Labyrinth at St. Hilda's
Introduction | Chartres Labyrinth | Three Fold Mystical Tradition | Walking the Labyrinth: The Process | Symbolism & Meanings | St. Hilda's Labyrinth Celtic Symbols | Related Resources |
The Labyrinth Society Annual Gathering
Introduction to Labyrinths
Walking the labyrinth is an ancient spiritual act that is being rediscovered during our time.
Usually constructed from circular patterns, labyrinths are based on principles of sacred geometry. Sometimes called “divine imprints”, they are found around the world as sacred patterns that have been passed down through the ages for at least 4,000 years. When a pattern of a certain size is constructed or placed on the ground, it can be used for walking meditations and rituals.
Labyrinths and their geometric cousins (spirals and mandalas) can be found in almost every religious tradition. For example, the Kabbala, or Tree of Life, is found in the Jewish mystical tradition. The Hopi Medicine Wheel, and the Man in the Maze are two forms from the Native American labyrinth traditions. The Cretan labyrinth, the remains of which can be found on the island of Crete, has seven path rings and is the oldest known labyrinth (4,000 or 5.000 years old).
In Europe, the Celts and later the early Christian Celtic Church revered labyrinths and frequently built them in natural settings. Sacred dances would be performed in them to celebrate solar and religious festivals. During the Middle Ages, labyrinths were created in churches and cathedrals throughout France and Northern Italy. These characteristically flat church or pavement labyrinths were inlaid into the floor of the nave of the church.
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The Chartres Labyrinth
The labyrinth constructed at St. Hilda’s is an 11-circuit labyrinth. It is a replica of the one embedded in the floor of Chartres Cathedral in France. The design of this labyrinth, and many of the other church labyrinths in Europe, is a reworking of the ancient labyrinth design in which an equal-armed cross is emphasized and surrounded by a web of concentric circles. As with many Christian symbols, this was an adaptation of a symbol; that is known to have predated the Christian faith. This medieval variation is considered a breakthrough in design because it is less linear than the preceding, more formal, Roman design that developed from quadrant to quadrant. The medieval design made one path as long as possible, starting at the outer circumference and leading to the centre. Fraught with twists and turns, the path’s meanderings were considered symbolic representations of the Christian pilgrim’s journey to the Holy City of Jerusalem and of one’s own journey through life. This classical design is sometimes referred to as “the Chartres Labyrinth” due to the location of its best known example. The labyrinth was built at Chartres in the early 13th century (~ 1215 A.D.). No one knows the source of this classical 11-circuit labyrinth design, and much of its spiritual meaning and use has been lost.
The Chartres Labyrinth is located in the west end of the nave, the central body of the cathedral. When you walk in the main doors and look towards the high altar, you see the center of the labyrinth on the floor about 50 feet in front of you. It is approximately 42 feet in diameter and the path is 16 inches wide. At Chartres, the center of the Rose Window mirrors the center of the labyrinth. The cathedral is perfectly proportioned, so that if we put the west wall of the cathedral on hinges and folded it down on the labyrinth, the Rose Window would fit almost perfectly over the labyrinth.
Labyrinth or Maze?
The difference between a labyrinth used for meditation and mazes can be confusing. Mazes often have many entrances, dead-ends and cul-de-sacs that frequently confound the human mind. In contrast, meditation labyrinths offer only one path. By following the one path to the center, the seeker can use the labyrinth to quiet his or her mind and find peace and illumination at the center of his or her being. “As soon as one enters the labyrinth, one realizes that the path of the labyrinth serves as a metaphor for one’s spiritual journey. The walk, and all that happens on it, can be grasped through the intuitive, pattern-discerning faculty of the person walking it. The genius of this tool is that it reflects back to the seeker whatever he or she needs to discover from the perspective of a new level of conscious awareness.”
The Labyrinth is a Universal Meditation Tool
Anyone from any tradition or spiritual path can walk into the labyrinth and, through reflecting in the present moment, can benefit from it. A meditation labyrinth is one of many tools that can be used for spiritual practice. Like any tool, it is best used with a proper, good, intention. A church or temple can be used simply as a refuge from a rainstorm, but it can be so much more with a different intention. The same is true of the labyrinth. The seeker is only asked to put one foot in front of the other. By stepping into the labyrinth, we are choosing once again to walk the contemplative spiritual path. We are agreeing to let ourselves be open to see, to be free to hear, and to becoming real enough to respond. The labyrinth is a prayer path, a crucible of change, a meditation tool, a blueprint where psyche meets soul.
