What is the Labyrinth?
The Labyrinth is an ancient tool for prayer and meditation, consisting of a winding path that begins at the periphery and always leads to a central space, and then out again by the same path. Although the words “labyrinth” and “maze” are sometimes used interchangeably, there are critical difference between them. Unlike a maze, a Labyrinth has no blind alleys or dead ends. There are no tricks or short cuts. The path winds throughout and becomes a mirror for where we are in our lives. It touches our sorrows and releases our joys.
The Labyrinth is an archetype, a divine imprint, found in all religious traditions in various forms around the world. St. Michael’s Labyrinth is a replica of the Chartres Labyrinth, laid on the floor of Chartres Cathedral around 1220. By walking it, we will rediscover a long-forgotten mystical tradition that is insisting to be reborn.
What should one expect in the Labyrinth experience?
In Christian practice, the Labyrinth is designed to provide inner space for listening to God. It is to be a tool for prayer – in a sense, another posture for prayer. The motion of silent steps brings the heart and mind into a closer walk with God. Walking the Labyrinth allows the mind to relax and become aware. The power of the Labyrinth comes from our experience – from what we bring to it. Each time we walk the Labyrinth, it is a new experience.
How should one walk the Labyrinth?
There are as many ways to walk the Labyrinth as there are people. Walking the Labyrinth can be a time of simply opening yourself to the presence of God without any particular “agenda” in mind. Or, it may be part of an ongoing discernment process, during which you seek clarity around a particular question or concern, or to seek God’s will. You might walk the Labyrinth while holding a specific intention or question in mind.
Some suggestions for walking a Labyrinth:
- Before entering the Labyrinth, it is helpful to spend a few moments sitting or standing quietly at the periphery, allowing yourself to become stilled and attentive. If there is music being played, you might invite the music to draw you into a place of prayer. Or if there are candles lit, they may remind you of the presence of Christ the Light of the World. The rhythm of your breath also can help you become quieted, as you notice its tidal flow in and out of your body, remembering that the word for “breath” is the same as the word for “Spirit.”
- When you are ready, step onto the Labyrinth and enter the path. Many people pause before their first step and offer a prayer or intention, releasing oneself from the cares and concerns which distract us.
- You may walk as slowly or as quickly as is natural for you. Feel free to pause at any time.
- You may wish to pause as you reach the turns in the path.
- If there are others on the path with you, you may step off the path and go around them, or let them step around you. Sometimes you will meet someone going in the opposite direction. Again, walk around one another. You may acknowledge each other with a smile or a touch as you pass, or maintain your inward focus by refraining from eye contact.
- Time spent in the center of the Labyrinth has been described as a time of seeking awareness of God’s presence, healing and clarity. It also can be a space of self-offering. You may spend as much time as you wish in the center – standing or sitting. Feel free to be yourself and to do what feels right to you.
- As you are ready, begin to retrace your steps on the outward path, carrying with you any insights or blessing you have received.
- After walking the Labyrinth, many people find it helpful to continue praying through journaling, drawing, or simply sitting in stillness for awhile.
What are the three phases of walking the Labyrinth?
- Releasing (Purgation or Shedding): The walk from the entrance of the Labyrinth to its center represents the first part of the mystical path – a letting go “purging out” of the things that block communication with the Divine.
- Receiving (Illumination): The second stage may be found in the center of the Labyrinth. Often the walker is surprised to reach the center because the long winding path seems so “illogical” yet, being fully present to the moment is the illumination that takes place.
- Returning (Union): This begins as the walker leaves the center and begins the journey back out the same path that brought the walker in. This is a way to integrate any insight that may have been gained, whether in mind, body, or spirit.
The Labyrinth is a mandala that meets our longing – for a change of heart; for a change of ways in how we live together on this fragile island home; and for the energy, the vision, and the courage to become agents of transformation in any age when no less will suffice to meet the challenges of survival.
Dr. Lauren Artress
A few resources for further information
Artress, Lauren. Walking a Sacred Path: Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Tool.
New York: Riverhead, 1995
West, Melissa Gayle. Exploring the Labyrinth: A Guide for Healing and Spiritual Growth.New York: Broadway Books, 2000.
Other Labyrinths in our area:
- Ursuline College
- John Carroll University
- Villa Maria, PA (Sisters of Humility of Mary)
- Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland
- Chadwick Arboretum, Ohio State Univ.