Let Me Walk the Labyrinth (On My Knees and Blindfolded)

Let me walk the labyrinth on my knees and blindfolded. 

I walked a labyrinth for the first time in years a few days ago. In modern usage, a labyrinth is a spiritual tool, a bit like a maze with no dead ends. It takes you down a winding path to the center and then back out. Just when you think you’ve made it, the labyrinth sends you far away from your destination. People will often enter a labyrinth with a question in mind and let that labyrinth carry them through as they contemplate it. That all sounds lovely and poetic in theory, but I’ve never really ‘gotten’ labyrinths. Like many spiritual practices, labyrinths frustrate me, and not in a way that feels spiritual.

I’m a bit like Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, who once said, “I get what can only be described as road rage when I’m stuck behind someone walking slowly in a prayer labyrinth.” I walk, and I try to feel something ‘spiritual,’ and then I get frustrated with myself for putting that kind of pressure on what is essentially a stroll. I crunched through the leaf litter of this outdoor labyrinth recently, struggling to let go long enough to feel the leaves–as it was, I experienced them intellectually, outside myself, as noisemakers that could interrupt other walkers. I wasn’t always like this. 

I danced through my first labyrinth, which was just a marked mat spread out in the church fellowship hall. I was a child skipping gleefully past all the adults, who took slow, careful steps, as if they were walking a tightrope. They stood for long minutes in the center like sleeping birds while I ran rings around them, giddy with the twists and turns. Now, I’m an adult, so caught up in doing it right, in making enough space for the other walkers, and trying to be remotely ‘spiritual’ on top of that. A spiritual practice that provokes that kind of excess thinking isn’t for me. 

Or maybe it just requires a little modification. What if I allowed myself to dance through the labyrinth again? That would require me to overcome that sixth sense I’ve developed over the years, the one that says “It simply isn’t done.” It sounds spirited–and spiritual–to me. Conversely, what if I gave up my accustomed sense of sight, reliant on the feel of the terrain to know I was following the path? I would have to crawl, grounded in a tactile sense. Would I fight my way through the darkness? Or would I roll around in the dirt, reveling in my sightlessness? I’m not sure I could even complete a labyrinth by myself in that state. I would need the help of other people, ones willing to see me fumble around in broad daylight, to keep watch.

I can think of nothing more spiritual. Maybe I would rage at God. Or puzzle over God’s absence. Or feel overwhelmed by love. Or just pretend to be a mole. Anything but this painfully grown-up labyrinth performance. So no more spiritual tightropes. Let me not know what to say during prayer. Let me cry through my chants. Let me laugh through my Lectio. Let me walk the labyrinth on my knees and blindfolded. 

Chartres Cathedral Labyrinth design

Stone labyrinth image source

Chartres Labyrinth image source

Kink and Pastoral Care

I’m working on a series about sexting etiquette–it’s inspiring a lot of thoughts that are hard to articulate. In the meantime, here are some older thoughts on pastoral care and kink (yep, these words do occasionally belong in the same sentence). Why? Because certain concepts prized in the kink community should inform our approaches to pastoral care.

Wikipedia defines pastoral care as “an ancient model of emotional and spiritual support that can be found in all cultures and traditions.” That’s a pretty good start. I would add that pastoral caregivers are often professionals and/or working in a faith-based context (like a parish or campus ministry). I’ll link more info on pastoral care at the bottom of the post.)

I’ve read a lot of great pastoral care theory, including books that are aware of the impact that factors like race, class, and gender can have on care needs and approaches. I’ll learn more as I take more care classes and gain experience. That said, I want to add two ideas that many pastoral care class readings don’t explicitly articulate: 

• The importance of knowing when one cannot give pastoral care

• The value of framing conversations so that people can choose whether and how to take part in the care process. 

I’ll use the lens of BDSM/kink to articulate these concerns. This section will discuss potentially ‘erotic’ activities including impact play (playing with physical hits from canes, floggers, etc.) but nothing explicitly sexual. [Note: Since my main experience at the time that I wrote this was with dominance and topping, this essay is a little top-heavy.]

