copyright 2008 Anne Gordon**
Before leaving to accompany our son on a trip to settle him at his first year at Harvard, we picked an angel card from the little bowl on our altar. We received “trust.”
Embarking on a journey involves trust. Plans are made, as are assumptions and hopes for outcomes. But then we start and the journey unfolds under our feet. The unexpected becomes our traveling partner. Is the unforeseen a gift in disguise or simply a hassle, yet another puzzle to work out and consume precious time?
When a walker is first introduced to a labyrinth, he or she often hears the anxiety-inducing word “maze” instead. The two words must be next-door neighbors in the canyons of our brains, lodged side-by-side, the result of centuries of interchangeable usage. When a walker approaches the labyrinth for the first time it may LOOK like a maze, but it is in truth, a single path.
I first walked a labyrinth ten years ago at a Body and Soul Conference in Seattle. I had considered myself to be a pilgrim for most of my life. Like many, I had tasted a variety of spiritual fruits, likening these samplings to a feast for the soul. In particular I felt drawn to the divine mystery, that personal connection to the sacred that cannot be defined or contained in dogma and doctrine. The labyrinth, a complex but pleasing pattern painted on thick canvas, was set up in a candlelit ballroom. Ethereal music added to the transcendent quality of the experience. I was astounded and quite amazed that my wanderings had not led me to the labyrinth until that time. I stepped onto, and into this sacred space and was deeply moved. Long after the words of the conference presenters had faded, the singular meandering path of the labyrinth held a place in my heart and the imagery it evoked continued to resonate for days and months.
Over the next years I sought out labyrinth walks, on permanent installations and on portable canvas. I created a labyrinth in our yard at home and studied with Lauren Artress at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco and became certified as a labyrinth facilitator. Grace Cathedral is the home to two labyrinths, one outdoors made of terrazzo stone, another of limestone in the sanctuary. Artress is credited with being the driving force behind the resurgence of interest in labyrinths in the late twentieth century. Author Jean Houston had been using labyrinths for some time in her workshops, but it was Lauren who visited Chartres Cathedral in France, and with a group of friends, boldly removed the folding chairs from atop the 13th century labyrinth, walked it, measured it and brought the energy of this esoteric spiritual tool to the United States. Credit must also be given to author and dowser Sig Lonegren and to geomancer Richard Feather Anderson for their contemporaneous installations of labyrinths.
Chartres Cathedral is an exquisitely beautiful Gothic cathedral. It is one of the best maintained cathedrals in all of Europe and is a Unesco World Heritage site. Famed for its architecture grounded in sacred geometry and for its unparalleled stained glass windows, Chartres has been drawing visitors for over 800 years. It was built on a site of ancient pilgrimage, the place itself having been revered by Druids and Celts. Work on the present cathedral was begun in 1194 and the labyrinth was laid in the floor around the year 1200. At that early date, interest in the labyrinth was experiencing its own revival, putting its antiquity in context. In time it fell out of favor, possibly because its use competed with the sermons. Other labyrinths in European cathedrals were unceremoniously removed during the Age of Reason, their enigmatic, mystical quality evidently incompatible with the elevation of reason and logic. Chartres was spared. As a 19 year old girl I joined the millions of pilgrims and tourists who visit this gem completely unaware of the labyrinth beneath our feet. Happily, this descent into obscurity has ended and the labyrinth is now available to visitors every Friday. Private groups are also granted access to the labyrinth on a regular basis for study and contemplation.
The single path of the labyrinth is described as unicursal. Its use predates the Christian era by thousands of years. It is one of the oldest contemplative and transformational tools known to humankind and has been used for centuries for prayer, ritual, initiation and personal and spiritual growth. Its presence and use dates back at least 4,500 years.
Labyrinths have been found on every inhabited continent. They have been separated by vast distances and by thousands of years, but they are connected by their enduring presence and use.
In ancient Greece the coin of the realm bore the imprint of the labyrinth.
In India, labyrinths are drawn at the threshold of homes as a protective blessing.
In Scandinavia over 500 labyrinths are located near the sea. Folklore tells of fishermen walking them before sailing to ensure good fortune and a bountiful catch. Anxious relatives walked them to propitiate the forces of weather when seas were rough. During springtime rituals, young men raced one another in the labyrinth to be the first to dance with a maiden at its center.
There are more labyrinths per square kilometer in Sweden than any other place on earth. Labyrinths similar to those in Scandinavian countries have been found in Russia, Iceland and Baltic countries.
Turf labyrinths are common in Great Britain. Many remain to this day, some continuously and lovingly maintained for over 400 years.
In the 21st Century, the beauty and mystery of the labyrinth exerts a powerful draw, calling to people the world over as it has for millenia. A search online produces endless pages of information about and locations of labyrinths. They are now present in dozens of hospitals, clinics, schools, retreat centers and churches. Over 2,000 labyrinths are registered with veriditas.org in the United States alone.
The single, meandering path of the labyrinth provides the walker with the opportunity to step beyond the chaos and confusion of the modern world, into the land of the soul. Each visit to the labyrinth is unique as is every walker. This profoundly simple experience provides calm, centering, stress reduction, some even say healing. it is said that a maze, with its cul-de-sacs, dead-ends and blind alleys is designed to make you LOSE your way, while a labyrinth is designed to help you FIND your way.
