LABYRINTH [LAB-uh-rinth]: an intricate pattern of paths leading to central location


Many people confuse the concept of labyrinth with that of a maze.  That includes dictionaries, such as

If we were to listen to the dictionary experts, we would believe that a labyrinth is a confusing, intentionally mysterious, configuration meant to lead people through a maze of corridors which can become disorienting and frightening.   We are, perhaps, most familiar with corn mazes that farmers create just before removing the corn stalks from their fields.  They used their tractors to create a wildly confusing path through the tall stalks for entertainment.   Some people will navigate such a situation with ease, exiting on time from the appointed exit.

Others, however, can become disoriented and find themselves stumbling around in the field for extended periods of time, maybe eventually calling for help in being rescued from the claustrophobic creation.  One article in the papers recently told of a farmer using a drone to locate lost people and assist them in getting “out.”

Mazes are not labyrinths.  To the contrary, a labyrinth is a systematically-organized configuration, usually without walls of any kind, that simply leads the walker on a spiritual journey to a central location of prayer and meditation.  There is no “trick” to a labyrinth. It is crystal clear from the beginning that the pilgrim on a journey in a labyrinth will easily find (her) way to the center, after weaving through the concentric circles in a quiet, peaceful and gentle walk which is anything except mysterious or frightening.  After having spent some time in the center circle, the pilgrim retraces her steps to the entrance, often encountering others along the way who are finding their way to the center.

The modern labyrinth which is found in places of retreat or in edifices of worship, or even in public squares, is patterned after the labyrinth found in the magnificent Cathedral of Chartres, France.

Undoubtedly the best known labyrinth of its type, the beautifully preserved pavement labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral, France, was constructed during the second decade of the 13th century. The labyrinth is 12.9 metres (42.3 ft.) in diameter and fills the width of the nave. While much has been written about the purpose of this labyrinth, little contemporary documentation survives, although it is known that labyrinths in the French cathedrals were the scene of Easter dances carried out by the clergy. It is also popularly assumed that they symbolise the long tortuous path that pilgrims would have followed to visit this, and other shrines and cathedrals, during the medieval period.” *

After the Chartres labyrinth was uncovered and displayed it became a popular place for Christian travelers to visit.  Soon they were bringing back the dimensions of the labyrinth and re-creating one in their own community.  Perhaps the best known of these in the United States is found at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco. **  Built on the portico of the Cathedral is the first of the two labyrinths found at Grace.  Thus, it is available 24/7 every day (and night) of the year. It is not at all unusual to find people walking the labyrinth in the middle of the night as a spiritual exercise.

I found it interesting on a visit to Grace Cathedral  to find a postal deliverer who had just ended his route of numerous miles, remove his boots and walk the labyrinth.   He told us that he did this daily as a prayer form in which he remembered the people on his route and prayed for their safety and well-being.

Hundreds of labyrinths exist throughout the country, many in public places, others in private gardens such as the one pictured above.   There is no stated ritual or liturgy of a labyrinth.  Those who construct them and maintain them have a purpose, usually a high one leading to a spiritual goal.


Photo Credit: catherine anderson

*Chartres labyrinth

** Grace Cathedral, San Francisco

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