Throughout my pastoral care class, I was struck by the similarities and transferable skills between kink interactions and pastoral care. Kink and pastoral care are both emotionally intense by nature. In kink, direct communication, trust, and boundary-setting are vital. It is the responsibility of all parties involved in a kink scene or relationship to maintain proper boundaries and communicate their needs. In a power exchange (in which one partner takes on a “dominant” role and the other takes on a “submissive” role, either during a scene or in a relationship), the dominant has to handle the authority that has been temporarily granted to them wisely.

Pastoral caregivers are often in positions of authority, whether because of an official title or the culture of their community. I wonder about the sense of ‘power exchange’ that occurs in a pastoral care relationship. I think that new pastoral caregivers may be prone to a sense of pastoral “frenzy.” In the kink community, the term frenzy describes the urge of an (often) new kinkster to try everything immediately or jump into intense dynamics. Frenzy is sometimes experienced as a visceral ache. When pastoral caregivers discover that they have a knack for caregiving, they can also experience frenzy, a desire to help literally everyone. This is a recipe for heartbreak and burnout. I will discuss that dilemma a bit more when I describe the limitations of kink as a lens. 

In kink, good faith negotiation is key. A good dominant often asks lots of questions, trying to get to the core of what kind of experience the submissive wants and a sense of what might hold them back. Scenes begin with negotiation, check-ins, and warm-up (physical and mental); when a dominant gives a flogging, for example, it is customary for them to begin by gauging the submissive’s pain tolerance (often on a scale of one to ten) or to start with the lightest, gentlest touch, not the heavy over-hand strikes.

While a pastoral care conversation may not require the same level as what’s required for a kink scene, I believe that it is important for pastoral caregivers to remember to step back mentally from the conversation when the consider care. They need to assess what the care-seeker is looking for and ready for. You cannot open mental wounds unless you are prepared to deal with their aftermath. Conversation sometimes flows naturally, but it’s important to check in. When you as a pastoral caregiver want to take “agential power” (Doehring 45) and become more directive (perhaps wanting to escalate the conversation into deeper, more personal, or more emotionally wrought territory), you might follow these steps: 

1. Take a step back to assess your own needs. Are you prepared physically, mentally, and emotionally to escalate this conversation? Is the care–seeker? If you’re not prepared, you don’t have to escalate. You can make a judgment call about whether to proceed, express that you are unsure how to move forward, let the careseeker lead the conversation, or help them find someone who’s more equipped (to ‘refer out’). 

2. If you think that it would be helpful to go deeper, put a mental ‘pin’ in the conversation and state out loud that you want to go deeper. Give the care-seeker a way to opt in. For example, you could say “I think it might be helpful to talk about X now. I know that may be difficult. How would you feel about that?” or “I’d like to try something…” or “May I ask a question about X?” 

3. If they say yes, thank them and proceed. If they say no, thank them and let them set the course for the conversation. Never take their vulnerability for granted. Don’t attempt to pry secrets out of them, no matter how cathartic you think the sharing would be. 

The reason that I list these steps is that it is important for caregivers to be mindful of their own boundaries and limits, not to be overcome by the zeal for helping and take over the conversation. The caregiver and care-seeker always need to be able to opt in.  

Of course, the nature of human life means that the caregiver and care-seeker will sometimes hit emotional landmines (and/or try lines of questioning that are not productive). The boundary-centered framework of kink is helpful in this case too. Even when kinky play is going well, players may need to draw back or ‘dial it down’ temporarily. 

There may be times during kink scenes where one partner is unexpectedly triggered. The dominant has to be mindful (and humble) enough to stop, deescalate, or change the scene so that they can check in with the submissive. They can’t just stick to the original plan and hope for the best. Players, dominant and submissive, should not feel trapped in an activity. Pastoral caregivers also need to have this flexibility (which makes the various tools discussed in class helpful to know). 

