Do you remember the children’s game of Chutes and Ladders? The idea is to get from the bottom of the board (my recollection is that it was numbered 1) to the top (number 100) before any of the other players. In addition to the normal movement along the board number by number, there were a certain number of chutes and ladders. If you landed on a ladder, you were lucky enough to jump up to wherever the ladder took you, short-cutting your way up the path. However, if you landed on a chute, you went backwards…sometimes a really long way. (I remember there being a particularly long chute that took you back from something like 90 down to 12. No matter how far along you were on the board, until you hit 100, you could never be secure of your progress. Right up to the end, you could land on a chute.
As I was walking the labyrinth the other morning at St. Ignatius Retreat House (where, as I’ve mentioned already), I’m currently giving an 8-day guided retreat, it occurred to me that Chutes and Ladders provides a useful metaphor for our spiritual lives. We so much like forward progress and we cling to the idea that once we past a certain point, we are securely past it. We like to think we are always moving in one direction toward our goal.
But it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes we’re moving merrily along, feeling like we are making great progress on some issue or another and inexplicably we find ourselves back where we were some time ago, back at a point we thought we had put behind us. Down the chute…sometimes a really, really long way.
The reality is our spiritual path is not a game we can “win” during our lifetime. Our spiritual journey is a lifetime of movements forward and movements back as we make our way toward full union with God. And just like in Chutes and Ladders, there is nothing to do after falling backward down a chute other than to pick ourselves up and continue the journey.