Yesterday I took a break from writing my so-called novel to take a stroll to Jerusalem and back, and I think it was a worthwhile trip.
Last month I wrote about wandering a corn maze here in Keene. In that post, I noted the differences between labyrinths and mazes. As Rebecca Solnit notes in Wanderlust: A History of Walking, labyrinths represent in spatial terms the inevitability of God’s grace: if you set out on the spiritual quest and keep walking that path, you are guaranteed to find God at the end. Whereas a maze forces you to make directional choices–right, left, or straight–the only choices in a labyrinth are stop, continue, or quit. Walking a labyrinth, you realize that the only task ever required of you is simply to take the next step. If you trust that path despite all its zigs and zags, you will ultimately find your true goal.
The world’s most famous labyrinth is the four-quadrant path paved into the floor of France’s Chartres Cathedral. That labyrinth was designed to give believers a way of walking a metaphorical pilgrim’s path to Jerusalem and back without leaving their own neighborhood. Pilgrimage has always been an expensive and dangerous endeavor: not every believer has the time, money, or freedom to cast aside mundane cares to walk across the world seeking enlightenment. Labyrinths remind believers that God can be found in a spot of time and even underfoot. If you prayerfully pace the steps to the center of a labryinth and back, you can replicate in spiritual form the physical journey made by Christ himself.
Medieval labyrinths such as the one in Chartres Cathedral are rooted in a particular cosmology. Even working with simple tools, Medieval geographers had a sophisticated understanding of the actual world. Traders knew, for instance, how to get to the Orient and back, and pilgrims knew the routes to Jerusalem and other sacred sites. Medieval orbis terrarum maps–circular depictions of the world–look crudely distorted and even inaccurate not because cartographers didn’t know better; instead, these maps were consciously designed with Jerusalem, the site of Christ’s crucifixion, placed squarely at the center of a round world. In his discussion of these so-called OT maps, geographer Yi-Fu Tuan notes how they are T-shaped, with half the world representing Africa and the charted unknown, one fourth representing exotic Asia, and the final quarter denoting the European “known world.” At the center of these maps–the intersection of the “T”–is Golgotha, the hill in Jerusalem where Christ was crucified. In a word, OT maps (such as the one seen in the background of this self-portrait) weren’t designed to help you navigate from Point A to Point B; instead, they served as spiritual place-markers, a reminder that “You Are Here” with your heart centered on God.
Yesterday as I walked into the Young Student Center here on the campus of Keene State College, it seemed odd to think that I was approaching a symbolic representation of Jerusalem, the spiritually significant point where Heaven touches Earth. Different world religions point to various geographical places that are charged with cosmological meaning. Muslims point to Mecca, Jews and Christians (and to a lesser degree Muslims) point to Jerusalem, and various indigenous peoples point to specific sites where Creation commenced. As Mircea Eliade discusses in The Sacred and the Profane, one defining aspect of all religions is the way they divide the world into spiritual opposites, “the sacred” being situated at or near the symbolic center of the world (the Axis Mundi) and “the profane” being further removed from this cosmological center.
Yesterday as I paced in stockinged feet a canvas replica of the Chartres labyrinth, a day-long installation sponsored by the University System of New Hampshire’s “Embrace Life Fully” wellness program, I enacted a symbolic journey toward Jerusalem, the Spiritual Center where God deigned to die. Even though God is omnipresent, we as bodied creatures exist in time and place: we need reminders that God exists not just every- and anywhere, but specifically Here and Now. Pilgrim sites are significant because they point to the belief that God Happens with spatial and temporal specificity: on a Jerusalem hill, Christ was crucified; along a French stream, Bernadette saw the Virgin Mary; atop an Irish mountain, Patrick fasted for forty days; and on a Mexican hillside, a Lady from Heaven appeared to Juan Diego.
Most of us won’t ever be visited by spiritual apparitions; most of us won’t ever witness miracles. But we all dwell in time and place, and we all want occasional reminders that God has not left the building. The toil and trouble of pilgrimage denotes the real effort of the spiritual life: if you want salvation or enlightenment, at some point you have to get off your ass and get going. Labyrinths, especially portable ones, remind us that the journey toward an ubiquitous God needn’t be a long and arduous one: God is the very ground we walk upon, and God can be known through contemplation as well as action.
Not having the time or resources to visit Jerusalem, Lourdes, Croagh Patrick, or Guadalupe, yesterday I walked into the Mabel Brown Room in the Young Student Center at Keene State College, where Dr. Nancy Puglisi and her parner had spread out a portable labyrinth. It took about five minutes to navigate the twists and turns to the center of the labyrinth, where a Tibetan bell marked the temporal (albeit temporary) meeting of heaven and earth. On most days, the Mabel Brown Room is the site of dance classes, organization meetings, and public lectures: the last time I’d set foot there, a packed crowd listened to KSC Writer-in-Residence and peace activist Janisse Ray speak out against the Bush administration. Yesterday, though, the Mabel Brown Room was a quiet, tranquil place, a place far removed from both war and politics. Oddly and even miraculously, a large white-and-purple canvas carefully spread transformed just another auditorium into a sacred place akin to that sacred space I stumbled upon on my way to my dissertation defense back in April.
The moral of pilgrimage is that you sometimes have to travel to find God; the moral of a roll-up labyrinth is that sometimes God comes to you. Early Buddhists eschewed representational iconography, refusing to depict the Buddha’s face or body but instead revering images of his footprint. Don’t revere the Seeker, these images suggest; instead, focus on the Path he trod, and then go about making your own footprints. God indeed sets foot in the actual, tangible world; God himself steps perpetually in your very own footsteps.