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“Restorative, re-creative, Calming and Peaceful. Thank you.”
“Another step. Closer to God. My own destination. Joining the community, a Journey…”
What is a Labyrinth?
The labyrinth is much discussed and asked about these days. Where does it come from? Why does it look the way it does? How was it used originally and why would we want to walk it today? Those of us walking it in our yards and bringing it on canvas to others are finding much deeper questions and sacred responses.
It is true that the labyrinth is often confused with a maze. Just the word, labyrinth, brings to mind a puzzle to be deciphered with dead ends and no exit. For some, labyrinth evokes the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. The sacred labyrinths of Crete and Chartres being walked by many today hold no tricks; they are unicursal paths. Hence, the only decision needed is when to enter. Once that first step is taken, the path takes you to the center and back out again. This simplistic design is the first hint of the labyrinth’s power.
It is not known how the labyrinth was used in ancient Crete but its use in France and Northern Italy is more widely understood. The records that would document this were destroyed during World War II but the story lives on.
In Chartres Cathedral, the labyrinth remains. It is an integral part of the Cathedral’s grand design, and contributes to the sacredness of the space. The stones that make up the path are not painted with the pattern as you might imagine; rather, the stones comprise the pattern. The path is laid out in eleven concentric circles intricately woven in a sacred geometric pattern. It is surrounded by twenty-eight semi-circular lunations per quadrant, creating a third of the year’s lunar calendar around the labyrinth’s perimeter.
Still the question remains, why walk the labyrinth now? In its simplest form the labyrinth is a walking meditative path. It can be used individually as an alternative to sitting meditation. Because it requires no figuring out, one can simply walk, allow the mind to quiet, and let the body take over. We may walk, dance, or crawl the path, doing what the body calls forth; there are no rules, there is no right or wrong way. The labyrinth is also widely used as a group meditation activity. Walking on a painted canvas that is a replica of the Chartres labyrinth or outdoors between the stone outlines of the Cretan labyrinth pattern evokes thoughts of our interactions with each other on life’s journey. It becomes a metaphor for life.
The labyrinth is often described as a three-fold path. Upon entering one begins the symbolic path of purgation, or releasing and letting go. The center represents illumination and opening to the Divine. The return path is union, taking the walk’s benefits back into our lives. But we do not walk the path alone; others share our journey. On the labyrinth someone may be walking ahead of us at a pace we find difficult to follow. Our choice then becomes to stay behind and walk at another’s pace or go around them and honor our own body’s rhythm. There are times when we may come face to with a fellow journeyer. Will we greet them with a smile or even a hug, or will we remain within ourselves and continue on the path? There is no right or wrong way; the choice is ours to make. It is in these moments that the labyrinth’s mystery and sacredness become apparent. We begin to take a look at how we are in life about our chosen path and at those with whom we walk. We have the opportunity to consider what is important, what we call sacred.
Intention is an important part of the labyrinth journey. Certainly those who walked it in the Middle Ages came to the Cathedral with a very specific purpose. The pilgrims intentionally emulated their ancestors’ walk to the Holy Land in a new and venerable way. How might we bring intention and purpose to our walk today? One way is to sit quietly before walking and focus on an aspect of life that seems important or of concern at the moment. Then, as the walk begins, release the thought and enter the labyrinth. Wonderful stories abound of the insights received from walking with the intention of gaining clarity. At the very least, a deep sense of peace is experienced—and what a gift such peace can be, especially during troubled times.
As mentioned earlier, there are individuals and organizations that bring the labyrinth on canvas to church groups, hospitals, even prisons, making the path to the sacred available to those seeking peace. The labyrinth has also been used in cancer support groups with great success.
The idea of walking with intention combined with walking in community can create a breakthrough experience. Imagine for a moment the staff of a company, wrestling with a difficult problem related to how they work together. They spend some time talking about the strong and weak points of their interactions. They brainstorm possible solutions to the challenges before them, and then walk the labyrinth with the intention to adopt a new, more beneficial way of working together. During the walk they begin to see how they share the same path. They walk in front or behind one another and notice that while their paces may differ, with some moving slowly while others hasten to the center, they are all on the same path. They find themselves face to face, each headed in a different direction but still on the same path. When they are finished everyone seems much calmer and willing to look at the opportunities available to work things out. Just imagine how that would be. This too is a path to the sacred.
Now imagine bringing the labyrinth out into the community. How often do we walk with people in our neighborhood, or even the members of our own family? What if we began to create parks with labyrinths in them where we could walk with our friends and neighbors? What if a canvas labyrinth was available for town officials or local church groups to walk?
Working with the labyrinth is a true honor and privilege. We are often asked about it being just another New Age thing. Our response is, “It’s so old it’s retro!” We hope you’ll consider walking the path either by yourself or in your community. We think that, like so many others, you will find it a true path to the sacredness of who you are.