By Dan Bryson
Recently, I had the blessed privilege to attend a weekend retreat on Contemplative prayer at Mepkin Abbey, a 3,100-acre plantation turned Trappist Monastery in Moncks Corner, South Carolina. The grounds are a blend of manicured gardens mixed with the unparalleled and untouched beauty that can only be created by God. After perusing the weekend itinerary, the “Labyrinth Walk” at 8:30 Sunday morning were simply words on a page. A “maybe” if I had time. If I could squeeze it in between 6:30 Lauds and 10:00 Mass, I would try and make it. And quite frankly, after getting up at 3:00 the last few days to make 4:00 Vigils, anything that would expend precious energy in the August heat in South Carolina, seemed like something to give more thought and less action to.
Nonetheless I found myself standing in front of the dancing garden of shoulder-height grasses and flowered brush at 8:30. We were being instructed on how to approach the Labyrinth by Lucas, the gracious Anglican priest who was leading our small group. It’s a staggered start to the process. The first person goes, the next in line waits an unspecified amount of time, then proceeds. The process is repeated in that manner until all have entered. “Go at your own pace,” Lucas tells us. “There is no wrong way to experience it. But if at any point you feel you are done with it, and just want out, there is a direct path.” I was the third person to enter in our group of seven.
I step up to the opening of the labyrinth, which is bookended by large stones. I make a promise to myself that I am going to take my time and use what I have learned on this retreat to gain as much personal insight as I can out of this walk. I am here, and I am going to do this with intentionality. As I approach, I feel a sense of reverence and am compelled to bow and make the sign of the cross before I enter.
I told myself as I crossed the grassy threshold that I wasn’t going to make any attempts to avoid anything in my path. Any leaning grasses, fallen brush, stones, or anything else, would just be something to traverse. A minor impedance in a life where we tend to let this sort of miniscule obstacle overwhelm us and ultimately redirect our path. Not this time, I am staying the course.
It wasn’t hard to notice that I was being followed, or perhaps guided by a beautifully iridescent green dragonfly. It was almost like it was leading me through my journey. Stopping when I would pause to look at something, only to continue when I was ready. Being surrounded by all the natural, green, and lush beauty, it would be understandable to really never clearly see anything. An ever-changing amalgam of colors embedded in an ecosystem so perfectly balanced and camouflaged, that to visualize anything for other than just a fleeting moment would be sheer luck. Or perhaps, divine.
My first fortuitous encounter came in the form of a green tree frog. As I got closer, it didn’t even flinch. Its throat pulsing in and out rapidly, with its golden eyes watching my every move. I reached down and bent the reed it was clinging to. It did something so incredibly unexpected; it put one hand out without trepidation and grabbed my finger. At that moment I felt such a connection. It felt like this garden wanted to be connected with something familiar that I had already known. I am actually not sure how much time I spent there. I had been consumed by a peaceful coexistence that didn’t harbor malice or ill will. Nothing commercial or fabricated. It was just there for me. To be appreciated for what it is.
Ultimately, I decided to move forward on my journey, and as I had already begun to expect, my dragonfly was there patiently waiting (now I am aware that this may not in fact be the same dragonfly, but I couldn’t help but believe that it was). I didn’t get far before something captured my attention yet again. An extraordinarily dense, disorderly spiderweb bridging two colorful flowers. It was like no spiderweb I have ever seen. This tangled mesh seemed to have no visible pattern or consistency, and yet made perfect sense. On closer inspection, I noticed a grasshopper a mere inch below. One jump and it likely meant a sizable meal for a hungry spider. A gentle reminder of just how close we are with our own mortality. We are all one “jump” away from eternity.
A few more steps led me to a more conspicuous discovery, albeit another spiderweb. A large orb weaving spider floating in the breeze surrounded by what I can only describe as a perfect framework of a web speckled with remnants of morning dew. Perfect craftsmanship that man could only hope to call his, and yet found so effortlessly in nature. And for that unsuspecting insect who fails to keep his eye on the right path, it means getting stuck in the tangles. Fighting and struggling to find a way to break free. Likely eventually submitting to the stranglehold.
