What’s a labyrinth?
A labyrinth looks like a maze, except you can’t get lost in a labyrinth, there’s only one route through. The large ones can be walked and you sometimes see smaller ones used as a decorative motif.
It looks a bit like a spiral, what makes it Christian?
The original labyrinths are pre-Christian and they are found throughout the ancient world. A labyrinth becomes Christian through position, intent and use. They were popular in Christian Europe during the middle ages and there’s a famous one dating from the 13th century in the nave of Chartres cathedral in France. There has been a resurgence of interest in labyrinths during the late 20th century.
So what did Christians do with labyrinths?
Labyrinths may have been walked to symbolise pilgrimage, a journey through life, the inner journey to meet God at the centre. They gave people a means of contemplation through walking.
Contemplation, what’s that?
Contemplation is a form of traditional prayer. It’s a way of looking at things, through eyes and senses or the mind, to pass beyond the physical to an experience with God. It is a way of coming to know God through prayer and listening, which is both simple and profound.
What about the context of the church today? Are they relevant?
Labyrinths are part of a new tradition which has grown from the old. Walking is one of the most accessible spiritual practices and it is as relevant today as it was in the past. Relax, solviture ambulando (“it is solved by walking”). Augustine of Hippo* did not explain what “it” might be, nor do we need to know what we want to gain from walking with God.
What happens, what do you do?
Think of a labyrinth in three parts: release, rest and return. As you enter, start to focus on God and letting go. What might you be holding on to which is keeping you from being close with God? You might have the opportunity to pick up a stone, for instance, and drop it into a bowl of water, symbolically releasing all that hinders your journey towards God. When you come to the centre of labyrinth, take time to be with God: stop, rest and listen. And when it’s time to leave, walk back along the way and there may be the chance to reflect on new beginnings, new opportunities, planting a seed for the future.
Of course, not all labyrinths have activities, you may find that you walk the labyrinth in a group or in a group or in God’s company alone.
All this walking and praying sounds simple, does it work?
It is difficult to evaluate this practice, as it is with any other form of meditation or contemplation because it is highly personal. The success and popularity of the labyrinth at St Paul’s Cathedral has been cited by Sally Welch in her book Walking the Labyrinth as a reason why other churches are exploring the possibilities labyrinths offer for spiritual development. It works for some people.
Just walk the labyrinth, walk with no expectation, no preconceived ideas and see what happens. Listen to what God is saying to you.
How can I explore this tradition?
You could visit a labyrinth (check out http://labyrinthlocator.com/ which has a list of labyrinths world wide). There are 117 labyrinths listed in England alone and they range from labyrinths set into the floors of churches, to outdoor ones made of turf , stone or wood. Some are ornamental and some you can walk.
Or walk the labyrinth at St Mark’s during Holy Week – open on:
29th March 6:00-7pm
30th March 9:30-11am
31st March 9:30-11am
2nd April 9:30-11am
4th April 10:30-12noon
Adapted from a leaflet written by Lesley Shatwell