I have just had the joy and privilege of being part of a Quiet Retreat Day at Otley Hall on the theme of 'God who is always with us'. During the day we were encouraged to reflect on the words of Angel Gabriel, who, when appearing to Joseph in a dream, announced that Mary's son would be called 'Emmanuel' - i.e. 'God with us'. In the beauty of that place we were asked to identify in what ways God revealed His presence to us in our daily lives.
The feedback was amazing, as participants recalled how, during times of quiet reflections, they had been able to make connections with passages of scripture, books that they were reading, issues they were wrestling with, loved ones that had recently been taken to glory, and being affirmed in the direction that God was leading them.
For me, the opportunity to walk the labyrinth was a wonderful experience, and one that I'm sure I will never forget. It's something that I have known about for many years, indeed I know of some churches that have set up a temporary labyrinth very successfully in a church hall which sadly I always missed out on.
The Labyrinth Walk is the ancient practice of 'Circling to the Centre', and unlike a maze that has many options and dead-ends, a labyrinth begins and ends at the same place, and the path guides you with many twists and turns to the centre, where participants are encouraged to pause and be still before retracing steps back to the entrance / exit. It has been suggested that 'whatever one's religion... walking the labyrinth clears the mind and gives insight. It calms people in the throes of life's transitions'. I understand that it was introduced within Christian circles to provide an opportunity for those who couldn't afford a journey to say Jerusalem, to undertake a labyrinth walk as their pilgrimage obligation.
In the introduction, we were encouraged to slowly walk towards the centre, which could take anything from 10 minutes upwards, and use the opportunity to 'talk to God'. On reaching the centre, we were advised to pause in silence, before slowly walking back along the pathway, only this time to 'listen to God'.
I found it incredible in that I walked particularly slowly on my inward journey, my mind was full of things that I wanted to say to God, so much so that, when I reached the centre, I almost had a feeling of disappointment that there was so much more to say! I was asking myself 'why hadn't I gone more slowly?!' This feeling was quickly forgotten though as I examined the piece of artwork on a plinth at the centre, and was captivated by one of the inscriptions:
'BE STILL FOR THE PRESENCE OF THE LORD -
BE STILL FOR THE PRESENCE -
BE STILL -
What an amazing connection as the opening hymn for our Quiet Day Retreat was 'Be still for the presence of the Lord, the holy One is here'. Given that I'd already been in 'quiet mode' for a good part of the day, it was relatively easy to stand in that one spot and 'be still'. But then, as in all aspects of life, it was time to move on, and return to gathered community, only this time I took great delight in seeing different aspects of these wonderful grounds with every twist and turn (it's a 16th Century house with moat and gardens) and recognising that, with every fresh direction, I could see something new of the beauty of God's creation, and how blessed I felt to be a part of it. Certainly my experience of the labyrinth walk had enabled me to 'clear my mind and given me a further insight into the reality of God with us'.
For those who would wish to appreciate the delights of Otley Hall, they open their gardens each Wednesday from now until 27 September and offer cafe facilities. (11.00am - 5.00pm, although the cafe closes at 4.00pm). You can wander in the Gardens and then enjoy a cup of tea or fresh coffee, delicious cakes or a light lunch and glass of wine in their licenced cafe, and there's a leaflet to guide you through a labyrinth walk. They also run Quiet Retreat Days throughout the year. It comes with a high recommendation!