I have just returned from a 5 day retreat with the Society of Mary and Martha in Sheldon, on the edge of Dartmoor. The site covers 40 acres of farmland, copse and pasture, and is a beautiful and tranquil spot.
On one of the hills overlooking the community there is a full size labyrinth, marked out with slate, the narrow pathways filled with gritty sand. The idea is to walk the labyrinth slowly, following the paths that lead almost to the centre but not quite, then almost back to where you started but not quite, until eventually, with perseverance and patience, you reach the centre. It is a way of slowing down, of centring prayer,and of praying with mind and body.
It had rained during the early evening when I decided to walk the labyrinth. The grass was wet on my walking boots as I climbed the grassy hill up to the plateau cut into the hillside. As I stood at the start of the labyrinth I could see why it had been positioned there: the view of the surrounding countryside was stunning. Green rolling hills, separated off into small fields by darker green hedges, which at this time of year arebursting with blackberries, sloes and rosehips. There couldn’t have been a more English scene, and yet it made me think of another hilltop view, thousands of miles away. I thought of the homestead in Kaphunga, Swaziland, where the teams we have taken have been privileged to enjoy the generous hospitality offered by Nomsa Lukhele. An evening ritual for each of the teams we have taken has been to stand outside in the early evening and watch the sun go down behind the beautiful rockymoutains.
I found myself taking off my walking boots and warm socks, and thinking: “I’ll walk this for the children of Swaziland”.
I placed one very white foot on the narrow path at the beginning of the Labyrinth. Heel first, then slowly lowering down my toes, and feeling the grit press into the soles of my feet. I took one slow uncomfortable step after another, collecting pieces of gritty wet sand as I went along. I’d imagined that after the first few minutes I’d get used to it, but it became even more uncomfortable, the pieces of grit feeling even sharper as they joined forces with others along the way.
I thought of the children we’d seen at the feeding station at Kaphunga, walking great distances, barefoot, over rocky terrain, to get the only meal they will have that day. I thought of the very young children carrying even younger brothers and sisters on their backs. I remembered the 6 year olds searching in the dusty bushes at the feeding station for old plastic bags to fill with left over sandwiches for their siblings.
I thought of my own children’s feet. How I would love to put their perfect little toes in my mouth when they were babies. I remembered their infectious chuckles when we played “This little piggy” with their toes when they were toddlers. And how proud they were when they took their first steps in their first pair of shoes.
I remember watching a little group of children leaving the fun day our team had organised at the feeding station at Kaphunga last year. They were all barefoot, their clothes full of holes, and they were rushing to get back to wherever they called home before dark. I don’t think that for most of them there would have been anyone there to wash their dusty feet, or to marvel at how much their feet had grown.
I began to get frustrated with the Labyrinth. Just when I thought that I was getting near to the centre, the path would take me right back to the edge. My feet were cold now, the grit was starting to hurt, and it was nearly time for dinner. So much for centring and slowing down in prayer!
When I finally reached the centre I placed a piece of white stone taken from this very English hillside, and said a prayer for those I have met on a very different hillside.
For Nomsa, whose no nonsense and generous hospitality has given warmth and safety to countless orphans over the years
For the volunteers at Kaphunga, who faithfully walk miles to visit children in remote homesteads
For all those shoeless children who are dependent on the generosity and kindness of others for their survival
For teenagers who take great care over their school uniforms, and often run miles to get to school each day, as they nurture their dreams of going to college, and of maybe one day coming back and making a difference in their community.
And then I looked back, and saw my walking boots waiting for me at the edge of the Labyrinth, waiting to take me to a hot shower, and my evening meal.
Just like the plane tickets and the passports that wait for us back at the hub, to take us to comfort and safety. Miles away from the barefoot children of Swaziland.