On Saturday I walked the labyrinth at St. James Cathedral in downtown Chicago.
If I remember correctly, it was a campus minister who introduced me to labyrinths—in that case, a simple path made of rope and traffic cones on a weekend retreat—and since then they’ve occupied a place in my spirit somewhere in between a treasure hunt and a rest stop. As I’ve moved through different cities and neighborhoods, every few months I’ll suddenly get an appetite to walk a labyrinth, only to discover one waiting within a few blocks. They often show up with just the right timing even when I’m not looking, hiding in plain sight at retreat centers or church courtyards, leaving me grateful like a traveler stumbling upon an inn just as the sun has begun to set.
As a landmark they have a grounding effect, reminding me that the journey to God is one many, many pilgrims have walked before me—in this case, physically walked—and that I’m often benefiting from the work of generations past, both those who built and those who took care. Labyrinths are often hidden but never hard to find, and my failure to discover one in any given place is only ever a matter of my failing to remember and seek. And the sensation of finding one feels a little magical, each one unique to its surroundings, a whimsical lifelong quest.
As a spiritual tool they couldn’t be better suited for me: The inefficiency (in terms of getting from point A to point B) reminds me that efficiency isn’t the goal, the mild movement outdoors captures my attention, and the simple metaphor still hasn’t run its course for my imagination. Whether the center of the labyrinth represents God, or truth, or my true self, or refuge, all my movement orbits around it, pulling me in and pushing me away, and I usually can’t tell in the moment how close I really am. (If you’ve never walked a labyrinth, you might not know that unlike mazes, they consist of only one direct path—no searching or navigating, only following. To quote Peterson’s famous description of the spiritual journey, it’s a “long obedience in the same direction.”)
My experience on Saturday was nothing profound. I stopped by in the afternoon between a dentist appointment and other errands, and that busyness, along with the hustle and bustle of the city, made it difficult for me to be fully present. At least the self-consciousness I felt with so many pedestrians around faded quickly. Still, I’d like to return one day before the city is awake.
As you can see in my photo above, a few city pigeons accompanied me on my stroll. It brought to mind Debbie Blue’s remarkable chapter on pigeons in her remarkable book Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to the Birds of the Bible. Blue explores the use of dove imagery throughout Scripture (and liturgy) and reminds us that, as far as taxonomy is concerned, “a dove is, in fact, a pigeon by another name.” She wonders what it would mean if we imagined the Spirit of God as a pigeon:
There’s hardly a bird that people are more likely to want to shoot and exterminate. People are very often not fond of pigeons. They call them ‘rats with wings.’ They are considered pests who ‘infest’ urban areas. Cities have tried countless ways of exterminating them, usually unsuccessfully. What if the spirit of God descends like a pigeon, somehow—always underfoot, routinely ignored, often despised? …
Maybe the spirit of God is so common—wherever life is, that we don’t recognize it or necessarily respect it. And so we snuff it out sometimes. This does not seem entirely unlikely to me. Maybe this is the explanation—the explanation for why we are unkind, ungenerous, why we ever hate and kill one another. Why we are ungrateful and destructive. The spirit of God is among us, the Holy Spirit, and we often don’t even notice it.
Maybe we don’t notice because we are looking for something pure and white, but the spirit of God is more complicated than that—fuller and richer and everywhere. Perhaps we’ve read the dove wrong—it is not pure as the driven snow. Maybe we get a little hung up on purity. God, after all, created LIFE (everything swarming and creeping, fruitful and multiplying). Maybe the Holy Spirit of God is more creative than puritan. Maybe we are mistaken about what holy means.
The Spirit of God flocking in the park near my apartment, on the sidewalk refusing to flee from my approach, waiting for me in the labyrinth at St. James on Saturday.