Journalist Sally Quinn at home
Photo: Juliana Sohn

Washington journalist, hostess, and all-around power player Sally Quinn wasn't what you'd call a believer...until a family crisis led her to create a sacred structure that's brought her faith, hope, and clarity.
I am lying at the center of my labyrinth, my arms and legs spread out. I'm breathing quietly, taking deep breaths, letting them out slowly, at first consciously, then naturally, without thinking.

I don't want to think. I want to be still. I want to be at peace.

My labyrinth is at the top of a wooded slope overlooking St. Mary's River in southern Maryland. It is flat, 50 feet in diameter, constructed of pale gray concrete with a darker gray design etched into it. The circle itself is surrounded by a collection of gray stones from the river, which in turn is enclosed in a square of gray slate. The pattern of the labyrinth is a circuitous path that ends at the center in a rose pattern, symbol of the feminine, of beauty, love, and the divine.

Walking the labyrinth is different for everyone. For me it is a form of meditation. It is also a path to the sacred.

On this warm, cloudless day in mid-September, I lie with my eyes closed. I absorb the sounds of the birds in the nearby trees, the rustling of leaves, and the rhythm of the waves lapping along the shore. I take another breath. And another. I wait for the tears but they don't come. I have an odd sensation of being totally embraced, totally filled with love.

I have just buried a vial of my mother's ashes beneath the river stones at the entrance to the labyrinth. My mother died only a few days ago. Now that the funeral is over, I am here alone, grieving for her in my own way. I loved her more than anything in the world. I don't know any mother and daughter closer than we were. I could never imagine being without her. Now I am.

This labyrinth has sustained me through many crises. Around the circle are buried cherished mementos: My late father's Buffalo nickel from the Korean War; a crystal rose from my son, Quinn; a small replica of the Indian god Ganesh; a crystal with healing energy; chunks of stone from the labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral from which this one was copied.

And now my mother's ashes. I kiss my fingers and touch the spot where I buried the ashes.

In medieval times, when many Christians were unable to make the pilgrimage to the Holy Land, to walk one of the labyrinths inlaid in the naves of European cathedrals was a spiritual metaphor for taking that journey. Whenever I walk the labyrinth, I begin by standing still at the entrance. The path winds to the center so you don't ever get lost. The idea is to get found. Often I'll stand for a while concentrating on something troubling me, then clearing my mind. This time I wondered if I wanted to go on living without my mother. I felt dead inside. I asked her for help. Mother, tell me what to do. Send me a message, a sign.

I entered and walked along the path almost in a trance until I found myself at the center of the rosette. This would be the first time I had ever lain down in the center—as if in total surrender. I don't know how long I lay there, maybe two or three hours. My mind was empty.

Suddenly I was infused with a force or energy I had never experienced before. My whole body began vibrating with a sense of overwhelming joy. What was most shocking was that I was in a state of extreme sexual arousal. I put my hand between my legs and the sensation was electric. I was stunned. I laughed out loud. This was not at all what I expected. I felt more alive than I ever had in my life. Mother? What are you telling me?

My mother was a beauty, a Southern flirt, sensual, in love with men and with life. "Life goes on, darlin'," she seemed to be saying. "Live for the moment."

"I will, Mama," I promised. "I will."

I had been an atheist all my life. Even at age 6, when I was forced to go to Sunday school, I never believed in God. My mother tried to bribe me with a beautiful blue silk dress she'd made for a Sunday school pageant. My father told me that if I didn't go, he wouldn't let me go to the premiere of Disney's Alice in Wonderland. I didn't believe he would be that cruel, but he didn't let me go to the premiere. At 13 I learned the word atheist and announced to my parents that's what I was. My journalist father went to Paris on assignment and brought back a pair of French high-heeled shoes—my first. He said he would only give them to me if I went to church. I threw scruples to the wind and walked proudly down to the front pew in my fancy new shoes. I didn't believe a word of what I heard. My Episcopalian father couldn't believe I didn't believe. But I just didn't get it.

What I did get was owing to my mother's Southern upbringing in a tiny Georgia town called Statesboro, about 60 miles west of Savannah. There were two religions practiced in Statesboro: traditional and occult. We would go to the Presbyterian church, where my aunt Ruth McDougald played the organ. The people who worked for us went to the black Baptist church across town. But it was what went on after church that we all really believed in: a combination Afrocentric–Scottish Highlands form of religion involving astrology, palm reading, psychic phenomena, ghosts, voodoo, hexes, Ouija boards, talismans, and amulets.

I remember once talking to a friend who asked me how I could possibly believe all that nonsense. I asked her how she could believe all the nonsense in the Bible; she was shocked speechless.

My husband, Ben, is a traditional, non-churchgoing New England Episcopalian. But when we got married, he was horrified to actually hear me say that I was an atheist and implored me not to announce it in public. In those days it was a dirty word. It's only slightly more acceptable today.

