This reflection recalls a prayer experience that occurred during an 8-day Ignitian silent retreat. On the fourth day, J.M. Hogue’s spiritual director asked him to contemplate the Annunciation. For one of the hour long prayers, she invited him to go to the retreat center’s labyrinth, which follows the same pattern as the one inscribed on the floor of Chartes Cathedral in France. After explaining the theological tradition of associating that labyrinth with Mary’s womb, she invited him to pray the labyrinth as if in Mary’s womb.
Thank you for giving the coyotes a meal that wasn’t me.
We both know they were eyeing me,
a small man,
appearing at least lost if not wounded or crazed
as I turned about the labyrinth in the dark of the night.
Surely I looked like an easy meal as I bumbled about,
groping with my feet to find the brick-lined path.
Thank you for protecting me. I heard the predators howl and terror struck me.
I was in the middle of their woods. I was in the dead of their night.
Yet I was in your womb, that innermost, profound, and sacred space.
Thank you for welcoming me into your womb.
When I thought of praying in the labyrinth,
of praying in your womb,
I rejoiced that I would emerge born of you,
having received a special grace from you,
with the history and memory
of an intimate encounter with you,
with a new bond to you.
But then it dawned on me.
If that would be my exit,
how would I enter the labyrinth of your womb?
I could not violate the Virgin of virgins.
I have no claim to the depths of your being.
How could my spiritual director assign this prayer?
Weren’t there better ways to meditate on the Annunciation?
Couldn’t I leave behind the shocking physicality and still enter the mystery?
How could I begin this prayer if God did not remove this stumbling block?
Mary, looking to you now,
you show me what that stumbling block was.
It was an opportunity to see anew.
To see that God does not disdain our humanity,
but embraces all of it,
all of its fleshiness and earthiness.
To see also my own fallenness,
that introduces perversion,
that cries out from the depths of lowliness
for the salvation I so desperately need.
So there I stood,
at the entrance of the labyrinth,
in the middle of the dark summer woods,
wondering if praying within the labyrinth
as if it were your womb,
the womb of my Mother,
would make me disgusting.
Would it scar me spiritually,
leaving a repulsive wound?
“Mary, may I enter?”
I still can’t believe you.
You said “yes.”
What shocking openness.
What intimate generosity.
What tender permission.
“Fiat, John Michael.”
I traced Gabriel’s footsteps.
I entered the labyrinth.
“Mary, what are wombs for?”
“They are where we are created and formed.
In them, we are called out of nothing and shaped.
We are prepared for a certain kind of existence.”
The mulch sighed as it sank under the weight of my steps.
My feet scuffled along,
over the wood chips,
often scraping against the stony borders of the path.
This was not the meditative, plodding journey
of praying the labyrinth in the daylight.
This place was foreign.
I hadn’t been in a womb for nineteen years.
“Mary, create in me purity, form in me humility.”
The path kept whirling around,
twisting back on itself.
Scarcely could I see two feet ahead of me.
and far more disorienting,
my thoughts swirled.
“How on earth am I to love from the depth of my being?
How am I to give without holding back?
To be engulfed in the mystery of encountering another?
Where in me is the still, small point
that translates that ardent desire
into a gentle reality?”
Finally, after what felt like an eternity,
I convinced myself I was lost.
Surely, I had stumbled over one of the barriers
and sent myself back to the beginning of the path.
The only way to the center
was to march myself there,
leaving the confines of the trail.
“It shouldn’t take this long.
It shouldn’t be this difficult.”
I could have just turned on my flashlight and found out.
I could have just seen by my own light.
I could have banished the mystery.
Fear racked my body.
was too much for me.
The flashlight came out.
My thumb located the switch.
“John Michael, do not be afraid.
Trust just a little bit longer.”
I don’t know how your voice so cleanly sliced through the doubt.
I can’t comprehend how sweet your voice was, how reassuring.
My whole being flexed in order to keep going.
My body steeled itself.
My mind tensed.
The depth of my being stirred.
“Mary, create in me purity, form in me humility.”
What happened next still tickles me.
You sure know how to make a point.
Your love is a little cheeky sometimes.
Ten steps later I arrived at the destination,
the heart of the labyrinth,
the heart of your womb.
Filled with awe,
I saw how right you were:
I had only to trust a little bit longer.
Thanks for watching over me.
Sitting down on a tree stump,
I felt cocooned in your love.
This cocoon was dark and mysterious,
confusing and scary.
This cocoon broke me down as it remade me.
But somehow I was safe.
Noticing how crippling a clutch fear had on me,
stronger than I had encountered in years,
the Crucifixion changed.
The gut-wrenching horror of it appeared anew.
Terror echoed in the caverns of my being.
Yet I knew I didn’t come close
to the full extent of Christ’s pain.
“How did you love your son in such a black terror?
How did you welcome that unfathomable suffering
into the depths of your being?”
“It was by allowing you in that I could love Christ.
I had to be ready and willing to give courageously
to any of God’s children,
to each and every child, really,
in order to care well for the Son.”
“Lord, open my womb.
Let me love others from the depths of my being.
Let me welcome their depths into my depths.
Teach me to love gutturally.”
Jesus was there, in your womb.
“Christ, will you come with me?
Will you dwell in the depths of my being?”
How can I possibly thank you
for giving me your Son?
How can I ever be grateful enough
for the One who empowers me to love,
the One who illumines my depths
and interweaves mine with others’?
Mary, you are a wonderful teacher.
You created much good in me.
You formed me well.
You nourished me
by giving over a part of yourself.
I still have much to learn.
You remember how at the end of my reflection
in the heart of the labyrinth,
I took recourse to my flashlight and ran,
out of the labyrinth and back to my cabin.
That raccoon on the path gave me a heart attack.
Please give me the grace to receive my formation,
to trust in God’s creative and refining work.
I am your son,
I was born of you,
and I want to be like you when I grow up.
Mary, Mother of God, pray for us.
Mary, Mother of us all, pray for us.