If you’ll allow me to explain a hindsight anecdote; I humanize both spiderwebs. The orb weavers web was this seemingly methodical, symmetrical, and flawless masterpiece. In our culture of labeling, it is likely we would label that spider obsessive-compulsive with this laser-like focus on detail. While on the other hand, the initial spider web was jumbled, messy and chaotic. On the surface, it emanates turmoil. And yet, in their primal, natural states, they both serve their exact purpose, in their precise manner as intended. Without judgment.
As I reluctantly pulled away from the arachnid hypnosis I was under, I realized I was focusing solely on those things that captivated my visual sense. I shifted my focus to my auditory sense. I closed my eyes, felt the warmth from the sun, and completely cleared my head (thanks to my newfound education and fondness for contemplative prayer). I could hear the wind whisking through the grasses, and the subtle footsteps from my fellow retreat mates in the distance. But overwhelmingly, I heard the cacophony of buzzing insects. After a few seconds, it was all that I could hear. This natural melodic humming brought me a nostalgic comfort, like something I’ve known my whole life. I opened my eyes and immediately saw one of these musicians seemingly performing a solo. Now I know it wasn’t the only one creating the ever-present humming, but for just a moment it was the only sound in the world. And just for me to savor.
At this moment, I realized my green dragonfly now had a blue companion to accompany us on our journey through the Labyrinth. They quickly danced and fluttered about, likely passing the time as they waited for me to continue on the path.
The third (and final) eight-legged encounter was quite different from the previous two. I am actually not sure what made me stop and bend down, but when I looked up, I was face to face with perhaps the largest spider I have ever seen. On further inspection, it was oddly misshapen. It took only a moment to realize it was a mother spider carrying what seemed like a thousand babies on her back. They clung to her back, completely reliant on her ability to provide for them. As I wanted to get an uncomfortably close look, she did what any mother would do. She ensured the safety of her babies and retreated into the brush.
So consumed by the experience thus far, I failed to realize I had reached the center of the Labyrinth. Multiple handcrafted benches lie tucked in grassy coves skirting the circumference of the circle. I took a seat on a vacant bench and attempted to partake in the methodology of contemplative prayer that we were all recently exposed to. As the sun warmed the left side of my face, I could smell the heaviness of the humid air. Beads of sweat began forming on my forehead. And as if my request was being inferred, the humidity precipitously dropped and a cooling breeze rushed in, rattling the grasses and reeds surrounding me. I am not sure what made me do it, but I felt compelled to sit at a different bench, so I went and sat on the vacant bench across from me. I looked down and there sat my blue dragonfly on a blade of perfectly manicured grass. It became comforting to know it was there, ready to lead me back “home”. It was as if I had chosen the right spot in the garden. Although, I believe it chose me. I completed my prayers, stood up, and inhaled taking a deep, cleansing breath. I held it in, in hopes it would help slow the world down so I could savor the moment even more.
The walk back was different. I was aware that I had exited on the same path I entered, and yet it felt completely foreign. It wasn’t a matter of mere perspective. It was different. I was different. I suddenly was aware that with each step my shoes and socks were saturated through to my feet. As much as I was in the garden, this garden was starting to become a part of me. My pace was different. In no way was I in a hurry, but I was now walking with a fervor as if I accomplished what I set out to do. In an attempt to slow my pace, I simply outstretched my arms to brush my hands on every part of the path I could. Feeling every blade of grass, every sturdy stalk, every flower bud that hasn’t yet bloomed and provides for the ever-present butterflies, bees and other pollinators. Having this discernment that this would be over soon, it was my way of making a final tangible connection with this gift I was undeserving of, and yet so graciously given.
I made the final turn, and the familiar stone bookends became visible. My bright green and blue dragonfly tour guides decided that their job was done, and they left me to make my exit. I so desperately wanted to give thanks and praise to this new gift of mindfulness. I don’t know if it is possible to adequately do that, so I am attempting to share my experience in hopes that someone else can be a recipient of this gift.
A wise man once told me that you are always aware of God in your life, either by his presence or in his absence. God spoke to me in a way I had never felt and never known to be true. I couldn’t help but to get down on one knee in praise, and without any indication I wept. The tears represented washing away so many years of questions, doubts, insecurities, and iniquities. As I wiped my tears and as I left that path behind me, I knew that The Lord had prepared me for a new path.
Words cannot explain what Mepkin Abbey truly is. It isn’t merely a place you find on a map. It’s an experience. It’s a living, breathing way of life, the antidote for the broken soul. The Truth.