A Quick Introduction to Labyrinths
What is a labyrinth? It is a spiritual tool to help us perceive and connect with God’s presence. It is a path for prayer that leads from yearning towards joy, meaning, hope, and peace. While it can be used for personal explorations, it also invites communal participation. What is planted there flowers in the gardens of our lives. Whether perplexed, overjoyed, confused, hopeful, hurt, distraught, happy, or simply curious, as we pray, God meets us here. It is not unusual to emerge from the labyrinth inspired, encouraged, grateful, and clearer about next steps.
A labyrinth is not a maze or a puzzle. It has one path that leads only in to the centre and that is then followed back out again. Using a labyrinth as a spiritual exercise involves both moving your body and opening your heart in faith.
Christian Use of Labyrinths
The use of labyrinths goes back as far as 4,000 years ago and across many cultures and religions. Although it’s likely that Christians began to use labyrinths in the first century, the first documented instance is from AD 324 when Christians placed a labyrinth on the floor of their church in Algiers, North Africa. In Europe, the oldest Christian labyrinth dates from the 6th century in Ravenna Church of St. Vitale. The largest and one of the most famous is in the Chartres Cathedral in France – built around AD 1200. Labyrinths grew in popularity during the Middle Ages because they provided an experience of pilgrimage for Christians who were unable to journey to a holy place, such as Jerusalem.
While labyrinths are not specifically mentioned in the Bible, themes of spiritual journey and following God’s way are common in Scripture. Our faith journey is never a linear progression – it includes many turns and changes in direction (just like a labyrinth!) – but by God’s grace and guidance he leads us to himself. Some of the Christian messages of labyrinths include:
God’s help is available. A path of wisdom leads one towards God.
The practice of spiritual exercises can be intensely pleasurable.
Truth and God’s presence are yoked. As one moves into God’s presence, truth becomes clearer and more compelling.
Moving one’s body in faith can increase one’s desire for spiritual connection.
Sacred patterns can assist seekers in moving beyond their own limitations. God speaks through visible symbols.
Love for God leads to personal encounters with him, and to a commitment to acting in faith.
Desire for wider service springs naturally from time spent with God.
How Do I Walk the Labyrinth?
There is no right or wrong way. The important thing is to come with an open heart. Take advantage of this opportunity to pray with your whole body. Give yourself permission to follow the intuitions and desires that come. Remember that this is designed to be an embodied prayer experience. Be open to your body expressing itself through gestures, movements, or the flow of tears. Don’t be trapped by the thought, “I can’t do that, other people are watching!” Other people are busy with their own labyrinth experience.
Many have experienced the labyrinth as a mirror where it is possible to view one’s life internally and externally at the same time. Open your heart, open your mind to what you may notice. Be compassionate with yourself! Judging yourself isn’t helpful. It is often helpful afterwards to respond to your labyrinth experience by writing in a journal, drawing, or using some other creative experience.
A Suggested Process for Praying the Labyrinth
Take time to gather yourself before entering the labyrinth. Open your heart and prepare to use all that happens as a mirror for your life. Calm your mind; let go of expectations and distracting thoughts; pay attention to what is happening to you – “be in the moment.”
At the threshold (the opening), pause to greet the labyrinth experience – you may wish to pray, bow, or cross yourself. Some people use the journey in to the centre as a time for cleansing: shedding; letting go; confession and repentance. Reflect on obstacles in your life that are in the way of connecting with God and let go of them. At the centre, lies a rosette, symbolizing enlightenment and wholeness in the presence of God. Feel free to stand, sit, or kneel. You are now in the place of meeting with God (at the centre of your life). Relax and enjoy being in his presence! It is a place of being receptive, being given insight and clarity. Stay as long as you like. On the journey back out, celebrate and give thanks for your time in God’s presence. If you received insights, while you walk the path out, it may become clear how you are to integrate those insights into your life, community and the world. You may experience a feeling of increased energy. As you return to the threshold, stop and pray, thanking God for what you’ve experienced. Receive his blessing as you step back out into the world in which you live. Afterwards, you may continue to experience and discover effects of your labyrinth prayer walk for days, weeks, even months. Take time to reflect, journal and pray.
Take a verse or short passage of Scripture on which to ponder or meditate (i.e., lectio divina); walk repeating a breath prayer such as “Thy will be done” or “the Jesus prayer” (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”).
[Adapted from: Jill Kimberley Hartwell Geoffrion, Christian Prayer & Labyrinths, ©2004]
The Chartres Labyrinth
(Constructed in 1201 AD into the floor of the Cathedral in Chartres, France)
You can use your finger, a pen, or your eyes
to follow the labyrinth’s pathway to the centre and back out.