by Cynthia Ries
Spring arrived in Cleveland yesterday. The weather was gloriously warm and it propelled me to tend to my garden. Five years ago I transformed my concrete-covered backyard into a contemplative garden complete with my very own labyrinth. It’s a source of joy for me throughout each season.
My garden was in pretty bad shape though. The unrelenting winds off of Lake Erie had toppled shrubberies and the dogs dug holes all over. Shriveled leaves cluttered corners. Plants left to grow brown were broken off and matted down. And my lovely five circuit labyrinth needed a lot of attention. So I pulled out some of the weeds, raked the limestone to make the path more even, and put stones back in place. And then I walked.
I thought back to the June day when it was installed and how I fussed over it that first year to make sure the path was raked and clear, that nothing obscured my walk. Now I laugh because my lovely little backyard labyrinth is a metaphor and teacher for my own path in life.
This time I left some of the weeds and plants that were growing in the path, and some of the stones I left in a different place. And I added some sea glass pieces given to me by my California friend into the turns. I realize now that I love what my labyrinth has grown into. It has grown with me over these five years. It’s not the same and I am not the same.
It’s fitting for me to have this backyard labyrinth, because the labyrinth is what gave me the conviction to pick up and leave a 25 year career in NYC to move back to Cleveland and reclaim my Uncle’s home as mine. It’s not where I grew up, and yet it is now very much my home. And my garden and labyrinth is what made it feel like home and helped me grow roots in a new city. It grounded me to a new sense of place and discovery.
If you are new to walking a labyrinth, the basic instruction is: “releasing on the way in, receiving in the center and returning when you follow the return path back out of the labyrinth. Symbolically, and sometimes actually, you are taking back out into the world that which you have received.” My decades in NYC were transformative, but it was time for me to return back home and to grow in different ways. Walking helped me process what I knew to be true in my brain to then resonate deeply in my heart.
I am blessed to be part of a wonderful spiritual community called Veriditas, whose mission is to introduce people to the labyrinth. We organize pilgrimages to Chartres, France, to the cathedral womb of one of the world’s most famous labyrinths. It’s a powerful experience to be there and walk its inlaid stone labyrinth dating back to 1201. Chartres is where I connected all my life stirrings and came to understand that I could make a big life change.
One night on a pilgrimage, our group had the cathedral all to ourselves. We prayed silently in the ancient crypt below the cathedral, then wrote what it was that we were releasing on our walk onto a slip of paper. I walked down the corridor and placed my paper in a burning bowl. Then, as I went up the stairs into the cathedral I saw the candlelit circle of the labyrinth. It was that night and at that walk that I found the courage to release my present life and walk into the future on a new path.
Hildegard von Bingen coined the word Veriditas, loosely translated as “the greening power of God’s healing.” Her work and inspiring words are what the labyrinth is all about. It’s what I have come to learn from trusting my own path, and trusting the walk that I have been called to walk, whatever condition it is in.
Weeds and all.
Trust yourself, trust your own will;
and trust the devotion in your own soul.
~Hildegard von Bingen
[Cynthia Ries is Executive Director of Greater Cleveland Community Shares and teaches nonprofit management at NYU and the New School University. She is a member of Marble Collegiate Church and serves on the Board of Directors of Veriditas. She lives in Cleveland, Ohio.]