Table Set For You

Welcome to the table! It looks delicious. All set up for you at St. John the Divine. The sign encourages you to “Please Enter, Sit & Touch.”

“Really?” I hung back. I was the only one in this little chapel. Should I really sit at the table? It looked nice, well lit, sounds of dishes clattering and conversation. I was a little hungry. The food was spread on the table. I was thinking this must be some kind of Judy Chicago-inspired womanist art piece. 

So I sat. And pretty quickly noticed that the meal shifted and floated in front of me. The meal on my plate was just a projection on the table.

So cool! I was on a quick lunch break. I had to return some overdue library books (“Happy At Last: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Finding Joy.” Really good!)

I love the Poets’ Corner of St. John the Divine. I had rushed in on my lunch break, sandwiched between two meetings, to experience the beauty of the words etched into the floor.  I LOVE Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’ and wanted a quick moment of peace to reflect on the quote you can find there:

“I stop somewhere waiting for you.” (Is that not breathtaking!)

But I couldn’t find the Poets’ Corner, haven’t been there in a year. Instead I stumbled upon this table — Terry Flaxton’s “In Other People’s Skin,” multimedia art thingy.

As I was leaving the table in the chapel, amused and lighter, I encouraged a couple of young blonde tourists, (German or Scandinavian maybe?) to “please enter, sit & touch.” They looked confused. I pointed to the sign. They still hung back, like I had done.

The space at the cathedral is vast, echo-ey, inspiring. As a rule, churches don’t usually encourage touching and fully participating. Experiencing a church is usually a spectator sport.

But this table, at St. John’s, although it is unreal, is set up for you. It is cozy and warm. Well worth it.

I had been reluctant to fully experience the table. But when I did sit, I sat at the head of the table. Trust is difficult. But ultimately rewarding.

The Labyrinth

I really had a lot to do. I had to finish writing two stories. But as I was dashing out of the Experience Hall, I bumped into my friend, Rachel Harvey.

“Great to see you!” I said. Rachel seemed even calmer than usual. “Love to stay and talk but I gotta’ get to the Press Room.” That’s me — busy, busy — but good busy.

“Wait. First, check out the Meditation Room. I just came from there. You can wear a prayer shawl, walk a labyrinth,” Rach said.

I’m a sucker for labyrinths. So I took Rach’s advice and visited the Meditation Room.

There were shawls draped on almost every chair. There were small gardens and a trickle of a waterfall. Women chatted quietly in pairs. Some sat silently by themselves. Some knitted, some quilted, some wrote and posted prayers on a wall.

The labyrinth was in the back. I slipped off my sandals and set off on my path. I was a little leery. Perhaps there were six people ahead of me. That seemed a little too crowded for a meditative walk.

But I walked quickly. I had to hurry. Deadlines loomed. My bare feet liked the feeling as they hit the canvas. My feet slowed down.

I remembered another time I’d walked the labyrinth. Ten years ago, I’d been with my women’s Bible Study group in the basement of Rutgers Church. It was right after I’d given birth to my twins. I’d been feeling ashamed of my body as I walked that labyrinth in the church basement. It wasn’t returning to its shape after my daughters’ birth.

At the center of the labyrinth then, I’d received a gift — a small rock sculpture of an elephant. “That’s me,” I thought. “I have a sagging once-beautiful body and a sagging once-buoyant spirit.” I had to admit to myself, newborn twins were an incredible joy, but also draining. (Literally, too, for I’d breastfed them for a year.)

I’d felt like a humongous mammal. After walking the labyrinth that day, some of my shame lifted. I’d whispered to my friend Holly at the edge of that labyrinth, “The elephant in the center of the walk was a perfect symbol for me. That’s how I feel. And though I know it’s wrong to call myself an elephant, elephants are beautiful too. Even though they’re saggy, they’re strong. Like that elephant, I can go far. That’s me, the elephant,” I said, smiling.

“It’s not an elephant,” Holly said. “It’s just a rock. Look.” And I looked back at the empty labyrinth and she was right, I’d made up the elephant in the center of the labyrinth. It was only a rock.

So, at Assembly this weekend, I wondered in this crowded labyrinth how I’d feel when I reached the center of the labyrinth. What gift awaited me in the center of this walk? It was the word Peace. I knelt down and ran my fingers over the smooth lines of the small sculpture. There was a small bird in front of the letters. (By the way, it was clearly a bird, I didn’t make it up this time.) I loved that little bird. That animal symbolized me too — darting, flying, hurrying, perched.

‘Great, now that I’d had my spiritual experience — Peace, I really have to get to the Press Room. The stories won’t write themselves,’ I thought.

I encountered an obstacle — a slow walker ahead of me on the labyrinth. I debated passing her. She was exceedingly slow. I had to go.

Then I remembered the Meditation Class I’d had at St. John the Divine with Buddhist teacher Joseph Goldstein. He had told us to walk in the St. John garden mindfully. To be aware of each foot as it hit the pavement. I tried this at Assembly as I waited for the woman ahead of me to hurry up.

I became aware of my breathing. With one step, I inhaled. With another, I exhaled. I slowed down. I felt relaxed as I walked. I tried walking with my eyes closed. I was aware of my breathing with each foot fall — heel, ball, toe. I contemplated nothingness.

Then, I realized something — I was now the slow one. A woman behind me seemed slightly impatient with my tempo. The woman who had seemed so slow was now way ahead of me.

Finally, I left the labyrinth.

I sat cross-legged on the floor. I took my time. I made a quilt square, wrote a prayer on the wall, prayed for others.

Ready to leave, the woman near the exit asked if I wanted to receive an anointing. “Yes,” I said. She put oil in my palms. We hugged.

I walked slowly back to the Press Room. Along the way, I bumped into another friend, Joanne Reich. I took my time chatting with her. I did not rush. The stories I was assigned to write could wait. They would, in fact, write themselves. I had my own story to tell. I advised Joanne to walk the labyrinth.