Kink scenes traditionally end with “aftercare,” the process by which the players wind down the scene, come out of their scene roles, take care of any wounds, and sometimes debrief (generally) about how the scene went. There *probably* won’t be any wounds from a flogger, but lotion, a snack, and a glass of water might be in order for both parties. The sub may be riding a high of endorphins from the scene (and the dominant may also need to “come down”), so they will often spend some time wrapped up in a blanket and cuddling together, talking about idle things. Nobody will drive or operate machinery for a little while. While it isn’t always possible to transition peacefully out of a pastoral care interaction because of time or institutional constraints, a caregiver may want to…

• lay out the estimated time for the conversation from the beginning

• keep snacks on hand

• have a bank of organized quick referral resources at their fingertips

• encourage a care-seeker to take time after the conversation to reflect

• take a few minutes for their own ‘aftercare’ to breathe and debrief before seeing another care-seeker 

While pastoral care and kink relations have many similarities, they are, of course, very different. Pastoral care-seekers should not feel dominated. Kink can be a modality with skills that transfer well to pastoral care, but it would be ethically problematic, to say the least, to try to mix the two situations in reality. In The Practice of Pastoral Care, Carrie Doehring warns that to “engage in sexual or romantic relationships with care seekers” would be sexual misconduct (77). This is a good general rule. I want to make exceptions for professional sex workers (including surrogates) who have clearly bounded sexual contact with clients (as sex surrogate Dr. Helen Fisher does in The Sessions). Sex work is emotional labor often adjacent to and even overlapping with clinical therapy. That should be acknowledged (and decriminalized regardless). In most cases, however, the kind of intimate ‘play’ that people enjoy in kink or in romantic and/or sexual relationships should not take place between caregiver and care-seeker in a pastoral care relationship, nor, in some cases, should a person with pastoral care skills try to use these skills in their private lives. Be mindful when you use your skills. Notice when you choose to take care of someone. Even if you’re not officially a pastoral caregiver, those caregiving skills can be all too easy to fall back on! 

While a pastoral caregiver may find their listening skills helpful in resolving emotional conflicts with a friend or partner, they may fall fully into the pastoral caregiving role, implicitly assuming an emotional distance from personal conflicts that do not exist. This assumption can damage the relationship and leave both parties hurt and exhausted. In the same way that one wouldn’t just initiate a kink dynamic without prior discussion, it’s important not to charge into caregiving without considering consent and awareness. 

Pastoral Care Resources:

Carrie Doehring’s The Practice of Pastoral Care

Stephanie Crumpton’s A Womanist Pastoral Theology Against Intimate and Cultural Violence

Sonia E. Waters’ Addiction and Pastoral Care

Gregory Ellison’s Cut Dead But Still Alive: Caring for African American Young MenHerbert Anderson and Kenneth Mitchell’s All Our Losses, All Our Griefs: Resources for Pastoral Care


“Just as I Am” – Confessions of a Kinky Churchgoer

[Image description: Photo is of a cautious but curious calico cat that has just stepped through a doorway.]

Church felt weirdly relevant today. Not that church is ever irrelevant, but I kept making connections between this morning’s worship service and my personal life in ways I don’t always. You see, I’m currently negotiating a new power exchange (which I will hereafter refer to as #Subpocalypse2019), and it’s brought up a lot of difficult feelings. I’ve felt more overwhelmed, afraid, even desolate in the past couple of days than I have in months. Maybe that’s tuned me in more than usual. 

My sense that the service was speaking directly to my inner turmoil started with the Prayer of Confession: “We fear failures, and we cling to unquestioned habits […] Show us your way. Open our eyes to new ventures,” we prayed. I do fear failure in this new venture, one that’s appeared seemingly out of the blue. It will involve questioning my habits in unusual (and embarrassing) ways, as I make my life available for another to view. I felt like that prayer was for me. 

Other messages jumped out at me as the service continued, especially in the hymns. When I saw “Just as I am” in the service order, I looked up from my bulletin suspiciously. “Just as I am though tossed about with many a conflict, many a doubt…” the song goes. I could give or take some of the theology in that hymn, but the thought of just…being…and showing up as myself with all my fears feels especially poignant right now.

Fortunately, I have a supportive pod of people who are proud of me for showing up and have given me space to feel scared without judgment. My sub is excited to see me experience life on the other side of the D/s slash; he’s been giving me pep talks over the past few days and encouraging me when I’ve been tearful. I don’t know how much involvement God has in shaping personal relationships, but I think God understands my feelings and is proud of me too. 

