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NOLA HERE WE COME?

Leaving Jackson the other day, with no scheduled stops that day, I set off in the direction of New Orleans, looking forward to what would be one of my only tourist stops on this leg of the LaA tour. “A walk taking in the charming architecture of the French Quarter…maybe a glass of something in a music bar?” I mused to myself. I was looking forward to the possibility of chilling in this wonderful city for an hour or two, and the satnav indicated that I’d arrive in good time for supper.

But I had quite a strong feeling when driving south that I should head toward Baton Rouge, not NOLA. The sense didn’t go away, so I followed my leading. A case of my head wanting me to go one way, but my gut telling me to go another.

En route, I found a place to lay out the labyrinth and perform my little prayer ritual (in Walker, LA). The cows looked on, while folks started to arrive in the church car park nearby (none disturbed me, or perhaps even noticed what I was doing). Dusk was falling, and while storms and the possibility of a tornado had been forecast, all was calm while I walked around the labyrinth, the sun breaking through the cloud for one final, glorious appearance of the day.

The next morning, I went into the centre of Baton Rouge, laying out the finger labyrinth in various locations around the Louisiana Memorial Plaza, which stretches along the left bank of the Mississippi. I don’t know why I was meant to come this way, and in the event never got to a bar on Bourbon Street (or perhaps Chartres Street?) before it was time to move on from the NOLA area, but I felt very content that I had gone to the “right” place.

I will, God willing, have another chance to visit the Crescent City in this, the year it celebrates its 300th birthday.

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BREAKING BREAD

A labyrinth walk that I hosted the other day had , in part, served as a replacement for a Eucharist service at the church I was visiting.

En route to the church, it occurred to me that I could offer a loaf of bread that had been kindly given to me by a gentleman that I’d met at a walk in another city, search out a bottle of grape juice, and invite anyone who wanted to to take a piece of bread as they began they reflection in the labyrinth. The juice was available when stepping out from the labyrinth’s path

Some did join in this slightly unusual approach to celebrating the Eucharist (I’d offered a simple blessing when the bread was first broken, but otherwise, this was a very informal invitation when compared with the church’s litergy, which I understand and totally respect might not have sat easily with all).

I think, though may be wrong, that a feast usually separated the initial offering of bread and final sipping of wine at a Jewish Passover in millennia past. Perhaps the same might have been true at the time of the Last Supper?

When the flow of walkers quietened down, I noticed that there was still quite a lot of bread and juice remaining. I’d taken my shares earlier, but felt that I could make room for more. “Go right ahead!” seemed to come the invitation. “There’s no limit to how much of “me” you’re welcome to take!” And this, for someone who doesn’t describe himself especially as being a Christian!

Given that at times in churches where I’m a stranger, some serving the bread and wine have seemed reluctant to offer me even a wafer (“Are you a believer?” they want to know), this sounded to me like very reassuring affirmation!

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THIS SPACE, THAT PLACE (DEATH ROW)

Pastor Lynn is one of the folks in churches, mosques, Buddhist temples, community organisations, special needs groups and more that I cold called some weeks back, offering to bring the labyrinth to their door. Lynn was one of the very few who not only replied, but showed a genuine interest in the venture.

Moreover, she broke off in the middle of what I’m sure was a much needed holiday to welcome me to her church, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Montgomery, in Montgomery, AL.

A generous spirit and keen appreciation for the labyrinth was obvious among others who came to our walk too – from the touching food gift that was given to me for my journey as I left, to the deep knowing about the labyrinth’s connecting and grounding power of the chaps who stepped out of their yoga and meditation groups to be with us.

Lynn’s hospitality extended to sharing a light lunch with me earlier in the day. There, she spoke about her powerful ministry to inmates on Death Row at a prison not far from the city.

In Alabama, more than 100 men who are awaiting execution are held in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours each day. Lynn, or one of the very few other friends who are able to visit, might be the only friendly face they see each month (most are never visited by family or others).

I know there are many who would argue that they fully deserve such punishment, and that in the often many years that they await execution, society should “throw away the key.”

Having been affected when i visited a former execution chamber at a prison in my own country a few years ago (albeit, capital punishment was ended in the UK many years ago), I respect, but do not hold that view, and couldn’t help reflecting on how I might feel were I incarcerated in a small space, perhaps trying to come to terms with the crime I may have committed. A labyrinth would surely help.