Because there is a single path, the only decision to be made is whether or not to walk. Once that decision is made and the journey is begun, one is then led gently and surely, meandering to the center. The Circuitous path captures our attention and the controlling mind takes a breather. The symbolism of going deep into our own interiors is clear. There is a sense of safety and security provided by the container that is the labyrinth.
People often walk the labyrinth with a prayer or an intention. Some enter the labyrinth with a burden to release or a problem to solve. In trusting the process of the journey, it is common for walkers to receive answers to questions they did not even ask. The gifts are there, but often in an unanticipated guise.
Walking the labyrinth provides a time out of time. The outer world takes a holiday. The simple yet symbolic act of placing one foot in front of the other overlays the scattered energy and fragmented thoughts of our busy lives. On this single path we don’t have to decide WHERE we are in the world and instead can become aware of HOW we are in the world.
The labyrinth has been called a blueprint for transformation. The person who enters the labyrinth and the person who leaves are never the same. A change happens in the process of the journey. Insights and clarity are gained, calm is restored. Healing occurs. And often, the simple act of retreating from the din of the outer world provides the break we need to refresh ourselves, find our center and return to the world with a new outlook.
Our son now resides across the continent and our family continues to adjust and grow, drawing to ourselves the calm that comes from trust in the journey. Like walkers on the Labyrinth, we are sometimes near one another, though mos of the time we are apart, but we always meet at the center.
**Anne Gordon is a Labyrinth Facilitator and bookkeeper in Eugene, Oregon. She is on staff at Sacred Heart Medical Center as a labyrinth facilitator, providing monthly labyrinth walks for staff, patients and visitors. She also offers workshops, talks on the history of the labyrinth and conducts private walks using her three portable labyrinths. She may be reached at email@example.com
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from Sybil in Riverside, CA.
“Thank you for the article. I wanted you to know about a labyrinth I sometimes walk. It is behind the University of Redlands Memorial Chapel and has been there since about 2004-2005. It is a replica of the Chartres Cathedral labyrinth in France. Since I live in Riverside I don’t get there often, but when I do the peace from the meditation is a feeling I look forward to. Also wanted to say that – the labyrinth is the longest distance between two points while a straight line is the shortest. Got that from someplace, don’t remember where.”
from Robert in Cambridge, MA.
“The other weekend my son and daughter were in town. I thought they might like to see a discovery my wife and I made several weeks earlier – the recently opened labyrinth on the campus of Boston College in Newton (Chestnut Hill), Massachusetts. This labyrinth is dedicated in memory of Boston College alums who lost their lives in the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York.
On an earlier visit to the B.C. Labyrinth, it was buried in snow, but even then the outline of its circular paths were visible to us. Now on this later visit, the snow was gone and the still wet stone pavers of the foot path glistened in the late afternoon sun.
The Boston College Labyrinth is just inside the main entrance to the campus to the right of an avenue lined with impressive Gothic-styled buildings. It isn’t visible from the roadway, but from the walkway a lovely sunken garden comes into view right next to the first building on the right at the entrance gate.
At the center of tree-lined green expanse is this labyrinth flanked to its left by the stone wall of that first building and just beyond it an imposing oval shaped shrub which seemed to me to mimic the circular labyrinth in front of us. Two squat square marble pillars, topped with bronze plaques mark the entrance and exit walkways of the labyrinth. The plaques give the dedication and walking information. Individual plaques give the name and class of those memorialized and they surround the outer edge of the labyrinth. It gives you goose bumps just looking at the path.
This was my first labyrinth walk and I felt this as a significant new experience. Something else seemed to come over me as I took my first tentative steps along the stone pavers laid out there. It struck me that I was setting out on a journey and one that required my close attention both to the immediate path before me and to the surroundings before and beside me.
This trek is not a simple following a circling path, but one with numerous twists and turns. In retrospect, I feel each start of this kind of journey always holds something new and unexpected along the way. This first time, I felt intimidated by the path since I didn’t really know where the pavers were taking me, especially since periodically I was walking not toward the center of the labyrinth, but actually away from it. Though circular, this journey was not simply going in circles. I had always to be attentive along this serpentine journey of many sudden twists and turns.
The attentiveness demanded by this path had the affect of forcing all other thoughts and concerns from my consciousness. And as a consequence of this, I can better understand why the labyrinth walk sets the stage for meditation or at least can foster an openness in our consciousness for new thoughts and perspectives which the usual busyness of daily life obscures or even prevents us from experiencing. The winding, even meandering path of the labyrinth is not a distraction, but actually a gift which can refresh both mind and body.
There is also a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction upon reaching, not the end, but the center, the heart or destination of the labyrinth. I took time there to relax, to savor as well the new perspective of the lawn, trees, that great oval bush, even the near-by Gothic building that stood hard by the labyrinth.
The return journey, exiting along a new, but parallel path of pavers, required the same concentration as the entry. Upon completing the labyrinth walk there was that double satisfaction of having gone both into (up) and out of (down) the circular trek which did not take me in circles, but led me both on an inbound (internal) and an outbound (external) pilgrimage-like journey.
Like the mountain climbers, I felt a sense both of exhilaration and of repose at my safe return. I think my children enjoyed their experience as well.”
from a guest who sings in the Duke University Chapel Choir
Duke University’s Chapel has a labyrinth they put down in the Chapel once a year – usually during April. You can walk the labyrinth in the chapel from 8am-5pm, but only on that day. To find out when the next labyrinth walk takes place you may go to the Duke Chapel web site and put your name on the list serve or you can call the Duke University Chapel Coordinator at 919-684-8111.