The labyrinth was meant to be forbidding, inescapable, a housing place for that which could not be tamed. Daedalus, the legendary craftsman, was barely able to escape his own creation after King Minos of Crete compelled him to create it in the hopes the Minotaur would be perpetually trapped. When the hero, Theseus, went to finally slay the Minotaur he was only able to escape by tying a string at its entrance so that he could trace his way out following the soon-to-be infamous battle. In modern times, the labyrinth has not lost its power to befuddle and intimidate. In Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, Jack Torrance is killed after becoming lost in the hedge maze outside the Overlook Hotel, freezing to death in the bitter blizzard. A more lighthearted, yet strangely compelling, take on the terror of the labyrinth is Jim Henson’s 1986 film where a young girl is given thirteen hours to navigate a labyrinth full of magical, and bizarre, creatures before her younger brother is turned into a goblin. Dating back to the ancient times, this structure, this idea, has been one of foreboding dread, a place where one faces the possibility of losing themselves, trapped where one cannot break free, and return to the life one led before – and if one does escape, they are ineluctably transformed.
For many in the Christian tradition, it is this latter aspect that is prized. When walking the labyrinth as a spiritual practice, finding one’s way out is easy enough – just follow the path you are on – but transformation is the aim of the experience. Labyrinths have been used by Christians as a part of worship for centuries, creatively transforming the symbol so that it harbors sacred meaning for those in the tradition, and in recent years, many are rediscovering their use and meaning as a spiritual practice of great personal significance. The practice is simple enough: one walks prayerfully and slowly upon a labyrinth, until they reach the center, where they meditate and wait for whatever wisdom or clarity is being offered in that moment. After a period of time in the center, one again walks peacefully out of the labyrinth, taking the same path they did before, but in a new state of mind after receiving whatever peace they encountered during their time in the center.
These three stages – entering the center, remaining in it, and the walk out – are described by Lauren Artress, a Canon of San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral (where, coincidentally, I walked the labyrinth for the first time myself) as stages of purgation, illumination, and union respectively. As we walk towards the center, we are asked to purge ourselves of our selfish cares, allowing our sins and worries to fall away like the scales that fell away from St. Paul’s eyes when he was healed from blindness, helping us to see and hear God more clearly. In the center, where we remain still, we hope to be illumined by God, waiting patiently for whatever wisdom, peace, clarity, or challenges may be given to us by the divine. This illumination cannot be predicted or anticipated, but only hoped for and received with gratefulness. Finally, after this stage, one walks out, now aware of the union between themselves and the divine in a new way. It is a bond that will allow them to form ties between themselves and others – transforming their preexisting relationships and forming new ones – all in the hopes of furthering the Kingdom of Heaven.
The labyrinth symbolizes our spiritual life as a whole in a unique way. Much as one cannot discern the path one will walk as they enter the labyrinth, so too can one not predict the trials and joys life will send one’s way as they live their life. One must keep their eyes on the path as they walk, looking neither forward nor backward, or else they will stray from the path they are to continue on. How often do we ruminate endlessly on past mistakes or fear future events which may not even come to pass instead of focusing on the divine presence that permeates every moment? Walking the labyrinth is a way of avoiding such wandering, helping us to fulfill Jesus’ command to consider the lilies rather than being filled with anxiety for tomorrow.
By walking as we pray, we are able to remind ourselves that our spiritual life is embodied, that we cannot separate our yearnings for unity with the divine from the minutiae of our daily life. We must not merely have a “prayer life,” but live a life of prayer, a life transfused and transformed by the Holy.
It is a human temptation to seek mystical communion for its own sake, but one cannot remain in the center, the place of illumination indefinitely. We are asked, compelled, to walk back out, to face the world, and share our gift with others. Think of the call narratives recounted in several of the prophetic texts from the Hebrew Bible; the prophets had a mystical experience of God, which was the beginning of their ministry, not its climax. Similarly, St. Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus, along with his experience of being caught up in the “Third Heaven,” recounted in 2 Corinthians 12, gave him a sense of direction in his own writings and evangelizing. We never come to know God simply for ourselves, for our own benefit, but for the sake of others, so that we may show compassion towards all, embodying the Image of God we were created in. Whether one is engaged in this particular contemplative practice or another, we are called to purge ourselves of all that separates us from God so that we can receive illumination from the divine, illumination which then calls us to recognize our own union with God and work for union with all creation.
While walking the labyrinth in prayer may be a solitary act, it is one we partake in communally – knowing that many have done so before and will continue to do so long after us – and for the sake for community.
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