Then our son, Quinn, was born. He was born with a hole in his heart.

When he was 3 months old and dying of heart failure, the doctors decided to try to close the hole. He weighed only 8 pounds. He had about a 50-50 chance of living. Chaplains and social workers kept coming by the day of the operation to ask if I "needed" anything. I brusquely told them no. That evening, before his surgery, I went down to the hospital chapel. I didn't know exactly what I was going to do. But I didn't know what else to do, either. I sat there for a long time in the quiet. Maybe I was waiting for God to appear and comfort me. Finally I said, "Please, God, don't let Quinn die." Nothing happened. I didn't feel anything. No sense of comfort, no feeling of being embraced, no relief at putting it in God's hands. Despondent, I got up and left. I felt sort of embarrassed. I never told Ben about it. Later he told me he had been walking that day past St. Matthew's Cathedral and stopped in and prayed for Quinn. I didn't try praying again.

Quinn had nonstop medical and learning problems from then on. Some were life threatening. We practically lived at Children's Hospital in Washington, D.C. He went to special schools and still didn't do very well. He had problems making friends. He was even diagnosed by one therapist as being hopelessly retarded; she went so far as to reserve a space for him at an institution. His school and Children's Hospital doctors disagreed and he stayed where he was, but it was clear his problems were more severe than those of most of his peers at the school. Still I didn't pray.

For years I'd gone to a spa in California for a week in May. One year, when Quinn was about 10, they told me they were having a candlelit walking ceremony that evening for the labyrinth they'd just built. It sounded too New Age for me, but they kept saying how walking the labyrinth had changed people's lives, so I went. The labyrinth was on a hill above the spa in a grove of graceful live oak trees. There were about 20 of us, with candles around the trees and music. I didn't have an epiphany, but I did find it a surprisingly pleasant experience. The next day I kept feeling a pull toward the labyrinth, which I shrugged off. The following day, I went up there alone. We'd been told to concentrate on something important to us, so naturally I concentrated on Quinn. I entered the labyrinth and walked very deliberately toward the center, holding an image in mind of a normal, healthy Quinn at the beach. When I got to the rosette, I sat down in a yoga position and opened myself up for whatever experience I might have. Again, I lost track of time. The California fog lifted; the rays of the sun warmed my back. I was soothed by the slight breeze caressing my hair.

Only then did I notice it. Standing alone in the circle of those beautiful live oaks was the most stately pine tree I had ever seen. It was tall and full, its branches spread out as if to enfold me and the entire labyrinth. "Yes, I'm different," the tree seemed to be saying. "But I'm as beautiful if not more so than the other trees." It was Quinn. Yes, he was different. But to me he was the most beautiful of them all. The tears came streaming down my face as I looked at that gorgeous tree and saw my gorgeous little boy, smiling, his arms outstretched, reassuring me that he was going to be just fine.

Was it spiritual, enlightening, clarifying, religious? I don't know. All I know is that it changed forever the way I looked at Quinn.

A year later I was anticipating going back to the spa, if for no other reason than to walk the labyrinth. Quinn had had a series of cognitive tests that spring; he had one more to do, the most crucial of all. The doctor called to say that the test had been scheduled for the week I was to be at the spa. Ben convinced me he could drive Quinn to the hospital himself and wait for him. So I went. At the appointed hour of his test I went up to the labyrinth alone and walked it, keeping an image in my mind of Quinn doing well on the test.

Several weeks later the hospital called with the results. We expected the worst and we got it. He had done poorly on all the tests. "There was one amazing thing, though," said one doctor. "Quinn scored higher on the last test than anyone else we've ever given it to." "What was that?" we asked. "The maze," he said.

I dissolved into tears. He wasn't lost at all. He was found.

After that I knew I had to have my own labyrinth. The spot I chose on our property on the St. Mary's River was formerly Indian sacred ground. As you walk up the slope to where the labyrinth overlooks the river, the air seems to shimmer even on the dreariest day. I invited about 20 friends to join me for dinner and Champagne at a dedication walking ceremony on a July Fourth weekend. It had to be July—my birthday is July 1. As the moon rose and the stars came out, I led a procession up the slope to a brightly burning campfire. Now it was totally dark except for the candles outlining the path inside the labyrinth, the moon reflecting on the river. I asked everyone to write down something that was an obstacle in their lives. Then we threw the notes into the fire. At the entrance to the labyrinth, I said: "May each person in pain find comfort. May each person who is broken find healing. May each person who is hungry and thirsty find they are filled. May each person who longs for peace find serenity. May each person who is challenged find strength for the demands ahead. May each person who is lost trust the path. And may each person walk this labyrinth, discovering an openness of heart and spirit, recognizing that we all walk the Path of Life together."