I then suggested to Lynn offering printed (finger paper) labyrinths for the men to have in their cells, and that she might be able to say a little about what to do with them when she visited.

Of course, this isn’t as straightforward to bring about – understandably, the prison has very strict rules about what may be brought inside, such as no paper and (very likely) no books for the prison library that might be considered to have a spiritual or esoteric focus.

I have an idea for opening up the possibility of making the labyrinth available “inside” that might be acceptable (I don’t feel that it’s right to say too much about this just yet) – and that possibly might meet with the prison’s rules.

I’ll need to do some work on this when I return to the UK, and sound out my idea with Lynn. I awoke at 3am following my time at UUF Montgomery, with the idea still burning inside me, so I feel that it is worth trying to put up this kite, to see where it may fly.

Lynn attended an execution in her old state of Georgia a year or two ago, where she was also a friend to inmates. I can scarcely imagine the impossible task of facing those who strongly oppose her (and the family of the condemned man), the media scrum (the execution was reported in the media of 17 countries), prayers for the safe and peaceful release of the spirit of the man who was strapped to the gurney, and of course the loved ones of the victim, who were doubtless reliving and struggling to come to terms with their grief. This seems to me to be a situation close to hell, and is one in which fiercely divided opinions, brokenness and a search for understanding must have been paramount. To hold the pain of all in her heart and prayers is exceptional. In my view, Lynn is one remarkable lady.

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WILL IT FIT?

One advantage of placing the labyrinth in a large hall that many folk use to access or leave a building is that the 24 foot square big green and cream canvas is hard to miss. In such surrounds, it becomes a focus for questions and grabbing a flyer, if not for walking. When music is playing, people are walking, and a calm and serene air fills the area, for many, stepping on to the labyrinth’s path becomes irresistible.

This was the case yesterday at First Congregational Church of Winter Park in Winter Park, FL, where my excellent host, Frank Faine, had worked wonders to allow the labyrinth to be laid out for walking either side of the church’s busy Sunday morning service.

The service itself was a special one, held by the youth of the church, whose focus was on confronting fear, made all the more poignant following the terrible events that had left 17 dead, many of similar age, in the Majory Stoneman Douglas High School just a few days previously.

One invitation of the students was for individuals to write a prayer on the back of jigsaw puzzle pieces, that had been handed out during the service. Many of these were later placed at the centre of the labyrinth, providing a space for reflection (for those who wanted this), and an opportunity to collectively offer them to the Great Divine.

A PASTOR’S PASSION

I’ve met a few labyrinth-loving pastors along my journey so far, but few as passionate as Pastor Todd at Rockledge United Methodist Church in Rockledge, FL. Todd is a labyrinth facilitator, and also is making several canvas labyrinths, not to mention being a keeper of an impressive library of labyrinth books.

So it was no surprise for me to receive the warmest of welcomes in the close-knit community here yesterday, nor to find that others had caught Todd’s passion (“we are very lucky to have him, ” said more than one of those who came to the walk to me).

Precious experiences of walking the visiting labyrinth were shared by some and questions were answered for those taking whatever was on their hearts into the labyrinth’s centre, while I was not alone in feeling touched by a sense of serenity and peace.

All too soon, the big green bag was packed back in its bag, and we were on the road again. Thank you Todd, and all who came to walk the path yesterday.

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FOR THE LOVE OF A SEAGULL

Nearly thirty years ago, one brave woman and a man quit their job as an interior designers and landscape architects to set up a rescue center for seabirds. They had started by nursing one injured seagull in their kitchen, and later saved more than 1,000 birds following an oil spill.

Cindy is a remarkable woman and Andy a remarkable man, as I found out today when I visited the sanctuary that they now run on Big Talbot Island, joined by my great Jacksonville facilitator, Kathryn MacLean. We were deeply blessed to be able to visit the BEAKS sanctuary at a time when it is closed to the public following Hurricane Irma, and to be afforded a tour by Cindy, despite her busy schedule.

The center runs on love and all work falls on Cindy and Andy’s shoulders and those of just a couple of others. The stories that she told were remarkable, real miracles and rewards of gritty perseverance against all the odds (such as “chance” meetings that helped secure the land where the sanctuary lies, and giant aviaries that were spared by Irma when trees were falling all around).

Birds of all kinds – eagles, pelicans, osprey, turkeys, ostrich, and many more – have found a safe home here (some even fly in themselves, knowing that this us a hospital built especially for them). I had wanted to learn about the center, not only for my love of seabirds, but to meet Cindy, who is a rare example of someone who has gone where she felt led. I wasn’t disappointed, and have come away feeling very inspired.

