12 October, 2011

Thom's Labyrinth

In the spring of 1999, my wife and I flew to San Francisco where I was to attend a conference on issues confronting American higher education. I was uncertain that I would be able to attend the meeting until quite late which meant I was late registering for the conference. It also meant I was late in reserving a hotel room, and by the time I tried, all the rooms at the hotel where the conference was centered were taken.

The Association had made arrangements with another hotel several blocks up California Street. I was frustrated that it was going to complicate my attending various sessions, but at the same time I was kind of tickled because we would be at the Mark Hopkins on top of Nob Hill. I had heard my mother many times say how my father spoke of having a drink at the Top of the Mark, the penthouse lounge of the hotel, as a young naval officer. In fact, that expression, Top of the Mark, was once a reference to high quality, and I was excited at the possibility of doing what my father had once done.

So on this occasion, registering late turned out to be a good thing. Our flight arrived late too, and by the time we reached the rental car counter, what we had reserved was no longer available. Oh, dear. Would we accept a free upgrade instead? Of course, and we drove off in our Mustang convertible. By the time we checked in at the hotel, it was late evening, and a standard room, as we had reserved, was no longer available. Oh, dear. Would we accept a free upgrade to a luxury suite instead? Of course, and soon we were safely in our room – our very large rooms – on an upper floor looking out from Nob Hill toward Alcatraz Island with its lighthouse flashing and the Golden Gate Bridge to its west.

Sweet. At this point, I’m beginning to rethink my lifetime habit of always being on time. Or more typically, early. It’s polite, but what began as a problematic day had turned out pretty well. Imagine how less stressful my unfolding day would have been had I known that time wouldn't matter.

We packed a lot into this trip. The conference was interesting. Ahem. Okay, the conference was boring, but our side trips – top down, of course – to Golden Gate Park, to Palo Alto, and to Napa Valley were wonderful. And then there was Grace Cathedral.

If we gazed out our hotel window to the left and down to street level, we looked directly onto the front of Grace Cathedral of the Episcopal Diocese of California, third largest Episcopal church in the country. The original church was constructed in 1849 during the Gold Rush, but this upgrade – even then! - was started in 1928 (the Great Earthquake was in 1906) and completed in 1964. It was, of course, beautiful, but what was most memorable was its labyrinth - actually, labyrinths. There are two.

On the floor of the nave was an 11-circuit labyrinth over 40 feet in diameter and patterned after the one (see image above) installed about 800 years ago in the Cathédral Notre-Dame de Chartres (France). The one in Grace Cathedral was actually a woven wool tapestry rug, a replacement for an earlier one that had been painted on canvas. In 2007 the tapestry was, in turn, replaced with a new stone labyrinth installed into the floor of the nave. There is also a terrazzo stone labyrinth outside the cathedral to the right of the front steps.

If you are unfamiliar with labyrinths, they are not mazes. They are not like the mythical one in which Theseus killed the minotaur but needed a clever trick to find his way back out. They do not branch; there are no choices as you walk from outside to the center and then back out - Purgation (the releasing), Illumination (the receiving), Union (the returning).

They are not linear in the traditional sense - which means you tend to lose yourself in them as you move around & back and in & out but, nevertheless, always getting closer to achieving the center. It creates a sense of timelessness in you and usually leads to a meditative state. It helps ground you in the present. It centers you, and that kind of cyclic, in/out, spiraling motion has become significant in my life.

For a few summers now I've been wanting to install a simpler labyrinth – maybe 7 circuits – in my backyard. Alas, there are a lot of things I've been wanting to do. I was to build a fountain also. I’m determined to try again though, and I do keep a small metal labyrinth on my desk that I can trace with a stylus. I even have one on my iPhone.

How dearly I would love to take such a walk outdoors in the early morning to get my priorities ready for the day. To center me. Or perhaps a walk in the twilight would be just the thing to restore those priorities after a tumultuous world has had its way with them in the unfolding of my day. To ground me.

Of this I am certain; you would enjoy such a walk as well. You can never get lost, and you can never be late. We’d all live longer and in greater harmony.

Go find a labyrinth. Serenity awaits.