I wasn’t expecting this.
& had been wanting to walk the labyrinths at the National Cathedral ever since we learned that they offered this “walking meditation” on the last Tuesday of every month. The nice folks at the cathedral lay down two enormous tarps, one in each transept, imprinted with a life-size labyrinth design. They install musicians on the altar, one with a floor harp and the other with a bamboo flute, who alternately play meditative solo themes and pause in equally-meditative silence. And next to the pair of kneelers flanking the entrance to each labyrinth, walkers are kindly provided a milk crate full of white cotton socks.
I was stuck at work late, again. (I am a government employee, so “late” for me means “past dinnertime and into the evening.”) I’d eaten at my desk, but was not optimistic that I’d finish my project before the walking meditation ended and the compline prayer service began at the cathedral. “Don’t think I can do labyrinths tonight,” I emailed &, “but you should go! Just to sample the experience.”
“Damn, I was really looking forward to it,” he responded. “They’re open till 8:45, I think. I could pick you up late and we could zip up at the end.”
“Then let’s do that,” I replied, figuring that even a quick walk through a labyrinth with work still on my mind was better than missing the labyrinths for another month.
I wasn’t expecting this.
& arrived right at eight o’clock. Neither of us recalled a weather forecast of any significance, but sure enough, the lightning I thought I saw as I walked out of my building was real, accompanied by a rumble of thunder as & kissed me hello and the first few raindrops as we got into the car.
By the time we reached Mount Vernon Square it was raining steadily. By Dupont Circle it was pouring. And halfway up the hill on Massachusetts Avenue, the storm had reached operatic proportions: the solid wall of rain obscured the embassies and the road, and the forked lightning striking the horizon in front of us was almost cartoonish in its clarity.
I had been thinking about work when I got in the car, but as the District disappeared into the rain, my head started to clear. Yeah, maybe I had a walking meditation in me this evening after all.
I wasn’t expecting this.
By the time we arrived at the cathedral we’d passed straight through the rainstorm and come out the other end, fresh and dark and dripping. Enough rain was still falling that & brought the umbrella around to the passenger side of the car, though, and we huddled together beneath it as we made our way through the parking lot to the south transept entrance.
The cathedral was dead silent. A dozen people were walking the labyrinths, another two dozen putting their shoes back on or preparing to pray compline. Suddenly I felt remarkably awkward. Were we seriously going to pull big white socks on over the socks we were already wearing, step onto this tarp full of people shuffling in circles, and follow them?
The bamboo flute piped up and dispelled the awkwardness. Yes, that was exactly what we were going to do.
The music was not my thing, though. (At the time I didn’t think much about why, but in retrospect I realize — of course I’m not going to respond well to a shakuhachi solo.) Piet my ipod came to the rescue: he was happy to queue up my all-Barber playlist, a good dozen different arrangements of the Adagio for Strings. I plugged in my earbuds, let & get a few moments’ head start on me, and stepped into the labyrinth after him.
I’m not a natural meditator. My mind prefers to race rather than rest. So I fixed on my posture as I walked: head high shoulders back measured step. head high? shoulders back? measured step. I have been clumsy my whole life, disconnected from my body in more ways than just my unattended posture and inelegant gait. Tonight, I thought, I will walk attentively, at attention. Tonight I will walk with grace.
(Aha! My mantra had found me! It was so heartening to observe this happen, just as I’d heard it would. Yay meditation!)
I followed the path beneath my feet, measuring my pace as & appeared to race on ahead. He was walking his own labyrinth, as was everyone else for whom I had to step aside and let pass. As crowded as the labyrinths had seemed when we arrived, the privacy of the walking meditation surprised me. Most of the people ahead of us were already on their way out of the labyrinth, but the mutual respect among those still walking was both intuitive and welcome. It was not, I realized as I imagined myself in a royal procession or dancing ballet, the slightest bit absurd.
The playlist shifted to the Agnus Dei, the Adagio arranged for voices. These particular voices belonged to the choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, but their sound was as high-English-gothic as my present surroundings. They could have been singing in the Great Choir of the National Cathedral, right over there. And their timing was perfect: I stepped into the center of the labyrinth just as the Agnus Dei hit the crescendo at dona nobis pacem.
& had arrived at the heart of the labyrinth before me and stood there now. I met his gaze, popped out one of my earbuds, and put it in his ear so he could ride the crescendo along with me.
We listened through to the end of the piece before he spoke:
“I’m not going to get down on one knee–”
I wasn’t expecting this. To my chagrin I started nervous-giggling.
“–because I feel that things like this should be done face to face–”
I should mention that my own face was planted square in his neck at this point.
“but would you grow extremely old with me?”
I told him I would like nothing better than to spend the rest of my days with him. We stood, locked eyes, grinned, and wept. The Adagio started up again on the earbuds. And now the walking meditation was ending: a female voice came over the microphone, announcing that all who wished were welcome, wherever they were in the cathedral, to stay for compline.
We stood there, alone in the labyrinth in the now-deserted south transept, took hands and met each other’s gaze again. And then I realized that there was something in &’s hand.
It was a ring, a silver band engraved with vines and roses around the outside and, in medieval script on the inside, “And she was fayr as is the rose in May.” I slid it onto my left ring finger, where it fit perfectly. “Until we get one made,” he said. “It’s perfect,” I said with eyes shining. “It’s Chaucer,” he said with eyes shining right back, “based on a design in the British Museum.”
Compline had begun, went on around us, and came to an end with us still standing there at the center of the labyrinth. The people in the pews were beginning to disperse. “We should probably go,” I suggested. & resettled the earbud in his ear, and with his arm around my shoulder and mine around his waist, we walked back out of the labyrinth together, two abreast, Adagio in our ears and the night-lit cathedral all around us.
We had the entire National Cathedral to ourselves now. We wandered through the Children’s Chapel and the War Memorial Chapel, admiring the wrought iron gates, the state-crest Jesse Tree tapestry, and the concrete cross made from the shrapnel of the Pentagon after 9/11. Both of us have now signed up to volunteer at “our cathedral,” a place we claimed as our spiritual home from our first shared visit, well before we had any idea that either of us was in search of one. And now we had claimed it again, as backdrop and soundtrack and stage, the scene of our most ceremonial interaction to date. Neither of us stands much on ceremony, but there is surely no better place for even the most private of ceremonies.
I stood on the altar platform where the transept crossed the nave, looked down the length of the empty cathedral, and started to sing. & stood with me as I let loose with the most gloriously-acoustically-amplified Rachmaninoff Vocalise I have ever sung. I filled the cathedral. This was far more to the cathedral’s credit than mine, I assured & afterward, when we had unconsciously reverted to a whisper. “A footstep can fill this cathedral,” I insisted. Nonetheless it was priceless to be able to do so with a Vocalise, from the bottom of my soul and at the top of my lungs.
I snuck a rose out of the altar flower arrangement, a frail-looking one from the bottom rear of the basket that would not be missed. It is hanging up to dry in my kitchen right now, an organic souvenir of the occasion. Which nonetheless can’t compare to the one on my hand, or to the sound of the memory.