The center served as a resting place for the portable labyrinth and prayers for the site and its residents yesterday. This was one of a number of stops for the smaller labyrinth, including along the trail toward the Bone Yard beach, where I was deeply conscious of the fragility of nature. The trees that lie across the end of the trail seemed to say to me that I could look, but not touch the beach. It seemed a very simple way to honour the Great Mother.

Journey note: Excepting possible handling by UPS, yesterday was also the first time to my knowledge that the labyrinth travelled on a boat – making the short but glorious crossing between Mayport and Fort George Island.

#BEAKS www.beaksbirdkare.org

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REFLECTIONS IN THE PARK, REMEMBERING THE AFFECTED OF DOUGLAS HIGH SCHOOL

A pre-planned walk in Fernandina Beach, Florida, last night offered a simple but important opportunity for people of all faiths (and none) to come together to share a few moments of prayer, silence, reading, and sharing ahead of an invitation to take their thoughts, questions and search for understanding into the labyrinth.

The walk had been quickly arranged by the inspiring Veriditas facilitator Christine Platel, whose breathtaking work in so many community fields might rightly earn her the title “The National Inspirer” (the name of a magazine that she founded, and used to single-handedly edit, produce, market, and distribute).

Christine persevered against all odds to bring a permanent labyrinth to the park, where the Amelia Island Labyrinth Walk community now attracts several hundred members, while hosting regular walks.

We were joined for the reflection and walk by another great labyrinth ambassador, Kathryn MacLean, who was a major inspiration for the Labyrinth Around America venture.

Individual voices, hugs and reflections brought home to me just how close to home the tragedy that the dear people of Parkland are feeling is for those who are or know teachers, school janitors, dinner ladies, and of course the pupils.

As we tried to begin to imagine how those who have lost loved ones, or whose lives will never be the same, a few words from John O’Donahue seemed especially poignant: “(we learn that) there is a time for everything, and for healing too. But that now is not not that time…yet. ”

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TIME OF REFLECTION FOR VICTIMS OF THE MARJORIE STONEMAN DOUGLAS HIGH SCHOOL SHOOTING: TONIGHT AT FERNANDINA BEACH, FL

Ahead of tonight’s labyrinth walk, if you are in the north east Florida area and able to, please join us for a time of reflection and prayer for victims of the Douglas High School shooting in Parkland yesterday. This will be a simple interfaith/’no faith’ time of prayer and reflection.

We will start at 5.15pm (ET) at Egan’s Creek Park, 2251 Atlantic Avenue, Fernandina Beach, FL 32034. Both the permanent labyrinth at the park and the Labyrinth Around America labyrinth will be open for walking and reflection.

 

END OF PART TWO

Sadly but necessarily, I’m spending my final couple of days in the US for a month or two, setting my course eastward for the Christmas period to be with my family and others back in the UK.

The past six weeks have been far more powerful than I could realise. Miracles have happened every day; lessons, insights and occasional challenges have featured strongly. Many hundreds have walked, discovered, asked questions about or been touched by the labyrinth in each of the 13 states (+ DC) that it’s visited since this second leg set off from Massachusetts in early November.

I’ve had a strong sense that seeds have been sowed and new connections formed in many of the communities that I’ve visited – not unusually, plans have been afoot for introducing a labyrinth, or one has just been installed where I’ve been. For others and for me, there’s been encouragement to enjoy fresh experiences with the labyrinth, and to have our eyes opened ever more widely to the boundless mysteries that the labyrinth holds.

From remote farmland in western Virginia to a sunny school field in South Carolina, from the windy wide sidewalk of Brooklyn’s Cadnam Plaza to the very center of The National Mall, the large, small, and even smaller labyrinths that I am accompanying on this long journey have made their mark.

My hope is to return to Florida, where this current leg is ending, sometime in February, to start the journey westward. This will most likely be a brief leg, taking in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Of course, I’ll be very grateful for any suggestions that you may have for where the labyrinth may go along that route.

In the meantime, my deep thanks for all the wonderful people who’ve hosted and received me, welcoming and supporting both the labyrinth and I along our way. Thanks to the many who’ve come to walk, including many for the first time. Thanks to the weather for being kind. And thanks to The Great Divine who makes all this possible, and Who alone knows what the great purpose of all our journeys is.

Until February, or whenever I may return…

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