The Labyrinth’s Work

Standing at the labyrinth arch, I always hesitate. I know I’m about to do something holy, something hard and holy, something expansive. The small wooden arched frame strains to hold up the heavy grasping honeysuckle vine. It has taken years for the vine to conquest the lattice sides, once covered by paint, now faded and worn. But, the weary looking frame has done its job by guiding the wild native vine to make an opening, a way in, a way into the holy.

Taking a few deep cleansing breaths, I reach up to brush the small metallic wind chime hanging down from the top of the arch and let its gentle chime announce my entrance. I’m always surprised how easy the second step is and wonder why the first step was so challenging. All I really have to do is put one foot in front of the other, stay between the limestone rock circular lines, and choose one burden at a time to fall off and out of me onto the path as I pass.

The winding circuitous path is just narrow enough from side to side to keep me focused on staying within its boundaries. Yet, the frontward distance seems ever lengthening, ever expanding inviting me, almost pulling me forward. Behind me, the path also lays long and limitless with only my burdens marking the distance.

The longer I walk, the lighter I walk. Lips and feet now in sync, my forward movement becomes a prayer. The center can’t be too far now. My heart tightens and releases as I struggle to lift the last few secret hidden burdens and drop them along the labyrinth like a trail of dense, dead rocks, the last few the heaviest of all.

The center is the holiest part of the labyrinth. In the center of the center a sacred tree stands with roots penetrating deep and wide into the earth reaching places dark and mysterious while the tree’s trunk, branches, and leaves stretch upward and outward reaching limitlessly toward the sky. I touch the trunk and close my eyes. Deep brown red flows before my closed eyes. I am grounded.

Sitting on one of the tree stumps, I settle down to see what is left of me, now that I’m temporarily empty of all those heavy burdens, which are strewn like bread crumbs along the labyrinth’s circular path. I sink into the center under that sacred tree, empty and open. Time becomes inconsequential; the air feels heavy and sweet. The Spirit moves and fills. Something within me shifts, sometimes a flutter of insight dances by, sometimes a warm peace stirs. A healing infusion of presence soaks in. I’m full and ready.

I don’t even have to think about putting one step in front of the other. Now, I’m leading with my heart, not my feet. I approach that last heavy burden I dropped now sitting on the path where I unloaded it. I invite it along for the walk. Then, I move toward the next burden. When I dropped it, all I felt was its denseness, its dead weight. But as I walked by and invited it and eventually all the others along, they became the beautiful image of my mother or my friend, a work puzzle, an opportunity, a creative challenge, a new point of view.

I giggle. No one else is around as I lightly follow the limestone layers, first this way and then that, so I sing. Out loud, I sing what I see on a rock, how I’ve got peace like a river flowing down those long narrow paths. Love like a river, joy like a river flowing round and round in my soul.

Approaching the wooden arch, I touch the chime to announce my exit of the labyrinth and my entrance back into the world.  I know I’m about to do something holy, something hard and holy, something expansive.

Rev. Tina Newberry


Being Mercy – Creating Spaces of Welcome and Transformation

From where I sit, now, maybe more than at any other time in history, especially the history of the United States, there is a need for ministries like Mercy Conference and Retreat Center and the other retreat centers of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas.

We live in a world that is a place of division – I am Republican or Democrat, Christian or Muslim, U.S. citizen, immigrant or refugee.  We need places where one can say “I am a part of the human family, a child of the Divine.”

We live in a world that is constantly inundating us from all sides with information (fake and real), often in the form of tweets and sound bites.  We need places where one can stop, listen deeply and reflect clearly on what matters, with opportunities for silence and opportunities for sharing in more than hash tags and 140 characters.

We live in a world that focuses on accomplishment and requires constant human “doing” to achieve what, for some, are the minimum standards of food, clothing, and shelter.  We need places where one can be a human “being” and where those opportunities are not unavailable or limited because of one’s ability to afford them.

We live in a world where those who serve are constantly giving of themselves and never finding space for self-care, space to attend to peripheral or direct PTSD, space to create any type of internal emotional or spiritual reserves or resilience.  We need places where one can unplug, recharge and renew, and then return to the world replenished for the work ahead.

