Walking a Medieval Labyrinth in a Modern World
by Peter Corbett
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live in an increasingly linear, driven world. The rush to the
Millennium, the tick of the market clock, drivetime, primetime;
all the forces of our modern life push us in a single direction.
We struggle to take vacations, yet all too often come back exhausted
rather than refreshed. Even the cycle of the seasons has become
lost on us in our climate controlled world. We move far from our
homes, send our parents away when they age, lose contact with
old friends and loved ones. We cover huge distances in a matter
of hours, jumping time zones without effort, yet few of us can
tell what phase the moon is in, or what time the sun rises each
This physical and emotional disconnect, some people feel, has
its spiritual equivalent. It is based in the very core beliefs
that define our modern civilization, dating back several centuries
to the Age of Enlightenment, to the waxing power of science and
rational thought and the waning influence of the Church. Cartesian
thought, with its emphasis on the superiority of Mind over spiritual
and physical matter, has helped breed a spiritual crisis, in our
homes, in our schools, in our social and political institutions.
One of the symptoms of this crisis is a lack of centeredness,
a lack of awareness of the spiritual nature of our true selves.
Until our spiritual center is restored we will continue to drift
as individuals and as a society. "We lost our sense of connection
to ourselves and to the vast mystery of creation," writes
the Reverend Dr. Lauren Artress, Canon of Grace Cathedral, in
her book about the labyrinth, Walking a Sacred Path: "The
web of creation has been thrown out of balance."
Many different forms of spiritual tools and meditations have sprung
up in the past few years, and they all point to the search for
meaning in our society, but the labyrinth seems to have struck
a chord. It is a powerful tool, open to seekers of all beliefs.
"The labyrinth is an archetype of wholeness that helps us
rediscover the depths of our souls," Artress writes. "We
are not human beings on a spiritual path, but spiritual beings
on a human path."
In 1992, the Reverend Lauren Artress brought the labyrinth to
Grace Cathedral in an effort to bring people back to their center
and allow them to experience Spirit for themselves. It's been
a tremendous success. Over a million people have walked the labyrinth
at Grace Cathedral alone, with hundreds of other sites springing
up across the country. Artress feels that walking the labyrinth
can help us regain our spiritual base by emphasizing the intuitive,
caring, and creative aspects of our selves and relaxing the logical,
reasoning aspects which have been dominant in Western civilization
over the last few centuries.
Labyrinths are different from mazes. Mazes challenge the logical
parts of our minds; they offer a choice of paths, some with many
entrances and exits. Trick corners and blind alleys are common
features, with dead ends and cul-de-sacs presenting riddles to
be solved along the way. Labyrinths, on the other hand, have one
well-defined path that leads us into the center and back out again.
There are no tricks to them, no dead ends or cul-de-sacs, no intersecting
paths. There are no choices to be made, other than the primary
one: the decision to enter the path. "In the labyrinth,"
Artress says, "the set path takes you to the center; that
you know you will get to the center helps focus and quiet the
Labyrinths predate Christianity by over a millennium. The most
famous labyrinth from ancient times was the Cretan one, the supposed
lair of the mythological Minotaur, which Theseus slew with the
aid of Ariadne and her spool of thread. Turf labyrinths still
exist in England, Germany and Scandinavia, and are thought to
be linked with local feminine deities and fertility rituals. The
adoption of labyrinths into the Christian Church is not very well
documented, but they were used traditionally as a site of pilgrimage.
Early Christians took a vow to visit the Holy City of Jerusalem
at some point in their lives. During the Middle Ages, as the Crusades
made travel to Palestine unsafe, other means were needed to honor
that sacred commitment. Labyrinths were adopted by the Roman Church
to offer the congregation a way of fulfilling their sacred vows.
Christians made their pilgrimages to the cathedral cities of Chartres,
Rheims or Amiens, completing their physical and spiritual journeys
in the cathedral labyrinths.
