Labyrinth

by Steve Varvis on January 8, 2014

The spiritual discipline of walking and praying through a Labyrinth has become popular among a number of Christian traditions in recent decades, including Evangelical traditions. Some experience this practice as a moving and valued discipline that connects them with God in Christ. However, it is sometimes seen as a foreign or non-Christian innovation or intrusion into biblical traditions of prayer.

I first became acquainted with labyrinths through my studies in Medieval literature and culture. One of the most famous labyrinths is embedded in the floor of Chartres Cathedral just south of Paris. Chartres is one of the most famous of medieval Cathedrals, and the labyrinth is well known because of this. The pattern of the labyrinth has been used in a famous study of Chaucer called “The Idea of the Canterbury Tales.”

If you remember the book starts with pilgrims on their way to Canterbury; along the way they tell stories, interlinked by commentary, introduction and themes. The way through the stories is as it were a labyrinthine pilgrimage of these 29 souls on their way to visit the shrine of the martyr Thomas Becket which was a place of miraculous healing. Along the way the pilgrims tell their stories, reveal their vices and virtues, and help direct us toward a fuller understanding of the Christian life. “The Tales” take patient reading; we are drawn in by their humor and pathos; but we find in them a kind of hidden sermonic quality–indeed the final story is a sermon on repentance.

Let me then explain through a personal example how the classic or medieval labyrinth might work. The first thing to note, it seems to me, is that the labyrinth is not a maze. It is not something you have to find your way out of. It is composed of a single winding path. One starts at the outer edge, follows the path as it wanders around nearer and farther from the center which is the goal and end point.

The Labyrinth is divided roughly by quarters around the circle. It moves closer to the center and farther toward the circumference. Then it moves from one quarter to another, and back and forth to the edges of the quarter. Look here at the picture and trace your finger along it on the screen and you will see the path way.

It is helpful to think of it as a pilgrimage toward God, Christ and holiness. It is an image of the Christian life with is possible unexpected turns, tragedies and joys, the necessity of faith in the midst of the unknown. It is more than a journey, it is a path toward a goal and an image and way to practice the Christian life of faith. It is an image of life as a pilgrimage to a holy place, the goal of the faithful Christian life.

Almost 15 years ago, my wife, son and I took a trip to San Francisco to enjoy a day in the city, but also to stop at Grace Cathedral on top of Nob Hill and to walk and pray through the labyrinth, a copy of the labyrinth of Chartres. Grace Cathedral has two of them, one of carpet sometimes found in the nave and one outside embedded in the concrete plaza. My son was about 10 or 11 at the time, and it was his first experience at the Cathedral. After we had walked through the Cathedral, and enjoyed the stained glass and statuary, we went outside to walk through the Labyrinth.

My son, naturally, started first and set off as if it were a race. My wife came behind giving him guidance as she made her way slowly and prayerfully along the path. I followed mostly silent and listening to their dialog. Some snippets of it will illustrate one way of understanding the purpose and meaning of the practice of walking and praying through a labyrinth.

Snippet 1

Mom: ‘We start here at the beginning. Just follow the path. You don’t have to go fast. At the end we will arrive at the center which looks something like rose.’

…after a couple of minutes

Son: ‘Hey the path is not going toward the center. What do I do?’

Mom: ‘Just follow the path and turn where it turns. Trust where it takes you.’

Snippet 2, after about five minutes

Son: ‘Mom, I’m far away from you. I feel like I have done something wrong. I don’t know what to do. I don’t like this!’

Mom: ‘Sometimes it seems like we are far away. But we are on the same path. Pretty soon we will be near each other again. Don’t worry. Pretty soon we will be close together.’

Snippet 3, another few minutes along

Son: ‘Hey Mom, I’m almost right next to you. We’re back together again like you said.’

Mom: ‘See, you just have to trust that you are on the right path, and follow it along. You didn’t get lost. And we met up again.’

Snippet 4

Son: ‘I’m at the center. I’m done! I am going to wait for you here.’

Mom: ‘Good. Just wait for me. I will be there as soon as I finish my walk on the pathway. It won’t be long.’

This simple dialogue between my wife and son became the basis for a little devotional time on the way home. The Labyrinth, I explained, ever the professor, is an ancient spiritual discipline that teaches us about our life and our spiritual life. But I didn’t have to explain much. They picked it up.

The pathway is an image of our walk of faith in this life. We follow the twists and turns in faith, trusting God to bring us to him even when we cannot see the direction of our path. Sometimes our walk takes us far from the ones we love and seemingly far from God. We seem alone and lost. But we are brought back together; we meet for a time. We continue to trust in the life and plan God has for us, each a unique walk following the gifts, times and callings he has given us, and coming together again. We pray along the path reflecting on where we have been, where we are now, and where we are going, the goal of our pilgrimage. We meet again in the love of Christ at the center. God is drawing us along all of the time. The rose at the center is an symbol of divine love.

It was a rich experience for us, one of those rare times in a family where we learned together about how God draws us to him, and how to walk in faith.

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