From my office window today, like most days, I can see the park across the street, birds searching together for food, neighbors walking their dogs. But today I can also see a construction crew pouring a new concrete path in front of Pilgrim Chapel and the parsonage office where I work.
The old path was made up of large, bumpy stones, so the challenge of walking between our two buildings has been to step carefully over large rocks jutting from the ground without spraining an ankle. I’ve learned to walk around the rocks through the grass, rendering the path itself pointless. The old path had appealing form but pitiful function. I’m glad to see the new path today.
I’m reminded of a retreat I took last year in Georgia, at a retreat center located amidst deep woods, walking trails, and a large pond. At the edge of the pond was a walking labyrinth with a path made of fine sand. My first day at the retreat, I walked over to the labyrinth, took off my shoes and socks, and began what I intended to be a peaceful, contemplative walk around the labyrinth. No work. No worries. Just a restful, peaceful sequence of moments along the path.
But almost immediately I stepped on something sharp. And then again, something stabbed my foot. I looked down. Covering the entire labyrinth path were hundreds of spiky round balls, the seed pods from the sweet gum tree above. There was no way to walk the path without stepping on them, no tiptoeing around this problem.
Richard Rohr writes, “Contemplation builds on the hard bottom of reality—as it is—without ideology, denial, or fantasy.” Thinking of this labyrinth, I can’t help but wonder: If I cling to my ideology and ideals, would I see this fouled-up labyrinth and just walk away because it is not up to my standards? If I cling to denial, would I try to tiptoe around the seed pods, insisting I could have my peace without needing to address the problems beneath my feet? If I cling to fantasy, would I walk the path and step on the seed pods, using the power of positive thinking to pretend that the stabbing pain does not bother me?
So my plan for a peaceful walk was thwarted. I had to adjust my expectations. My walk in the labyrinth suddenly shifted to something that felt more like work. This is not what I had in mind. Every step now required me to stoop down, pick up a few seed pods, and cast them out of the labyrinth. But I began to notice that as I curved around the center of the labyrinth again and again, I could look to the outer rings and see my progress, then look at the inner path remaining and see all of the work that remained. It hit me then: perhaps picking up the seed pods had not thwarted my contemplative walk. Perhaps this work had become my prayer.
Perhaps the path to peace is only possible by first recognizing the true condition of the path, working to remove barriers and restore order, and then, only then, after having done the hard work of clearing the path and reaching the center, is it possible to turn and discover a path that is clear, that is open, that is peace. And perhaps the path will not stay cleared. Perhaps it requires ongoing work, sustained attention, and an acceptance of the cycles of things. Perhaps small portions of peace can be found every step along the way.
I don’t know about you, but my life tends to grow cluttered rather quickly and easily. When I reach the end of a year and try to make plans for the upcoming season, I often struggle to clear away all that has accumulated, both in my mental and physical spaces, in order to find time to reflect, give thanks, plan, and dream. But I know I need that time, because beyond all of the other demands of life and ideas for making a living, I know what I ultimately seek is peace—peace of mind and peace on earth.
In other words, I seek a clear path, a better path, a path that is being cleared.
So I know there’s work to be done. Some of the work is like the seed pods: work done in solitude, one small problem at a time, leaning over it, lifting it up, and placing it out of the way. Other work is like the path being built outside my office today: work that requires the help of others, people who know how to help remove large rocks and pave better paths. And we work together in part because not everyone is afforded the ability to make or remake his or her own path. And we work together based not on ideology, denial, or fantasy, but simply from a deep acknowledgement of the work that is required of us right now, on the ground beneath our feet, on earth as it is.
An alum of the Center’s Courage to Lead for Young Leaders & Activists, Andrew Johnson is a writer, speaker and community activist living and working in the midtown area of Kansas City, Missouri. He is the executive director of Pilgrim Center, a public chapel providing an open space where neighbors connect and build a stronger community. For more info you can visit suchsmallhope.com or pilgrimcenterkc.org.