The best way to learn about the labyrinth is to walk a well-constructed one a few times, with an open heart and an open mind. Then allow your experience to guide you as to whether this will be a useful spiritual tool for you.
The Chartres Labyrinth and the Pilgrim’s Journey
Pilgrims are persons in motion – passing through territories not their own – seeking something we might call completion, or perhaps the word clarity will do as well, a goal to which only the spirit’s compass points the way.
Richard R. Niebuhr in Pilgrims and Pioneers
“The tradition of pilgrimage is as old as religion itself. Worshippers on pilgrimage traveled to holy festivals whether to solstice celebrations, to Mecca to gather around the Ka’aba for the high holy days of Islam, or to Easter festivals in the Holy City of Jerusalem. Pilgrimages were a mixture of religious duty and holiday relaxation for the peasant, the commoner and rich land owner alike. The journey was often embarked on in groups with designated places to stay at night. The pilgrims were restless to explore the mystical holy places, and many were in search of physical or spiritual healing.
The Christian story, which emphasized the humanity of Christ, fascinated the pilgrims. In the Middle Ages, most people did not read. As a result, they were much more oriented to the senses than we are today. They learned the story by traveling to Jerusalem to walk where Jesus walked, to pray where he prayed, and to experience, in a solemn moment, where he died. Unlike today, Pilgrims encountered the truth of the Christian mystery through an ongoing intimacy with all their senses.
When a person committed his or her life to Christ in the early Middle Ages, they sometimes made a vow to make a pilgrimage to the Holy City of Jerusalem. However, by the 12th century when the Crusades swept across Europe and the ownership of Jerusalem was in tumultuous flux, travel became dangerous and expensive. In response to this situation, the Roman Church appointed seven pilgrimage cathedrals to become “Jerusalem” for pilgrims. Consequently, in the pilgrimage tradition, the path within the labyrinth was called the Chemin de Jerusalem and the center of the labyrinth was called “New Jerusalem”.
The walk into the labyrinth marked the end of the physical journey across the countryside and served as a symbolic entry-way into the spiritual realms of the Celestial City. The image of the Celestial City – taken straight out of the Book of Revelation to John – captivated the religious imagination of many during the Middle Ages. The wondrous Gothic cathedrals, with painted walls either in bright, even gaudy colours, or else white-washed, were designed to represent the Celestial City. The stained glass windows – when illuminated by the sun – created the sense of colourful, dancing jewels, allowing the pilgrim to experience the awesome mystery of the City of God.”
The Journey of Life
A fundamental approach to the labyrinth is to see it as a metaphor for life’s journey. The labyrinth reminds us that all of life, with its joys, sorrows, twists and turns, is a journey that comes from God (birth) and goes to God (death). It is a physical metaphor for the journey of healing, spiritual and emotional growth and transformation. Following the path is like any journey. Sometimes you feel you are at or nearing your destination, and at other times you may feel distant or even lost. Only by faithfully keeping to the path will you arrive at the physical center of the labyrinth, which signifies God, the center of our lives and souls.
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Applying the Three Fold Mystical Tradition to the Labyrinth
In the Christian mystical tradition, the journey to God was articulated in the three stages. These stages have become recognized as being universal to meditation: to release and quiet; to open and receive; and to take what was gained back out into the world.
The Three Stages
The first part of the Three- Fold Mystical Path is Purgation. This archaic word is from the root word “to purge”, meaning to cleanse, to let go. Shedding is another way of describing the experience. The mystical word is empting or releasing. It is believed that monks journeyed the first part of the labyrinth Purgation on their knees as a penitential act. This was not done for reasons of punishment as we might think, but as a way to humble oneself before God.
The second stage of the Three-Fold Path, Illumination, is found in the center of the labyrinth. Usually it is a surprise to reach the center because the long winding path seems “illogical” and cannot be figured out by the linear mind. After quieting the mind in the first part of the walk, the center presents a new experience: a place of meditation and prayer. Often people at this stage in the walk find insight into their situation in life, or clarity about a certain problem, hence the label “illumination”. As one enters the
center, the instruction is simple: enter with an open heart and mind; receive what there is for you.
The third stage, Union, begins when you leave the center of the labyrinth and continues as you retrace the path that brought you in. In this stage the meditation takes on a grounded, energized feeling. Many people who have had an important experience in the center feel that this third stage of the labyrinth gives them a way of integrating the insights they received. Others feel that this stage stokes the creative fires within. It energizes insight. It empowers, invites, and even pushes us to be more authentic and confident and to take risks with our gifts in the world. Union means communing with God.
