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the website for a selection of writing by Stuart and Beryl Donnan
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written by Stuart
January 2011

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website updated on 18 September 2016

Grace Cathedral — a personal pilgrimage

The introductory paragraph was written for when the piece was published in the British Quaker magazine "The Friend"; the final paragraph quotes from Harvey Gilman's earlier piece in that magazine.

In early autumn last year my wife walked the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, for the third time. Although this was of immense significance for us, I had not thought of sharing this through The Friend until Harvey Gillman's poem appeared in the issue of 14th January.

Beryl first encountered that particular labyrinth in 1996 when I attended an international bioethics conference. This was an important part of her pilgrimage (and mine) through a variety of church and spiritual traditions. But then in 2000 she suffered a stroke which severely disabled her — the loss of reading and writing was more devastating than moderate physical disability. She had to learn, and go on learning, about faith and spirituality with few words, and with an increasing importance for remembered experiences and words. Her physical recovery meant that she used a wheelchair only in airports, and we were able to get back to Grace Cathedral in 2002 after fulfilling some family responsibilities in Australia.

We visited on a late afternoon, with the sinking sun brightly illuminating the windows on one side. The organ was playing quietly, and the cathedral seemed empty. We removed our shoes, and Beryl set off unsteadily but purposefully to walk all the winding narrow path into the centre. I watched from the side, with churning emotions, while she negotiated the numerous tight turns, and then I stood with her briefly at the centre before she set off on the outward path. I had my camera, and was thrilled to be able to take a photograph of the empty cathedral with just my dear wife stumbling slightly on her way.

And then — horrors! — several other people suddenly appeared (younger and older) and started clomping in and out around her on the labyrinth, spoiling her solitude (and my photographs). I took a few more photographs anyway, and then — in one of those moments of grace that we all experience from time to time — it suddenly dawned on me that this was a real picture of the real world. We are all in this together (and that idea is much too true to let it be hijacked by modern politicians). Young and old, fit and unfit, are all on pilgrimages, and the more we are aware of each other (as well as focused on our own footsteps) the better it may be for us all.

Having visited the original version of this labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral in the meantime, we were able to get back to Grace Cathedral last year, maybe for the last time, who knows? It was midday so the light was coming through all the windows; the cathedral seemed almost empty again, and Beryl walked alone (not by choice this time). But a young woman joined as she was finishing, and we gladly sought out others to talk to — being aware, in Harvey's words, of the light which urges our feet and theirs.