Sunday, February 14, 2016

Finding Grace at Grace Cathedral

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The entrance to Grace Cathedral sits high atop many stairs on the corner of a busy San Fransisco intersection. From the moment I walk through its ornate doors, I sense a calm, quiet hush. Standing there in the dim coolness, with the filtered light slanting through the magnificent stained glass, I am greeted by a large, framed document mounted on a pillar. These are the words I read:

Perhaps you quietly dropped by wanting to reconnect in your relationship to God.
 Or to confess shame. Or to surrender a burden. Or to pray for a loved one. 
Or to bask in the beauty of holiness. Or to meditate on a hard personal dilemma.
 Or to find a moment of peace. A cathedral has a high ceiling and long aisles 
to allow the contained soul an opportunity to venture forth in multiple directions....

If you are passing by and feel that life is fragmenting into a vast number of
 irreconcilable, shattered pieces, then please know that Grace holds an 
outrageous hope that, in God alone, all aspects of life are in unity.... 
This unity exists in the brave hope of those who worship God. 
Grace seeks to keep this hope of ultimate unity alive. 
So we are called to extravagant hospitality "to all sorts and conditions" 
in the confidence that a gracious welcome is central to a cathedral's purpose.

I find myself blinking back tears. I had not expected to be overtaken by such emotions.
I had strolled in as a tourist, exploring the city for a few days with my husband, kid-free. But these words are touching something deep, dredging up pain, fear, frailty, insecurity.

These words unearth parts of myself that feel shattered and fragmented, tender and raw.  It leaves me feeling open and vulnerable, as if all the hard, carefully tamped-down soil has
been overturned and plowed under.

I take a few steps forward, out into the open cathedral and my eyes naturally and inevitably draw upward. For a moment I am stunned by the awe and wonder that washes over me.

With its arches that soar so far above, they are lost in shadow and the richness of its 32 stained-glass windows that splash a beautiful, color-soaked light over everything, Grace Cathedral entreats its visitors to slow down, to reflect and listen, to come and see. Standing there, in that expansive, wide-open cathedral, with my freshly-tilled heart, I feel God's presence. I feel deep connection, welcomed by the Spirit's "extravagant hospitality."

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Grace has an enormous labyrinth inlaid in the floor that draws many visitors. Everyday people slowly and meditatively walk these paths, passing through the rainbow-tinted brushstrokes at their feet. 
I stand off to the side, fixed in one spot for quite some time, mesmerized by their movement.
Round and out, then a few steps in toward the center, then weaving away from the center,
following the path through many twists and turns.

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A familiar verse comes to my mind, one I have sung in many choirs. 

When true simplicity is gain'd, 
  To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd,
To turn, turn will be our delight, 
  Till by turning, turning we come 'round right.

 As each person enters, they advance toward the center, but soon their path has veered to the left and they must travel for some distance in a long arc that seems to be carrying them no closer to the center. Indeed, during some lengths of the journey, the traveler walks not toward but away from the center, and it is only later that their path winds them back. Twisting and turning. And I realize something: every step they take is slowly, but most assuredly, centering them--bringing each to the heart of the labyrinth.

There is a prolonged stretch where the travelers walk along the outermost paths of the labyrinth. Surprisingly, it comes just before the final turns that lead to the center. As I watch one man walk slowly along this long outer arc, through shadowy patches so very far from that inmost circle, my blurry, jumbled thoughts slowly clarify and an idea begins to take shape. I wait in the stillness for my soul to focus in, to discern what the Spirit is trying to communicate. And it eventually distills to this:

There are invaluable lessons to be learned on that outer rim,
those times when we feel far from God
or are lost in our own dark places.
 Lessons that cannot be learned any other way or in any other place. 
Lessons that, like gravity, will unfailingly pull us back toward our center, our home.

The dappled light painting the floor catches my eye and leaves me pondering the workings of a kaleidoscope.
How through the simple change of a lens,
a mere quarter or half turn, an entirely new view is before us. 
A completely different array is opened to our eyes. 
It's the same eyes, the same light, the same surroundings, but then there is a shift, 
and to our utter amazement we can see things we have never seen before.

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It strikes me that the labyrinth is a very fitting representation of our life on Earth.
Each and every person has their own labyrinth, their own walk with God.
And like a fingerprint or a snowflake, no two designs are the same- 
they are uniquely suited to each and every individual.
Nothing about my lived experience ends up being straight or simple or detour-free.
But, I am learning that what I think are detours are not actually detours at all.
Chances are this unexpected turn or about-face is exactly where God wants me to be.

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When "Life" happens, when things occur that we would never choose, when that first hairpin turn finds us unsuspecting and woefully ill-prepared, it feels as if something has gone terribly and irrevocably wrong.  It can leave us with shattered dreams and broken hearts, believing that all is lost.
It can cause us to question everything we thought we knew about God and His promises. 

My own hairpin experience was extremely disorienting and led me to a lengthy stretch on that outer rim. There was so much grief I could hardly feel anything else. At times, I lost hope and faith and any trust in good things to come. Looking back, it seems more than a little melodramatic to me,
because I feel so differently now. But, it was truly a dark and lonely time,
the one season of my life when I felt abandoned and forsaken.

Though it was the last thing I expected, I learned more about God and His true nature 
during the months that I was angry at Him than all my preceding years. 
Those times when I wanted to be distant from God because it just hurt too much. 
The times when I felt more like shouting than praying.
Those times when sorrow turned into despair and bitterness.
That is when I learned that God is patient--really, really patient. 
And full of mercy and long-suffering. 
That is when I was given, without measure, the most all-encompassing,
unconditional love I have ever felt.

To Him who can see my whole beautiful and winding labyrinth, that hairpin was no mistake. In fact, it is the opposite thing entirely. It is the thing that in His Grand Design would lead me to exactly where He wanted me to be. The thing that would transform me into the person He wanted me to be.

My own experiences with hairpins and outer rims and everything in between have taught me that God is not just IN THE CENTER. God is in every turn, every stretch, whether near or far, every curve that feels like a detour and especially in those places where we feel lost, abandoned, and afraid.

Standing in Grace Cathedral, watching the travelers weave and wander,
God gave me a rare peek through His kaleidoscope. And this is what I saw:

No matter where we are on this labyrinth, we are ENVELOPED in Grace. It is everywhere around us. We could not escape it if we tried. It is the air we breath, the ground beneath our feet, and the roof soaring over us. It is in the darkness and the light, it is in the "good" and the "bad".

This inspired prayer of Thomas Merton is a perfect benediction to my experience:

My Lord God, 
I have no idea where I am going.

I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.

Therefore will I trust you always though

I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. 


  1. What a beautiful analogy. Thanks for sharing! I particularly enjoyed Thomas Merton's prayer.

    1. Thank you Jen! I just heard the Merton's prayer in a podcast I was listening to and knew I had to include it.

  2. Beautiful! Your taking the time to put emotion and thought into words to remind self and to give the rest of us a beautiful insight is a gift of love. Another tangible evidence of the Lords love. Giving us the chance to experience a portion of what you did and allowing yourself to revisit over and over.

  3. I just re-read this and enjoyed it even more than the first time. Again, thanks for sharing!