The Monastic Orders experienced a union with God through their community life by creating a fulfilling balance between the work that was assigned, sleep and the many hours of worship attended daily. Our times present a similar challenge: we struggle to find balance between work, sleep, family and friends, leisure and spiritual life. The lack of structured communities in which people share work responsibilities and the “every person for himself or herself” mentality (or every family for itself) prevalent in our highly individualistic society makes the task of finding balance even more difficult.
Monastic communities offered a mystical spirituality that spoke to highly intuitive and intensely introverted people and (paradoxically to some) at the same time provided an economic structure throughout Europe. Monasteries during the Middle Ages provided schools and hospitals managed by monks; yet, at the same time, cloistered life helped the monks stay inwardly directed. Today, without any reliable structure directing us, the way of union needs to be re-thought. Our times call for most of us to be outer-directed. We are called to action in every aspect of our society in order to meet the spiritual challenges that confront us in the 21st century. Gratefully, there are still people in religious orders holding the candle for deep contemplation, but the majority of people involved in the spiritual transformation are searching for a path that guides them to service in the world in an active, extroverted, compassionate way. The third stage of the labyrinth empowers the seeker to move back into the world replenished and directed – which makes the labyrinth a particularly powerful tool for transformation.
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Walking the Labyrinth: The Process
The purpose of all spiritual disciplines – prayer, fasting, meditation – is to help create an open attentiveness that enables us to receive and renew our awareness of our grounding and wholeness in God.
The Experience of Walking Meditation
Many of us have trouble quieting our minds. The Buddhists call the distracted state of mind the “monkey mind”, which is an apt image of what the mind is frequently like: thoughts swinging like monkeys from branch to branch, chattering away without any rhyme or conscious reason. When the mind is quiet, we feel peaceful and open, aware of a silence that embraces the universe.
Complete quiet in the mind is not a realistic goal for most of us. Instead, the task is to dis-identify with the thoughts going through our minds. Don’t get hooked by the thoughts, let them go. Thomas Keating, a Cistercian monk who teaches Centering Prayer (meditation) in the Christian tradition, described the mind as a still lake. A thought is like a fish that swims through it. If you get involved with the fish (“Gee what an unusual fish, I wonder what it is called?”), then you are hooked. Many of us have discovered through learning meditation how difficult it is to quiet the mind; yet, the rewards are great.
In the labyrinth, the sheer act of walking a complicated, attention demanding path begins to focus the mind. Thoughts of daily tasks and experiences become less intrusive. A quiet mind does not happen automatically. You must gently guide the mind with the intention of letting go of extraneous thoughts. This is much easier to do when your whole body is moving – when you are walking. Movement takes away the excess charge of psychic energy that disturbs our efforts to quiet our thought processes.
Two Basic Approaches to the Walk.
One way to walk the labyrinth is to choose to let all thought go and simply open yourself to your experience with gracious attention. Usually – though not always – quieting happens in the first stage of the walk. After the mind is quiet, you can choose to remain in the quiet. Or use the labyrinth as a prayer path. Simply begin to talk to God. This is an indication that you are ready to receive what is there for you, or you allow a sincere part of your being to find its voice.
A second approach to a labyrinth walk is to consider a question. Concentrate on the question as you walk in. Amplify your thoughts about it; let all else go but your question. When you walk into the center with an open heart and an open mind, you are opening yourself to receiving new information, new insights about yourself.
Guidelines for the Walk
Find your pace. In our chaotic world we are often pushed beyond a comfortable rhythm. In this state we lose the sense of our own needs. To make matters worse, we are often rushed and then forced to wait. Anyone who has hurried to the bank only to stand in line knows the feeling. Ironically, the same thing can happen with the labyrinth, but there is a difference. The labyrinth helps us find what our natural pace would be and draws our attention to it when we are not honouring it.
Along with finding your pace, support your movement through the labyrinth by becoming conscious of your breath. Let your breath flow smoothly in and out of your body. It can be coordinated with each step – as is done in the Buddhist walking meditation – if you choose. Let your experience be your guide.
