This story starts around lunchtime on Thursday. Well, really, the story probably starts way before that — maybe the summer I spent traveling California during college or that day I left a staff meeting with fire in my eyes and found my way to the labyrinth at the Cathedral on Peachtree Road. Who knows.
Anyway, this part of the story starts around lunchtime on Thursday.
It had been a fabulous 27 hours in San Francisco. I’d walked the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral (a bucket list item), walked my way through Chinatown, Little Italy and Fisherman’s Wharf, found several of the geocaches I’d scoped out before my trip, ridden a cable car, driven over the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge, explored Berkeley and Richmond and toured the now abandoned Mill Valley campus of Golden Gate Baptist Seminary — where I would have studied if I hadn’t gone to Southern Seminary.
I’d seen the That’s So Raven house, the firehouse from The Princess Diaries, Nob Hill, The Palace of Fine Arts, Golden Gate Park including an amazing mural inside the visitor’s center that contained a clue to yet another cache. I’d watched Pacific waves roll to shore and felt the breeze off the bay.
By lunchtime on Thursday, I only had two and a half hours left before I needed to be back at the hotel, showered and dressed for the first meeting of a three-day bioethics symposium. I’d read about a cache with a great view of the Golden Gate and decided that should be the last stop of the day. I made my way to the Lands End visitor center in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
In the visitor center, I noticed a picture of a labyrinth I’ve seen hundreds of times before — the labyrinth at Lands End. I had no idea this was the location for that labyrinth. This labyrinth is breathtaking — 11 circuits built on a flat spot that sticks out into the Pacific just above the rocky beach and in full view of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Suddenly I was absolutely persuaded that what I needed to do was hike to that labyrinth and walk it. (Never mind I was without my hiking shoes or my trusty walking stick or any sort of real plan.) According to Google maps, the visitor center was only 0.6 miles from the labyrinth — piece of cake. I definitely could do that in an hour and get back to Berkeley and get to my meeting on time. No problem.
“According to Google maps, the visitor center was only 0.6 miles from the labyrinth — piece of cake.”
I set out to, as the visitor’s guide says, “walk north along the edge of the city — and the continent — on the Coastal Trail.” The views were spectacular. I kept my eye on the map and kept walking. And walking. And walking.
Finally, I arrived at the point where the trail split and the left turn would take me to the labyrinth. And then I saw them. Stairs. So. Many. Stairs. (Reading about the labyrinth later, I learned there is a 1,300-foot elevation drop from the top of the trail to the beach. That might have been helpful information before I decided to start a crazy hike.)
Well, I’d come this far and I definitely was not stopping now. OK, so my knee hurt a little and I was hot and sweaty and about to be out of water. But come on — the Lands End Labyrinth was within reach. So I started down. And kept going down. And down. I came to a place where the trail seemed to split again. The trail to the right went up on a sandy path. The trail to the left kept going down stairs. I couldn’t tell from the map which one led to the labyrinth, so I just made an educated guess. (And frankly, chose the path I could live with. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to climb back up if I kept climbing down.) I went to the right. It was a short hike straight up. And it opened onto an amazing vista. And from that vista, I could see the labyrinth — far away on the other trail.
I wasn’t going to make it there. Definitely not today. Maybe not ever, because who knows when I will next be in San Francisco. More than 30 years had passed since my last visit. And 30 years from now I’ll be 81 — not likely I’ll make the hike that day either.
This beautiful, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity was not going to happen. I hadn’t planned, trained or equipped myself to have what I needed when this labyrinth crossed my path. This was, plain and simple, defeat.
I couldn’t believe defeat was the appropriate outcome. Well, crap. And then another horrible realization hit me. I still had to hike all the way back to the car. Double crap.
I’ve thought about that moment of realizing defeat a lot in the last few days. I’ve looked at this from two different angles.
On one hand, an amazing opportunity came to me and I screwed it up by not being prepared. I could have worn better shoes and started earlier in the day and, for that matter, trained for months to be physically ready for the climb. I didn’t do any of these things.
On the other hand, this opportunity didn’t come at a time that was right for me. Yes, labyrinths are important to me and my spiritual life. And yes, this is one of the most incredibly located labyrinths in the world. And no, I probably won’t have a chance like that again. But the truth is, this challenge was beyond my physical abilities. If I had continued pushing to get to the labyrinth at all costs, the cost could have been severe. I could have fallen or really messed up my knee or had a heart attack. No labyrinth experience, no matter how idyllic, is worth any of that.
“This opportunity didn’t come at a time that was right for me.”
When Bruce and I lived “down east” in North Carolina — before kids — we kept an overnight bag in the trunk of our car. It had basics — clean underwear, toothbrushes and toothpaste, deodorant and a day’s worth of medicine. We kept it there just in case we were out somewhere and decided to stay, spend the night, explore.
Now I’m wondering what would be the spiritual equivalent of an overnight bag in the trunk. What do I need to keep with me to be prepared for the next amazing opportunity?
While my trip to San Francisco was life-giving and a welcome respite from my regular routine, it also was chaos-inducing. There were too many choices and not enough time. Maybe in my spiritual overnight bag I need to pack some time for planning and editing. There is no way to do it all. Maybe what I really need in my bag is discernment and contentment.
Also, and this is a tough one for me, I need to pack a realistic, non-judgmental assessment of my strengths and weaknesses. Demanding more of myself than I can possibly give is not good stewardship, it is just self-abuse. I need to be willing to say, “No, I wish I could but I really can’t” more often than I do.
At the end of the day, I am thankful for the labyrinth lessons, even this one from a labyrinth I couldn’t walk. I stand in awe to think that the Great God of the Universe loves me enough to go with me down wrong paths, keep me company as I struggle and give me a new chance every single morning to live into the fullness of God’s mercy and grace.
May this same mercy and grace go with you wherever the next adventure takes you.
Cathy Payne Anderson serves as a clinical chaplain in Kennesaw, Ga.