulfilled a long wished for experience – we walked the labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral.  The Chartres labyrinth was constructed sometime in the 13th century and is inlaid in the floor of the nave of the Cathedral.  We love Chartres and had visited the city before but were unable to walk it as it is normally covered with chairs as it is right in the middle of the Cathedral after all.  On Fridays, however, the chairs are pushed back so that those who want to can follow its winding path to the centre.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but found the experience far more moving than I had expected and I’ve have been thinking about it ever since.

At any one time there were about 30-40 people walking the labyrinth and this was, for me, one of the most powerful features of the whole experience.  Somehow in my head I had imagined doing it alone – can’t think why, but I did.  As it was, however, I walked it with lots and lots of people.  Most of them were strangers, though some were not (by odd coincidence we met some friends who, like us, had always wanted to do it and who, also like us, had made a special detour to Chartres en route to their holiday).  There was something quite mesmerising about the silent weaving to and fro of 30 or so people following the pattern on the floor.

As I walked it struck me that walking the labyrinth bore a remarkable resemblance to Christian existence in general.  You end up walking alongside people who, like you, have been drawn to the experience by something other than the sheer desire to spend time together.  We were all in search of something – and it wasn’t each other – but doing it together made the experience bigger, deeper and richer than if we had done it alone.  And just like all other Christian communities, whether they last 20 minutes or 20 years, the experience of community was uplifting and irritating; frustrating and inspiring.

Weaving backwards and forwards meant that people’s smell wafted past for a few moments and then went again until you past them again a few minutes later in the labyrinth.  Some wore far too much perfume; others far too little.  Some confidently took up their own space and forced you out of the way so they could continue (some people followed the path of the labyrinth out from the centre as well as into the centre so there were always some people walking in the opposite direction); others paused and turned to help you pass.  Some were locked in their own personal experience; others looked outwards and smiled as you passed.  Some became so enrapt in their experience that they stopped stock-still forcing you to queue behind them or overtake; others took it as a brisk walking pace and had finished the whole maze and left the building in next to no time.  There was one person who walked round and round the labyrinth totally ignoring the lines but smiling beatifically the whole time; someone else barged right through the centre of it camera at the ready to take a photo on its far side.

I went expecting to have a profound individual and personal experience – and I had one– but I came away realising that what I experienced had been shaped and deepened by those I had passed and walked with along the way, even those that had really annoyed me.  I might have wished to have walked the labyrinth on my own but if I had had my wish the experience would have been poorer.  It is so tempting to imagine the peace and simplicity of a Christian life lived alone without others invading our space, forcing us to change direction or simply being their annoying selves but the reality is that without them we are poorer and our experience of God is poorer.

It is experiences like this that begin to put flesh on the bones of the apparent obsession of the New Testament writers with community, belonging and unity.  In our profoundly individualistic world, it can often feel an alien concept.  I am often asked monthly whether you can be Christian without going to church (it normally comes expressed in the form of a question expecting the answer yes: ‘Surely you can be just as good a Christian without going to church?’).  This is Grace Davie called believing without belonging – the New Testament answer, at least, would be no you can’t.  Our ‘personal’ relationship with Christ is both vertical and horizontal.  Dying and rising with Christ changes our identity and belonging not just to Christ but to each other.  A relationship with Christ is, by its nature, a relationship with others.  It just isn’t possible to believe in Christ without belonging to everyone else who is also in Christ.

This doesn’t magically make the belonging easy  (in case you hadn’t noticed) but it does challenge us to think again about belonging and how we do it, not least because today we no longer take community as seriously as the New Testament writers did.  What I noticed as I walked the Labyrinth was my own reactions to those I met on the way.  In particular whenever I met one of those who walked confidently and expected me to move out of the way I always did, so that I lost my place and had to work out where I had been before they came.  Whenever someone stopped for a long time, I waited behind them until they moved again.  That isn’t important.  What is important was that it annoyed me and I resented them.

In the end I decided to walk it again but this time to make conscious decisions about how I reacted.  So when I met a confident walker in the opposite direction, I looked them in the eye, smiled, let them pass but did not step off my own path.  When someone stopped I chose whether to stop too or to step gently around them.  Not very much changed but at the same time everything changed.    Everyone was still who they were but I related to them differently.  Community cannot work when we are grudgingly passive, resentful and frustrated.  Community only works when, as Paul observes in his tongue in cheek description of the conversation between body parts in 1 Corinthians 12, we recognise both our own value to the body (‘If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body’, 12.15) and the essential value of others (‘The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you”‘, 12.21).  It is blindingly obvious but nevertheless hard to remember that community works only when I value both my own presence and participation, and the presence and participation of others (even the really annoying ones).  True community requires us to be ‘all in’.  A passive belonging which resents the presence and impositions of others, never works.

As we left the labyrinth behind and continued a more normal walking through life, I realised that this lesson learnt simply on the labyrinth was a lesson that I needed to absorb into the whole of my life.  As so often on the way of faith, I walked the labyrinth expecting to encounter God – and I did – but I came away knowing far more about myself, about community and about the church.  So from now on I will try (and fail but still I’ll try) to value my own presence and participation AND that of others, and I thank you in advance for all you’ll teach me about God, myself and the church as I pass you or walk beside you on the way.

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