The Labyrinth - An Archetypal Symbol
From a service by Joan Scott, Director of Emmanuella House of Prayer, June 1, 2003-Unitarian Fellowship of Kelowna, BC
"Thank you Mary Lou, Wendy and congregation for this gift of being here today to share about the labyrinth. The labyrinth has been for me a powerful symbol of life’s journey, a helpful and unique spiritual tool – a walking-meditation.
Labyrinths or mazes? The terms are often used interchangeably. However mazes are puzzle designs. The fun is trying to discover your way through false pathways and dead ends. The labyrinth on the other hand consists of one single meandering pathway. The path leads to the center and can be retraced back out again to the entrance. Theoretically – you can’t get lost walking it. If you do, and I have, it is usually a call to pay closer attention to some aspect of your life, perhaps something you have been ignoring.
My adventure with the labyrinth began in 1995. I happened on an article by Rev. Lauren Artress, the Episcopalian Minister from Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. Rev. Artress has been instrumental in reviving this archetypal symbol and encouraging its use as a spiritual meditation tool. She sees the labyrinth as a tool to center oneself, a way to integrate and find wholeness in today’s hectic world. Walking the labyrinth is more about the journey than the destination, about being rather than doing.
Joseph Campbell says, “The soul thinks in images”. The labyrinth as image/symbol touched a yearning deep within me. I began to research and read anything I could about it. A few months later, a dear friend and former member of your congregation, Nadeane Nelson alerted me to a workshop Rev. Artress was to give in Naramata. She encouraged me to attend. To be here today feels like a labyrinth journey of sorts — a special connection on a number of levels for me.
If you would please turn to the front of your order of service, you will see two labyrinth designs. The design on the upper left is called the classical seven-circuit labyrinth. The seven circuits refer to the seven paths that lead to the center or goal. Another name for it is the Cretan labyrinth because it is associated with the myth of the Minotaur.
The bottom right is the medieval design found on the floor in the nave of the 13th Century Cathedral at Chartres in France. This design has eleven circuits or pathways divided into four quadrants.
Both designs are powerful to walk. What fascinates me about the classical design is how it is found in different cultures, at different times in vastly separated parts of our world. The pattern is found on Cretan coins made 2500 years ago. The coastline of the Scandinavia region is dotted with classical labyrinths created by stones. It is said the fishermen walked them to draw the storms into the center so they could fish safely. It is found in the spirituality of several Native American tribes in Southwestern USA . A three circuit one is found in the Nazca lines in Peru. Others can be found carved into stones in Spain, Italy, and China or as turf designs in Great Britain and Europe.
Both designs are formed by the principles of sacred geometry, that pattern of numbers inherent in nature whereby Spirit infuses matter and brings the cosmos into form. The magnificent cathedrals of medieval Europe were built using the principles of sacred geometry and they are visual example of harmony and sacred spaces. Some intriguing facts about the Chartres labyrinth include: Within the 6 petal flower or rose design in the center of this labyrinth is a mystical 13-pointed star. High above the altar at the Chartres Cathedral is a stained glass window also in a rose pattern. If you collapse that wall forward onto the labyrinth area the Center of the stain glass window will fit over the center of the labyrinth. It’s the same size.
In many spiritual traditions and also in the Middle Ages it was customary for Christians to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem to walk where Jesus walked… a journey to become closer to God. Due to the turmoil of the Crusades such pilgrimages were dangerous. Chartres Cathedral was one of seven Cathedrals designated as pilgrimage cathedrals. Walking the labyrinths in these cathedrals was a substitute for an actual pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
Today walking the labyrinth is a metaphor for life’s journey. It is a symbol that creates a sacred space and place to journey to the center of our deepest self and then return to the world, perhaps more grounded, perhaps with a broader understanding of ourselves. Is there a right or wrong way to walk a labyrinth? Not really.
The question is more about what is your intention. If walked with a spiritual intention it will call you to an act of surrender/trust– trusting the path you are on, trusting the path to lead you.
Some questions you may want to ask before you enter are:
Do I want to use this walk to consider a pressing concern or simply to be open to whatever comes?
Will I act on intuitive urges to express myself with body movements?