Even though the labyrinth is a Western concept, it shares some
similarities with Asian monastic and spiritual practices. The
patterns of the labyrinth are similar in design and conception
to the mandalas of South Asian Buddhism, which are physical representations
of the spiritual realm designed to aid in meditation. Labyrinths
blend their visual symbolism with the process of walking, which
is similar to the Japanese Zen practice of kinhin, literally "walking
meditation," where all of the attention is focused on the
process of each step, one foot in front of the other, and the
breath is controlled and regulated. Both of these techniques are
used in Buddhist meditation, which combines the elements of calming
and insight into the single goal of samadhi, or "awareness."
are three stages to walking the labyrinth: Purgation, Illumination,
and Union. Purgation is the first part of the path where the details
of everyday life are shed, and the mind is made open. "It's
very much a tool for helping me find focus," says Brad Squires,
an East Bay massage therapist who uses the labyrinths on a regular
basis. "It seems to rattle all the disturbances and busyness
out of your brain, rattle all the static away and lets you...slow
down and tune in to a more humane kind of rhythm. It's best just
to surrender and allow the labyrinth to give you whatever the
labyrinth will give you. Just be accepting to whatever might come
forth." This opening up is the key to clearing space within
the mind, allowing yourself to experience whatever emotions or
thoughts surface during each labyrinth experience.
Illumination is the time spent in the center of the labyrinth,
quietly praying and receiving whatever wisdom is forthcoming.
One walker draws the connection to the larger questions of "Where
am I going, who am I in relation to the spiritual world, who am
I in relation to a larger creative being?" Stories of angels
or spirits are common as well. Renee Gibbons, a long time labyrinth
walker, relates the story of her first experience on the labyrinth:
"When I got to the center of the labyrinth, I got a really
strong message that said 'send an angel to your sister Fiona.'
My sister Fiona had not spoken to me for four or five years at
that time." After sending a gift to her sister, she waited.
Although a miraculous new relationship did not develop, she says,
"I saw that a lot of my resentments dropped when I did that."
Union occurs as the path is reworked, preparing to reenter the
world and actualize the new sense of self, or knowledge gained
in the labyrinth. "There's been times after walking the labyrinth
I've just wanted to lie down," says Squires. "It's exhausting,
draining. But then I'll go walk [it] again. It really opens things,
it can make everything seem right again." This is the most
important stage of the walking process, the taking back into the
world "The labyrinth," says Lauren, "is a place
where you can pour your heart out, express your anger, experience
joy, express gratitude, and perhaps above all, ask for what you
The most obvious thing about the labyrinth is that it directs
you, guides you; it leads, you follow. When you are concentrating
on the immediate strip of pathway under your feet you can lose
the sense of where you are on the looping pathway. Being human,
one part of our mind is constantly trying to place us, to think
ahead of our steps, over and around where we really are, and the
design of the labyrinth foils this beautifully by simply keeping
the mind focussed on the path itself. Once inside the center you
can really look around and see where you have been, take a look
at the path and where it has led you, recognize where you were
both physically and emotionally when you entered the labyrinth.
Chances at reflection and perspective, are so rare in our society
that they take on extraordinary value for many people. The chance
to stand inside a sheltered space and see the path we are walking
is a blessing not to be taken lightly.
True meditation occurs when the physical brain has been pacified,
kept busy with a mantra or a mandala, so the spiritual mind is
then free to wander on its own, and discover new truths. "The
walking back and forth seems very pendulous," states Squires.
"It's a very slow frequency, a very long wavelength from
one turn to the next. You slowly walk along and slowly walk back,
then slowly walk on again. It's hard to have your mind in a fretful
kind of pace when you're doing such a slow, pendulous, rhythmic
walking like that."
This is the most basic use of the labyrinth, as a way of silencing
the noise and turmoil in one's own head. But this is not the only
way that people use the labyrinth. Ellen McDermott is a member
of the congregation at Grace Cathedral; her involvement with the
labyrinth took on a much more personal nature when she had a stroke
a little over four years ago. Because of the physical disability
she had immediately following the incident, she was only able
to use the labyrinth in a limited way, and that had a profound
effect on her appreciation of the tool; it became a very real
part of her physical recovery. "In the beginning the physical
walking of the labyrinth became a measure for me of my recovery,
my progress physically and that was very encouraging." The
physical challenge of using the labyrinth, in the very act of
walking the path, forced Ellen to focus on the process more than
most people who are not confronted by the simple everyday act
of walking. "It's interesting when we think about the labyrinth
as kind of a metaphor for life; you just get on the path and stay
on, try to follow the path, keep going one foot at a time."
