One of the things I like best about Advent is that I’m more aware of things, and more alert to words and actions and thoughts than probably any other time of year. This week, I think it was on Facebook, I saw the word labyrinth. I don’t remember in what context nor do I remember where precisely I saw it, but I do remember seeing the word and having it buzz through my brain for most of the day.
A labyrinth is used frequently as a meditative tool, a chance to walk a directed path and allow the mind to pray, meditate, or even to be deliberately empty of thought and open to sorts of epiphanies.
Many people confuse mazes with labyrinths. The difference is that a maze is quite often square, the paths between tall walls of some thick material like a hedge, cornfield, or pile of hay. A walker must choose one of several routes that will lead them to an exit somewhere other than the point of entry. The object is to make one confused and needing to backtrack to a junction to choose a different path. A labyrinth, on the other hand, is quite often in the form of a circle with a definite way in and out, both beginning and ending at the same point.
I learned about labyrinths in the 80s, when I heard the word, and it caught my attention. I found a book by The Rev. Dr. Lauren Artress entitled Walking the Sacred Path, which explained the history of labyrinths, their meaning, and their purpose. It describes the various types of labyrinths and how to use any size or shaped labyrinth as a tool for spiritual growth.
Most of us are familiar with the labyrinth in Greek mythology that held the Minotaur. In the Middle Ages, to walk a labyrinth was taken as a substitute for a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for those who were physically or financially unable to make the actual journey. The labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral (ca. 1201 CE) is undoubtedly one of the best-known and sparked Dr. Artress’s interest in labyrinths. It is considered the classic form, circular with 11 circuits. Others can be just a few circuits in length.
An opening in the path invites a walker to enter and follow the winding way to a circle or resting place in the center. On the way in, it is recommended that the pilgrim thinks about why they are making this journey such as looking for clarity on a topic, asking a question, opening up oneself to what could be a new way of thinking or a closer communion with God. Pilgrims walk slowly and deliberately as there is no rush, no specific length of time that is necessary to spend on the journey to the center and beyond.
The center is a place that encourages the walker to stop and rest, after which they begin the path back to the It could be a time for a message from God or a prayer to God. One finds that when one walks out of the labyrinth it’s been basically out the same and the same way that you came in only a little different.
I have walked several labyrinths, and I also have done them online where I can take my finger and trace the path, I have seen some little sand labyrinths that can be used to trace with a finger or stylus, and a wooden labyrinth that can be done the same way. Labyrinths can be large, many feet across, or a foot or less. It’s not the size of the circuits; it’s a process of moving along its path that is important.
I think that Advent makes an excellent time to think about walking a labyrinth if one is available. Advent is about preparing, looking at something familiar and looking to see it with new eyes. It’s a manner of connecting with God in the form of motion rather than quietly kneeling or sitting when one prays or reflects. Advent is a good time to use the motion to begin to learn to do things like theological reflections or meditations while one is moving, whether through a park, on a beach, or even just around the neighborhood. It’s the idea that connections with God can be made when the body may be engaged in something active. I imagine that the people who initially walked to Jerusalem offered up many prayers on that journey for whatever it was they were seeking from the mission. I know that the times that I have walked labyrinths, I found it to be a calming experience, one that allows me to just be empty in my mind and not having to concentrate on running into somebody on the sidewalk or reaching a corner and having to stop to allow traffic to go by. I follow the path that’s laid out, whether by natural stones, shaped pieces of granite or marble, brick pavers, outlined with low hedges or simply lines drawn in sand or soil. Its benefit is allowing me to put aside whatever worries and anxieties I have and move with intent but also with peace.
Take a look around your area. Is there a labyrinth handy that you might want to explore? If the snow is a foot deep on the ground and the labyrinth can’t be seen, use the Internet to pull up an image and lightly follow it on the screen using the same intent that you would if you were actually walking. Most of all, think of it as an exploration and at the and look for an epiphany of new ways of serving, listening, or praying.
Give it a try. Think of it as a new Advent exercise that can also be done almost any time of year. Most importantly, remember that you are going with God. The rest will come.
Links to resources on labyrinths:
Artress, Lauren; Walking a Sacred Path: Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Sacred Path.
The Labyrinth Society – includes sources for finding labyrinths in local areas.
Veriditas – Original organization started by Dr. Artress. Site has lots of information on history and resources.
Image : A Woman Walking a Labyrinth, author JamesJen, found on Wikimedia Commons.
Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for an Education for Ministry group, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, and retired. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter. She is also owned by three cats.