We’ve passed the Autumnal equinox and are now plunging head first into darkness. Or that’s what it seems like to me. If I’m honest, September 21st through December 21st is my least favorite quarter of the year. Each day, we lose minutes of daylight. I love the Winter solstice when we can celebrate the return of the light, and the Spring equinox when the balance changes and the light begins to take over more and more of each 24 hour cycle, until June 21st when it might as well be noon at 9pm. But in my 33 years I have not made peace with the darkness that creeps in slowly to dominate the greater part of our waking hours for the three months following the Autumnal equinox. I recently came across a description of this seasonal lack of light which afflicts northern climates in a novel I was reading: “In Shirley Falls the days were short now, the sun never climbing high in the sky, and when a blanket of clouds sat over the small city it seemed as though twilight began as soon as people finished their lunch, and when darkness came it was a full darkness. Most of the people who lived there had lived there all their lives, and they were used to the darkness, this time of year, but that did not mean they liked it” (The Burgess Boys, by Elizabeth Strout). Amen, I thought. I may have grown-up here and returned after college. I may not want to live anywhere else and I may be used to this darkness, but I don’t like it.
In a fortuitous coincidence, I spent this Autumnal equinox on a day-long retreat at the Shrine of St. Therese in Juneau. Our women’s book group at the Cathedral had long wanted to do a retreat, and when the opportunity arrived for a dear friend of my mother’s to come in from down south to facilitate a labyrinth retreat for us, it seemed perfect. The morning of the retreat did not seem perfect, however. I didn’t want to wake up early and get out of bed on my one day where sleeping in is a possibility. I didn’t want to spend the day outside walking in circles in the rain. But I went because I wanted to spend the day with women I loved, and I wanted to eat the soup my mother was bringing for lunch, and I wanted to explore the labyrinth—an ancient prayer form which I had little experience with.
Despite its common associations with mazes, there is actually no way to get lost in a labyrinth. The windy path may confuse you with turns and unexpected bends which will bring you close to the center and then far away in a matter of steps, but on a labyrinth, if you follow the path, you will eventually make your way to the center, and then after a period of reflection, you will make your way out again. Prior to the retreat, I hadn’t understood the point of labyrinths. Maybe I was trying too hard to have the kind of experience I thought I should have (always a killer to prayer). Maybe I was afraid to abandon myself to this experience. And so on this first walk our facilitator, Twylla, asked us to just be open to what was, with no expectations. One by one she started us on our way, until all 18 of us were traveling the path at our own pace, all on very different parts of our journey, and yet journeying together.
My mother was the first to enter the narrow way. I hung back, on the outskirts of the labyrinth, watching in silence as the women walked. And I was surprised. Far from being anxious or bored, waiting for my turn to begin, I realized I was already there with them. I felt the Holy Spirit whisper, See how your mother walks. There she is on the path. See how calm and purposeful are her steps—she’s not afraid of this journey. How quickly she comes near the center, and how quickly she leaves it again to the outer rings. The journey is long, and after my own first curves I realize I didn’t know where I was anymore. How far am I? Where will I go next? And the whispering of the Spirit, Go slow. Go slow. Be present.
And as I tried to sink into this moment of walking with presence I noticed moments of peace and joy and moments of anxiety. How much further? I wondered. And the Spirit assured me, Be here, with your feet on this simple path. The rain came hard and then passed, but we kept walking, arranging a hood or a scarf as we went. Soon, as the women reached the center and then began their way out again we began to pass each other. And as I stepped aside or offered a silent hug I thought, I love her. I love her. I love her. And then I imagined God saying the same thing in such delight and joy and love, or maybe in grief or compassion: I love her. I love her. I love her.
And then, just as I was about to reach the center, I paused to hug a woman who was coming out, and she broke the silence to whisper in my ear, “Did you see the rainbow?” So I stood in the middle of the labyrinth and turned my body toward the bright colors in the sky over Amalga harbor, and I heard, I am there in your sorrow and your joy. I am there in the sunshine and the rain. And the question I didn’t even know I had been asking is thrown up at me in stark relief, Can I, in my joy and my depression be oriented to the rainbow of faith and grief flung together? Can I look for the beauty in the darkness?
Sometimes what is, is. There is sorrow and grief in this broken world and we all must die. And in the midst of it, we often don’t know where we are: Close to the middle? Circling the outskirts? And there is the chaos of not-knowing: How much further do I have to love this path? To love my grandmother and my mother on this path? But I do know that the ground of our being is Love. This Holy Ground that sometimes looks like a mud pit and other times a garden is really the great I AM the constant One, who supports us in the Light and in the darkness. And now is a time of darkness. Can I celebrate it? Can I welcome it?
Later on, looking through some of the reference books on Labyrinths which Twylla brought, I read about suggestions for walking the labyrinth during the Autumnal equinox: “This is the day to celebrate the return of the darkness; it is a time of slowing down, of getting ready to burrow into the earth. Unfortunately . . . we have lost touch with our need to wind down, to replenish, to rejuvenate. . . . Let this walk be slow and calming with no tasks, no thoughts, no agendas. Sit peacefully in quiet meditation. If possible, take a nap in the center. Walk out as slowly as you can” (Labyrinths from the Outside In, by Donna Schaper and Carole Ann Camp).
Oh, to take a nap, and rest and be in the center of this love and to allow myself to just feel the sadness that comes upon me this time of year. There is a blessing in mortality. There is a blessing in darkness. There is a blessing in sorrow and loss. Perhaps it’s the shadow side of joy and love and the deeper we feel one the deeper we must feel the other. Perhaps it is a sharing in the Paschal mystery and the Cross of Christ.
In the Atrium last week with my 9 to 12 year-olds, I led a meditation on the great Plan of God, to bring all of creation to the full enjoyment of God. Afterwards one of my sixth graders who is an altar server asked me if we could go over to the church. “Of course,” I said, “What would you like to do at the church?”
“I would like to carry the cross,” he replied, referencing the cross that is carried in procession by an Altar server at the beginning and the end of the Mass. “Whenever I carry the cross,” he reflected, “something inside me wants to carry it more.”
Perhaps the darkness is my cross in these bleak months. Maybe in being present to carrying it I could learn to want to carry it more. Or maybe I should just build a labyrinth in my yard.Katy Beedle Rice is a mother, wife and Director of Religious Education in her home parish, the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She shares her writing at http://www.blessedbrokenshared.blogspot.com.