As her walking grew stronger, the path of the labyrinth began
to take a larger role in her healing process, and her life as
a whole: "I began to work with this whole physical event
of having a stroke, and what that meant in life, and who I was
and where I was going. . . kind of looking more toward the spiritual
side of things, looking for direction, looking for help."
These two facets of the labyrinth combined to assist in Ellen's
total healing process. "I had these two tracks, the physical
and spiritual, that went along together and made the labyrinth
walking a very full and rich experience." Ellen has gone
on to almost total recovery in the use of her left side, became
a member of the congregation at Grace Cathedral, and is now a
facilitator for the labyrinth workshops in an attempt to teach
others of the extraordinary potential of the labyrinth as a healing
Renee Gibbons has also used the labyrinth as part of her healing
process after being diagnosed with breast cancer. As a support
to more traditional modes of treatment, she found a strong source
of strength in the walking of the labyrinth: "I was going
to do the mechanical things, but I knew that I had to have other
things to complement that to pull through. So I used that, I walked
the labyrinth as part of my healing. That was medicine for me."
Renee has also found solace on the labyrinth in times of death
and loss. During her cancer treatment she was walking the labyrinth
frequently, and one night "a friend of mine who was suffering
with AIDS came into my mind, and I had a strong presentiment that
I had to get him on the labyrinth that night, that he was going
to die." She describes the struggles they had to get him
there at midnight, and then continues: "We pushed him around
the labyrinth in his wheelchair. It was an incredible experience.
We sang as we were walking around and said our goodbyes to him.
So it's been a real intimate part of illness and death."
The labyrinth has become an essential tool in many people's lives.
As Ellen McDermott states, "There's been an element of joy
and real light about my recovery connected to the labyrinth, and
that spiritual and physical work I did. There was real sparkle
to this adventure with the labyrinth." This has become such
a common reaction to the use of the labyrinth that California
Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco has installed a labyrinth
in its facility. Ellen and others stress the benefits that the
labyrinth can have, not just for the patients themselves, but
for the caregivers around them, their friends and family, who
may be looking for help and support in their own roles as well.
It is this kind of inclusive thinking that Lauren Artress and
the others at Veriditas are hoping will become a more common aspect
of society in the 21st century, through the use of spiritual tools
like the labyrinth.
Veriditas is the non-profit organization that has grown up around
the labyrinths at Grace Cathedral. They are dedicated to teaching
people the history, use and potential of this profound spiritual
tool. In the words of the Reverend Alan Jones, Dean of Grace Cathedral,
"The Grace Cathedral Labyrinth Project is committed to addressing
the spiritual hunger of our times." Lauren Artress still
travels with the original canvas labyrinth she designed in 1991
to workshops and conferences around the globe to share the message
of this ancient tool of healing and transformation. In 1995 she
was invited to the site of the Oklahoma bombing to help bring
a sense of connection and shared grief to the survivors and their
families. Lauren and Ellen, along with
have taken the labyrinth to a women's prison in Northern California,
and hope to create a jail ministry in the San Francisco County
jail. They look forward to the day when there are labyrinths in
parks, prisons, hospitals, cathedrals and churches; anywhere people
find themselves in need of solace or comfort, calming or miraculous
transformation. Their goal is to have a linked community of labyrinth
groups worldwide by the turn of the century, to help us all enter
the new millennium on a growing and healing note. As Brad Squires
sums it up, "The Labyrinth Project trying to get labyrinths
into places like prisons, or inner city schools, or inner city
neighbourhoods, or hospices -- it makes me feel it's for the good
of people. What can [Veriditas] gain from something like that
except the feeling they're doing good for people?"
As Lauren sees it, "we need a maturity that values ethnic,
cultural and gender differences, supports creativity and the work
of Spirit among all forms of life. To evolve our vision, we need
the experience of archetypes that help us group the experience
of untiy and wholeness. The labyrinth is an archetype of wholeness
that helps us rediscover the depths of our souls." What all
of us can hope to gain from that is a world, both inner and outer,
that is more full of light, joy, and the possibility of peace
than the one we all share now
This article is reprinted from the "Grace Cathedral"
website were a number of articles can be found on the topic. The
site is www.gracecathedral.org.
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