Each experience in the labyrinth is different, even if you walk it often in a short period of time. The pace usually differs each time as well. It can change dramatically within the different stages of the walk. When the labyrinth has more than a comfortable number of seekers on it, you can “pass” people if you want to continue to honour the intuitive pace your inner process has set. If you are moving at a slower pace, you can allow people to pass you. At first people are uncomfortable with the idea of “passing” someone on the labyrinth. It looks competitive, especially since the walk is a spiritual exercise. Again, these kinds of thoughts and feelings, we hope, are greeted from a spacious place inside that smiles knowingly about the machinations of the human ego. On the spiritual path we meet every and all things. To find our pace, to allow spaciousness within, to be receptive to all experience, and to be aware of the habitual thoughts and issues that hamper our spiritual development is a road to self-knowledge.
Summary of How to Walk the Labyrinth
Pause at the entry way to allow yourself to be fully conscious of the act of stepping into the labyrinth. Allow about a minute, or several turns on the path, to create some space between yourself and the person in front of you. Some
ritual act, such as a bow, may feel appropriate during the labyrinth walk. Do what comes naturally.
Follow your pace. Allow your body to determine the pace. If you allow a rapid pace and the person in front of you is moving slower, feel free to move around this person. This is easiest to do at the turns by turning earlier. If you are moving slowly, you can step onto the labyrs (wide spaces at the turns) to allow others to pass.
The narrow path is a two-way street. If you are going in and another person is going out, you will meet on the path. If you want to keep in an inward meditative state, simply do not make eye contact. If you meet someone you know, a touch of the hand or a hug may be an important acknowledgement of being on the path together.
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Symbolism and Meanings Found in the Chartres Labyrinth
Circles and Spirals
The circle is the symbol of unity or union and it is the primary shape of all labyrinths. The circle in sacred geometry represents the incessant movement of the universe (uncomprehensible) as opposed to the square which represents comprehensible order. The labyrinth is a close cousin to the spiral and it, too, reflects the cyclical element of nature and is regarded as the symbol of eternal life.
The labyrinth functions like a spiral, creating a vortex in its center. Upon entering, the path winds in a clockwise pattern. Energy is being drawn out. Upon leaving the center the walker goes in a counter clockwise direction. The unwinding path integrates and empowers us on our walk back out. We are literally ushered back out into the world in a strengthened condition.
The path lies in 11 concentric circles with the 12th being the labyrinth center. The path meanders throughout the whole circle. There are 34 turns on the path going into the center. Six are semi-right turns and 28 are 180° turns. So the 12 rings that form the 11 pathways may symbolically represent, the 12 apostles, 12 tribes of Israel or 12 months of the year. Twelve is a mystical number in Christianity. In sacred geometry three represents heaven and four represents earth. Twelve is the product of 3 x 4 and, therefore, the path which flows through the whole is then representative of all creation.
The obvious metaphor for the path is the difficult path to salvation, with its many twists and turns. Since we cannot see a straight path to our destination, the labyrinth can be viewed as a metaphor for our lives. We learn to surrender to the path (Christ) and trust that he will lead us on our journey.
The path can also be viewed as grace or the Church guiding us through chaos.
The Cruciform and Labyrs
The labyrinth is divided equally into four quadrants that make an equal-armed cross or cruciform. The four arms represent in symbol what is thought to be the essential
structure of the universe for example, the four spatial directions, the four elements (earth, wind, water and fire), the four seasons and, most important, salvation through the cross. The four arms of the cross emerging from the center seem to give order to the would-be chaos of the meandering path around it.
The Chartres labyrinth cross or cruciform is delineated by the 10 labyrs (labyr means to turn and this is the root of the word labyrinth). The labyrs are double-ax shaped and visible at the turns and between turns. They are traditionally seen as a symbol of women’s power and creativity.
The Centre Rosette
In the Middle Ages, the rose was regarded as a symbol for the Virgin Mary. Because of its association with the myths of Percival and the Holy Grail at that time, it also was seen as a sign of beauty and love. The rose becomes symbolic of both human and divine love, of passionate love, but also love beyond passion. The single rose became a symbol of a simple acceptance of God’s love for the world.
Unlike a normal rose (which has five petals) the rosette has six petals and is steeped in mysticism. Although associated with the Rose of Sharon, which refers to Mary, it may also represent the Holy Spirit (wisdom and enlightenment). The six petals may have corresponded to the story of the six days of creation. In other mystical traditions, the petals can be viewed as the levels of evolution (mineral, plant, animal, humankind, angelic and divine).
The lunations are the outer ring of partial circles that complete the outside circle of the labyrinth. They are unique to the Chartres design.