Will I embrace, resist, or simply notice insights that flash into my head?
There are suggested ways of how to use the labyrinth when considering a problem. One approach is to see the journey in is a time of releasing/pondering the concern. The Center is for being receptive and open to any insights or clarity. The return journey is a time of integration in order to live the insight. What can happen when you walk the labyrinth? At the very least you will get some exercise. Walking a full sized Chartres labyrinth takes over 800 steps. The right and left hand walking movements may also help with balancing you on a physical level. Perhaps the insights won’t come in the moment. Like the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus – who didn’t recognize Jesus after his resurrection even when he explained the meaning of the scriptures to them? Afterwards they said, “Did not our hearts burn within us.”
This is what happened to a friend.
I invited her to come and walk the labyrinth with me. She had never walked one before. She had also just lost her unborn child and was in grief. We prayerfully walked the labyrinth and then visited some more. I asked her how the experience had been for her. She said oh, nothing happened and then she burst into tears. She shared with me that when she was in the center of the labyrinth she had remembered a saying from grade school:
Two bubbles found they had rainbows on their curves. They flickered out saying, “It was worth being a bubble, just to have held that rainbow thirty seconds.”
This remembrance touched her grieving soul. What are some other things that can happen or come to you during a labyrinth walk?
Self-awareness, insights, answers to questions, resistance, memories, ideas, a sense of God’s presence, tears, longings, sensations of pain, hopes, new dreams, images, songs, concern for others release, visions, commitment and on and on… What happens may depend on an attitude of openness and even courage perhaps, a readiness and willingness to just be in the presence of the sacred.
Walking the labyrinth at Emmanuella House of Prayer has some added symbols for life’s journey. There are trees in the pathways. When I first walked it I was annoyed with one of the bigger ones. How do I get around this obstacle in my path?… literally.
Will I hang on and swing myself around without going outside the path?
Will I simply step off the path and go around?
Other times I’m so glad to see the trees. Yes, something I can hang onto and rest!
What I noticed yesterday when I walked the labyrinth was that those who have been walking it are adjusting the pathway around those trees – the flow is now gentler. Meditative walking as a group experience can also be a very moving, connecting experience. – It can be particularly powerful when the group sings a hymn or chants a simple chant together while walking the labyrinth slowly. When walking as a group you have the symbolism of many journeys on the one path. It’s an intriguing experience to be moving in the same direction as the person in front or behind you, then finding yourself going in a different direction, or to be right beside someone on the path and then to discover they have turned and are now on the other side of the labyrinth. Whether you are heading into the center and they are heading out from the center you are both on the same path.
The labyrinth allows us to see and calls us to accept things that seem opposite but are not. The labyrinth is an archetypal symbol and tool for our spiritual journey. Rev. Lauren Artress sees it as a tool for transformation. As a practice it unites body, mind and spirit. As a walking meditation it is one way to seek wholeness in an increasingly fragmented world. It is a symbol for death and rebirth, an inward journeying to ground us and center us and then return us to live a fuller, more creative, connected life of service. Walking the labyrinth is a reminder that walking with the Divine is a journey where things develop and change; where the Divine invites us to participate fully, completely body, soul and spirit in our lives in this moment, in this time, and in this place.
Where can you walk a labyrinth in the Okanagan?
First United Church on the corner of Richter and Bernard has an almost full-size Chartes design labyrinth. It is just 2 feet smaller in diameter than the one in Chartres. Outdoor labyrinths of this design can be found in Naramata at the Naramata Center, Emmanuella House of Prayer on Commonage Road near Carr’s Landing north of Winfield, Sorrento – Anglican Retreat Centre there. A friend informed me she heard a news report about one being built at Fintry.
I have built temporary classical designs in the snow or drawn on the ground. I’m sure there are others I don’t know about so please let me know about them after the service.
I’d just like close with a quotation from Rev. Artress:
“Walking the labyrinth is a spiritual discipline that invites us to trust the path,
to surrender to the many turns our lives take and to walk through the confusion,
the fear, the anger, and grief that we cannot avoid experiencing as we live our earthly lives.
The Labyrinth is a place where we can open ourselves to the Holy Spirit.”
– Rev. Dr. Lauren Artress