The Labyrinth: Walking A Sacred Path
The mystery and mystique of the labyrinth never fades. Where did it come from? Where does it lead to? What was its original purpose and why would we want to walk it today? Those of us walking labyrinths in the woods and our backyards or bringing it on canvas to others in public places are exploring such questions and discovering some surprising and sacred answers.
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, the labyrinth evokes the tragic myth of Theseus and the Minotaur in which the half man/half bull monster confined within the labyrinth was fed seven boys and seven maidens annually until slayed by the hero Theseus. Sacred labyrinths being walked by many today on the island of Crete and in Chartres, France hold no such tricks or gruesome secrets; they are unicursal paths — one path in and the same path out — 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 yet ingenious design is the first hint of the labyrinth’s true 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, despite the destruction during World War II of many documents recording its use. Still the story lives on. Pilgrims ventured to the Holy Land as a sacred journey from all over Europe during the early Middle Ages. When the Crusades began, travel became very dangerous and the Church wanted to prevent a greater loss of life. Cathedrals were being built in France and Italy at that time and the labyrinth design was placed in the floor of many of these churches to represent the sacred pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The pilgrims came to the cathedral and walked the sacred path arriving at the center called the “New Jerusalem.” Over time, the labyrinths’ popularity declined and its power came under suspicion. It was torn out or painted over on many of the church floors where it had been previously revered.
In Chartres Cathedral, near Paris, France, the labyrinth remains. It is an integral part of the cathedral’s grand design and heightens 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. The labyrinth’s symmetrical relationship to the magnificent stained glass Rose Window in the church’s entry is also significant. If the front cathedral wall were to fall flat on the floor, the entire window would exactly cover and match the size and shape of the labyrinth.
But why walk the labyrinth today? In its simplest form, walking the labyrinth is an alternative to sitting meditation for individuals. 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 whatever the body calls forth; there are no rules, 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.
Walking The Path With Ease
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 respond to life on 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. The labyrinth has even been the catalyst in profoundly changing peoples’ lives altogether.
Walking With Community
Just placing the canvas in an otherwise normal room creates a sacred space. People entering the room immediately soften and brighten; many have spoken of a feeling of coming home. The sense of community that walking together brings, right from the start, helps those who feel isolated and alone to experience being part of a new, loving family. The labyrinth has been used with church groups, hospitals, prisons and even in cancer support groups with great success, making a path to the sacred available to those seeking peace.
Walking with intention combined with walking in community can create breakthrough experiences in all aspects of life. 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 the labyrinth out in 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 to reflect on matters of town business or if local church groups could walk together to deepen their practice and strengthen their bonds? Imagine all kinds of people walking the path of sacredness together, bound by our common humanity as outlined by the labyrinth. Imagine the intention to walk together in small and large groups all over the planet in peace and harmony in observance of the anniversary of 9-11-2001. Working with the labyrinth is a true honor and privilege. Who could have imagined that such a simple path would lead straight to the sacredness of who we truly are?
Tricia Kibbe and Barbara Ducharme are founding members of the Labyrinth Guild of New England. For more information about the Guild and upcoming activities see https://www.facebook.com/labyrinthguildofnewengland/ or contact Tricia Kibbe at 978-443-5803.