Labyrinth at St. Hilda's
Chartres Labyrinth | Three Fold Mystical
Tradition | Walking the Labyrinth: The
Process | Symbolism & Meanings |
St. Hilda's Labyrinth Celtic Symbols |
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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 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
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
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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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
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
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
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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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
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
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
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
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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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
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
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
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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Symbols on the St. Hilda’s Labyrinth
The Celtic peoples have given us seven enduring spiritual
- A deep respect of nature, regarding creation as the fifth
- 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
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.
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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.
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
Pondering the Labyrinth: Questions to Pray on the
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,
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,
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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