I believe that this state of the world in which we live impels us – as the Gospel and the examples of Catherine McAuley and the Sisters of Mercy impel us – to create a welcoming space – sacred, healing, transformative – in an environment that is filled with beauty and connection to the earth and where all the obstacles are removed that would prevent a person from being able to just be.  Here they experience hospitality and care…to sleep if that is what is needed…to think and reflect on what is deeply meaningful alone or with one of our staff…to walk or pray, write or create, whatever is needed for that person.  And in making that space available to an individual or a group, we are part of bringing about the healing of our world.  We are a part of creating the change we want to see.

What makes us “Mercy” is the way in which we do what we do.  It is all the things that we believe matter – collaborative, empowering, accepting people where they are, offering the welcome and hospitality that Catherine would have offered were she here.  It is about doing everything that we do with excellence and with an attention to the whole person as part of the whole of creation.

It is the building and grounds which are indeed sacred space and which hold the spirit and prayers of all the Sisters who walked, prayed, learned, lived and served there.  And to that heritage is added each day the life’s journey of each one who comes through our doors – who feels the exhale the moment they come up the drive and who naturally quiet their voices and look up at the stained glass windows of the works of mercy as they enter and walk through our chapel.

What I see as essential is:

  • Welcoming each individual as he or she is, not as we might want them to be. It is being present, listening to and focusing on the whole person and how we can be most supportive from their perspective. It is being thoughtful and creative in our response.
  • It is creating a space for transformation where people can grow into their full potential as human beings cherished by God and recognizing that it is for God and them to discern what that is.
  • We create the space – God does the transformation. For me, that means that it is sometimes the smile, the kind word, the comfortable mattress, or the right temperature in the meeting room – as much as any input or presentation we may offer – that opens a way for the Spirit to be at work in a person’s life.  We can’t control the outcome.  What we can do is be Mercy in the moment and in collaboration with the Spirit.
  • And all of these characteristics not only apply to our guests – they need to apply to how we are with our co-workers, our Board and volunteers, and our sisters.

I believe that in order to sustain the ministry, and the challenge, is to be relevant and to be agile and adept to respond to the needs of the people of this time.  Structures can sometimes be helpful or hinder us in this regard.  Histories, as well, can sometimes hold us back from what is possible.  Language and how we describe who we are or what we do can sometimes invite and other times exclude.  Part of our role, I believe, is to celebrate our heritage and not get stuck in it, so that we can be present to what is now before us.

In order to be relevant in a rapidly changing world, we must no longer come from the place of build it and they will come or depend exclusively on the ways in which people have found us in the past.  We need to go out into the highways and byways and talk with individuals and groups.  We may need to look at language like a space for respite, to unplug and recharge instead of exclusively naming something a retreat or day of reflection.  We may need to be open to taking our retreats to those guests who can no longer come because they are in nursing homes or repurpose talks and make them available through some form of podcast because people are working full-time, caring for children and aging parents and don’t have the time to come to us.

We want to be open to conversations with other nonprofit organizations and groups to not only learn what the needs for respite and renewal are, but to have a way to reach out to and connect with their clients, staff, and boards.  In strategic collaboration we grow in what we offer and whom we serve.  We also create a possibility for financial support for programs which might not otherwise have been available.

And what about those millennials who don’t consider themselves religious or even spiritual and yet who have a passion for peace, nonviolence, social justice, care for the earth and making a difference in the world…all those things that we associate with the Sisters of Mercy?  How is it that we reach them and listen to their needs and create a space for them as they seek to do good in the world? I don’t know about you, but I haven’t been a 20-something for a very long time, and may not know what will be the place of connection for them.  It means not making assumptions, but educating ourselves, reaching out or inviting people in and asking…what would be meaningful for you.

Even though we are in a very different world than when our ministry began 40 years ago, we are still living out of our roots in Mercy – offering hospitality in the spirit of Catherine McAuley so that anyone who comes through our doors knows that he or she is welcomed, invited into our sacred space and grounds, and held in prayer and tended to with care for whatever their purpose.  And whether that space and grounds are always physical, whether it is on the campus or out in the world, the form may change but the spirit of Mercy remains.

I feel humbled to be called and totally committed to lead a ministry of the Sisters of Mercy and continue this legacy.  I love this prayer from the Mercy Spirituality booklet published in 2011:  God of Mercy, we pray for courage to see the needs of the world in which we live; for prudence to know those needs which we can address and for wisdom to respond in ways that address the needs and maintain the dignity of all.  And I believe that the God of Mercy is responding – these ministries are mine…here…now…trust in me and I will show you the way that I need you to be Mercy now and in the future.

Dawn Stringfield, Executive Director