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Celtic Symbols on the St. Hilda’s Labyrinth
The Celtic peoples have given us seven enduring spiritual principles:
- A deep respect of nature, regarding creation as the fifth Gospel.
- Quiet care for all living things.
- The love of learning.
- A wonder-lust or migratory nature.
- Love of silence and solitude.
- Understanding of time as a sacred reality and an appreciation of ordinary life, worshipping God through everyday life, and with great joy.
- The value of family and clan affiliation, and especially spiritual ties of soul friends.
To show our respect for such wisdom, two Celtic designs adorn the St. Hilda’s labyrinth.
To mark the entrance to the labyrinth is a Celtic zoomorphic design painted in red. Traditionally, Celtic monks used intricate knotwork and zoomorphic designs (odd animals intertwined in uncomfortable ways) as mere filler for their illuminated gospel texts. They had no discernible meaning.
However, because of their unique design components, zoomorphs are now associated with transformations.
Transformation, change, action, and passion are also associated with red, the colour of fire. Therefore, this entrance symbol may well be an appropriate sign for the journey ahead.
At the labyrinth’s centre is a Celtic triquetra. This interlocked knotwork design of three stylized fish (whales) is often interpreted as the Trinity knot. It is a perfect representation of the concept of "three in one" in Christian trinity beliefs. Having the design enclosed within the centre circle further emphasizes the unity theme.
The triquetra can also be considered to represent the triplicities of mind, body, and soul, as well as the three domains of earth- earth, sea, and sky.
Final Reflection: The Labyrinth as a “Thinning Place”
In Celtic Christianity, places where people felt most strongly connected with God’s presence were referred to as thin places. It was these places in nature (forest groves, hilltops and deep wells) that the seen and unseen worlds were most closely connected, and the inhabitants of both worlds could momentarily touch the other. Today our churches, temples and sacred sites are the new thin places to meet the Divine. Here, at St Hilda’s, we have opportunities to encounter many thinning places – whether it be during Eucharistic or Taize services, while singing or praying, or through the love of a welcoming inclusive community. The labyrinth is a welcome addition; and with the right intent can also become a new thinning place for the modern pilgrim/spiritual seeker.This outward journey is an archetype with which we can have a direct experience. We can walk it. It can serve to frame the inward journey – a journey of repentance, forgiveness and rebirth, a journey that seeks a deeper faith, and greater holiness, a journey in search of God.
A large portion of this brochure (particularly, information on pgs 6-13) was taken from the booklet “The Grace Cathedral Labyrinth” by Rev. Dr. Lauren Artress, Canon of Grace Cathedral, Veriditas, 1100 California Street, San Francisco, CA. 94108.
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Walking a Sacred Path: Rediscovering the
Labyrinth as a Spiritual Tool by Lauren Artress
Lauren Artress's book explores the historical origins of the divine imprint of the labyrinth and shares the discoveries of modern-day seekers. Through her own personal story, she shows the tremendous potential of the labyrinth to inspire change and renewal in individuals and communities. Walking a Sacred Path will serve as a guide to help us develop the higher level of human awareness we need to survive in the twenty-first century.(Softcover)
Labyrinth and the Song of Songs
by Jill K. Hartwell Geoffrion
Geoffrion intertwines traditional labyrinthine concepts and exercises with excepts from the beloved work of poetic Scripture. Paperback.
Living the Labyrinth: 101 Ways to a Deeper Connection with the Sacred by Jill Kimberly Hartwell Geoffrion
Both beginners and seasoned practitioners will find here a multitude of new ways to use the labyrinth on their spiritual journeys. Paperback.
Pondering the Labyrinth: Questions to Pray on the Path
by Jill Kimberly Hartwell Geoffrion
Written for both the novice and the expert, this book offers hundreds of questions to enrich the journeys of those using the labyrinth as a tool for prayer and spiritual growth. 144 pages, paperback.
Labyrinths and Mazes
by Jürgen Hohmuth
Stunning bird’s-eye photographs capture the design, texture, and setting of each unique structure, from Bronze Age mazes to medieval labyrinths to contemporary structures made of sunflowers. Accompanying the photographs are brief essays from experts in the field, including Adrian Fisher, the world’s foremost designer of labyrinths and mazes. 176 pages, 160 color illustrations, hardcover.
Labyrinths: Walking Toward the Center
by Gernot Candolini
Labyrinth architect Candolini tells the story of his family’s four-month tour of Europe’s rich and diverse labyrinths and the spiritual traditions they encountered. Paperback.
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