• Karl Thunemann

A Pilgrimage to Grace Cathedral

While visiting my parents in the late 1990s, I offered to introduce them to the labyrinths at Grace Cathedral. They had a history with the place, It was there--thirty years earlier—that  my father had been ordained as a perpetual deacon in the Episcopal Church in a ceremony  conducted by  James Pike, the controversially liberal bishop of the San Francisco diocese.


Grace Cathedral was an epicenter of the fascination with labyrinths. It had two labyrinths; the intricate structures rediscovered in the medieval cathedrals of Europe … caught the imagination of the mid-20thcentury. …

My wife and I attended. We had smoked marijuana the night before, and the lingering effects sent us on a high, fueled by the grandeur of the cathedral and medieval apparition of the new deacons thumping the stone floor with their substantial wooden staffs. We were amused by the older woman sitting nearby who harrumphed, when Bishop Pike began speaking, If I had known he would be speaking, I wouldn’t have come!


Twenty years later my father was an elder in the church, serving a congregation in Santa Rosa, fifty miles north of the city. Grace Cathedral had become an epicenter of the fascination with labyrinths. It had two labyrinths; the intricate structures rediscovered in the medieval cathedrals of Europe that caught the imagination of the mid-20th century. One Grace labyrinth is inside the basilica; the other, outdoors on the plaza, commands a view of downtown San Francisco and the bay.






I had made two visits to the Grace labyrinths. Once with my wife. Later, while traveling alone, I stayed in a motel on Van Ness Avenue and caught an early-morning cable car up California Street to the peak of Nob Hill. The early-morning scene was breathtaking: Chinatown is nearby, and the cathedral plaza was thronged by people practicing qigong. After walking the labyrinth myself, I sat and watched. Two older Chinese women walked circuits of the labyrinth, talking intently and ignoring the intricate twists and turns of the path toward the center.


I thought of practicing tai chi myself, but I was too shy, afraid I might be the object of merriment. So I simply sat and appreciated this intersection of spiritual traditions.


My parents were not meditators, but I thought they would find interest in this aspect of the church they called home. They had become Episcopalians around 1960, when their children were grown. They seemed game for this outing. We would spend most of the day in San Francisco, visiting the cathedral and lunching at Fisherman’s Wharf.


On the labyrinths, both seemed entranced, even charmed, but we did not talk about the experience until the next day. I don’t remember if we discussed the cathedral and its important role in their lives.


In the morning, my mother and father came to breakfast with focus. They wanted to tell me that after talking it over, they had decided the labyrinth was not for them. They elaborated, but the message was simple. They appreciated my sharing this tradition with them, and they clearly did not want to hurt my feelings. I did not feel rejected or wounded. It seemed like the first time in my life—I was just past 50—they had ever expressed concern about what I might think of them. I found this touching and expressed my gratitude for their concern about my feelings. Privately, I was struck by their underlying rigidity, on the verge of fear that opening a door to the labyrinth might prove hazardous to them.


Years later, I would think of this episode marking the last time my parents and I ever had a serious discussion about our personal beliefs and boundaries, mixed with concern for our reciprocal affection. And today I place it in a different context. Both my parents had manifested some symptoms of cognitive decline, * and they were less than five years short of the day on which a new doctor would diagnose them both with Alzheimer’s disease. Perhaps the labyrinth provoked a rising sense of the oncoming juggernaut: their fear of the unknown and valiant efforts to fend it off.


For me, this story poses two morals. May I continue learning to embrace the unknown. And may I strive to provide others with legitimate occasions for merriment. Just guess which looms as more difficult.



 * My wife points out that difficulty with balance often accompanies cognitive decline. If that were a factor for my parents, they may have felt unsteady trying to follow its turns and sudden reverses, and understandably felt that it was not, after all, for them.

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