The final hymn was “Here I Am, Lord.” That one’s just always a tear-jerker. It was a very special song to one of our members who died a couple of years ago. It illustrates his way of being so clearly. It’s a song about committing to mission even when you feel unprepared and vulnerable–it also imagines God as immensely loving and thus, vulnerable to hurt. 

Today’s service was about being courageous, vulnerable, and flexible in ministry to the world, but I hear it another way too: I hear a call to minister to myself. I hear a call to grow more loving to myself through the discomfort that submission brings. With the guidance and care of others, I am called to minister to myself “just as I am,” fearful and brave and loving. 

*Prayer is from Feasting on the Word Worship Companion, John Knox Press, 2013.

Aftercare – It’s Not Just for Kink

[Image description: Photo is of Christ Church College in Oxford, England, originally constructed 500 years ago.]

Occasionally, something I’ve learned from kink will help me to reflect on something from vanilla life, which then influences my overall mindset for the better. This post illustrates one of those times. 

A few years ago, a dear friend and I went into the woods to play pretend, as one does. This wasn’t a kink scene, mind, just us imagining that we lived in Medieval Europe. We made up silly details as we walked along (“Ah yes, they have put out flowers because there has been a death in the family…”). We ran into a couple of  ‘journeymen’ on the path who played along for a while. I became a troubadour, and she became a duchess. I had to make up a song on the spot to sing in her honor (it was actually a pretty epic song). We must have pretended for at least a couple of hours. I still remember it fondly. 

But a strange thing happened when we stopped playing and my friend went home for some introvert time: I didn’t know what to do with myself. I had just spent the last couple of hours experiencing life as a troubadour of the Middle Ages, and now I had no one for whom to sing, no station in life. I practically could have recited elegiac poetry about the lost mead halls. 

After wandering around in that state for a while, I went home and watched several episodes of Wolf Hall (a PBS Masterpiece program set in the court of Henry VIII). Presently, I felt a little more normal, like my imaginings had finally run their course and my brain had found equilibrium. 

It didn’t hit me until more recently, when I started exploring kink, that I had that strange response because I didn’t know how to find my way back to the present day. Essentially, though I didn’t realize it at the time, my brain was scrambled by the rapid gear shift from courtier to college student. I needed aftercare

In the kink world, ‘aftercare’ is what players do after the end of a scene to find their way back to their non-play selves. They might drink some water, cuddle and chat, bandage any wounds, watch mindless television for a while, or even take some time away from each other to reflect. ‘Cruel’ master becomes doting partner, playful puppy becomes exhausted friend, etc. Aftercare continues with check-ins and debrief conversations in the following days. Aftercare is different for everyone, but many players need it to minimize and mitigate the effects of ‘drop’. (Side note–anyone can experience drop, including tops and dominants. I’ll talk about my experiences with dom drop in another post.) Whatever form it takes, the ritual of caring closure that aftercare provides helps players to transition out of whatever intense thing has just occurred. 

The concept of aftercare is something that I now keep in mind after any intense experience, no matter how trivial it seems. Watching historical dramas did the trick for me a few years ago. When pretending nowadays, I try to let people know beforehand that my imagination is wild and to have a closing check-in with them afterward (something like “Thanks for going there with me; I’m ready to go back to reality now and will need to clear my head. Are you okay? Need anything?”). 

This practice may seem excessive, but consider all the ways that humans seek closure and aftercare on a daily basis. There’s a reason that activists debrief over pizza after a protest–sometimes, you just need to feel like a person again. After a show ends, actors hold cast parties. Athletes have cool-downs. Students end their years of toil with ceremonies of praise, hugs, tears, and mementos. At the end of a long day, parents read their children to sleep.

When we don’t get caring closure, even when we don’t realize that’s what we need, we may feel strange and disoriented, unable to move forward. I don’t always know exactly what I need at the end of an experience, but I’m learning to ask. Whether in kinky play or vanilla life, aftercare has been a helpful concept for me to keep in mind as I explore.