My friends, swathed in white, solemnly and reverently walked the path to the center. I knew them all so well. I knew what was in their hearts and minds, what each one's pain was about. I wanted them all to be lifted up, overwhelmed with a sense of peace.
Before the labyrinth, I'd never really had an understanding of the sacred or the divine. Now I did. I realized I had already experienced it. Making love to someone you love and who loves you is sacred. Certainly, giving birth to Quinn and having those beautiful, trusting eyes look up at me as he nursed was as close as I could imagine to experiencing the divine. And I began to understand that nobody gets off easy. There is suffering—or as the Buddhists say, dukkha—for everyone.

I felt different about people I didn't like than I had before the labyrinth; I saw them now as people in pain rather than one-dimensional bad guys. For the first time I saw how religion and spirituality could help people out of misery, give them comfort and serenity during hard times. I saw what that meant to them, and I could respect it. Not that I didn't see, too, that a lot of evil in the world was caused by religion. Yet much of it was caused by a lack of understanding of one another's beliefs or point of view.

It was shortly after the dedication of my labyrinth that I had lunch with Jon Meacham, Newsweek editor and dear friend, who is one of the brightest, most decent, and wisest people I know. Jon is a believing Christian and a religion scholar who went to Yale Divinity School. I told him for the first time that I was an atheist. He disagreed with me: "No, you're not." We talked for three hours. He said two things that turned my life around. First he said, "You don't ever want to define yourself negatively." And second, "You don't know anything about religion. If you're going to be an atheist, you should learn about religion and make an informed decision." He gave me a reading list. I began that weekend. How embarrassed and ashamed I was at how little I knew. It was shocking.

One thing that came out of that conversation was a strong feeling that we were not covering religion at The Washington Post as thoroughly as we might have. Religion, after all, touches everything: politics, foreign affairs, the environment, abortion, gay rights, women's rights, stem cell research, death, and, most important, the way we live our lives. I proposed to Don Graham, CEO of the Washington Post Company, that we start a Web site on religion. With Jon Meacham agreeing to be my co-moderator, On Faith was launched almost two years ago. It has become an extremely popular site, I am happy to say. Not a day goes by that I am not informed, entertained, stunned, impassioned, absorbed—you might even say consumed—by the intense exchanges on religion and spirituality I see on my website. What questions could be more important than: What is the meaning of our lives? Why are we here? What should we be doing with our lives? Where do we get our morals and our values? Who is right and who is wrong? How do we get through the suffering and pain? How do we find happiness? How do we make it through the night?

I find that everywhere I go now, people want to talk about faith or religion. This is incredible for Washington, D.C., a city where it has always been a taboo subject. Years ago a legendary Washington hostess declared, "My dear, one never discusses religion at a dinner party. It is simply not done." Today religion is all anyone wants to talk to me about. I find myself in corners at cocktail parties having serious talks with friends about their beliefs or their lack of belief. The other night, after the inevitable conversation began, a friend asked me if I had faith. At first I was tongue-tied. Usually I am asked if I believe in God. I've got an answer to that question now—which is that God is different things to different people. My image of God may not be the personal God so many pray to. But, yes, I do believe in the everyday preciousness of life. That is what I call God. But faith. Do I have faith? That I hadn't contemplated. What I think is that I do. I have faith in myself, in the fact that I aspire to be a truly good person, and that I can be if I work hard enough at it. I have faith that it's not what you believe but how you live your life that matters. I have faith in my ability to love and be loved. I have faith that if I try hard enough I may, in some small way, through my website, help people of different religions and no religion to understand each other better and therefore be more compassionate, forgiving, able to reconcile. Most important, I have faith that helping other people is the true key to fulfillment. Certainly to mine.

I've learned a lot. Each book I read is a reminder of how little I know or ever will. What I do know is this: Finding this path has been the most exciting, inspiring, and fulfilling discovery of my life.

And once again I am lying at the center of my labyrinth. I'm thinking of how I can be happy. I may have found the answer. Every time I'd take Quinn to the hospital, I would see children in much worse shape than he was. And I would leave the hospital, no matter how sick Quinn was, overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude for what we had.

That's how I feel now every time I leave the labyrinth. Grateful for this moment in my life, this moment when I can close my eyes and clear my mind and just be. I kiss my fingers and touch the ground where my mother's ashes and my other treasured objects are buried, and I say, "Thank you. Thank you. Thank you."

Quinn's Reading List:
  • American Gospel by Jon Meacham
  • The World's Religions by Huston Smith
  • A History of God, The Great Transformation, and The Spiral Staircase by Karen Armstrong
  • Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
  • The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James
  • The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine
  • The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels
  • The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker

Jon Meacham recommends:
  • The Resurrection of the Son of God by N.T Wright
  • The Confessions of St. Augustine
  • Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews by Paula Fredriksen
  • Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic by Reinhold Niebuhr
  • Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays by Abraham Joshua Heschel
  • Death on a Friday Afternoon,by Richard John Neuhaus
  • Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton


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