Praying with the Labyrinth
A labyrinth is an ancient symbol that relates to wholeness. It combines the imagery of the circle and the spiral into a meandering but purposeful path. The labyrinth represents a journey to our own centre and back out again into the world, so in a sense it is a continuous model of our life and spiritual path.
Labyrinths have long been used for meditation and prayer, and are intriguing tools for working with, and understanding, our psychological and spiritual journey that can bring forth surprising new insights.
Part of human history for more than 4000 years, labyrinths are found in almost every culture and every religious tradition around the world. They have likely always been used in a spiritual manner as a means of religious contemplation.
The first documented example available of labyrinth use within the Christian tradition is in 324 A.D. when Christians placed the labyrinth on the floor of their church building in Algiers, North Africa. They were then used in many of the Gothic cathedrals through-out Europe as symbolic pilgrimages to the Holy Land. The most famous medieval labyrinth was created in Chartres Cathedral around 1200 A.D. The use of labyrinths has recently been revived for Christian worship, in hospitals, and schools as an invitation for contemplative prayer and insight.
To walk a labyrinth is to imbue it with power and meaning, and the more a labyrinth is used the more powerful it becomes as a symbol of transformation. Walking the labyrinth can create a heightened awareness of the human condition and help facilitate psychological and spiritual growth. In the Christian tradition, a Cross is often the starting point used to construct the labyrinth. It is placed at the centre, becoming the focus for meditation and experience, symbolic of the person's true centre in God on their journey.
The image of the circular labyrinth with this centre is very potent, and the soul speaks in images. It is a three dimensional mandala and sacred circle; an ancient archetype in Jungian terms rediscovered in contemporary times.
Journey of Life
The most basic metaphor for walking a labyrinth is that of Life’s Journey. The labyrinth's many turns reflect the journey of life, which involves changes of direction, transition, some uncertainty, but also discovery and achievement. It is notably different from a maze (which has dead ends and false passages) as the labyrinth has a single path that leads continuously to the centre, to our source in God, and then back out to engagement with the world.
As Joseph Campbell, the famous American mythologist describes, our journey of transformation can follow the on-going pattern of responding to a call to some sort of needed transformation, initiated by inner and /or outer conditions ranging from illness, midlife, breakdown of a relationship, to God's awakening call. Then crossing the threshold (symbolic as we step into the labyrinth). Emerging onto our journey's twisting and turning path of 'trials' and journeying to reach and pause at a centered place of insight and change. Then we need to gradually consolidate and integrate this into our lives as we return slowly to our on-going life, rediscovering our capacity to engage with the world from a different place in ourselves and in God. The life of Christ is an endless story of this emergence, teaching and return.
So, the labyrinth is a metaphor and mirror for where we are in our lives, spiraling up and down, into the centre and out again. The dark lines show us the path and also remind us of the place of our Shadow in our spiritual transformation. Rev Dr Lauren Artress, author of 'Walking a Sacred Path: Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Tool,' and a leading force in the labyrinth movement in the US, says: 'Getting to know our shadow is the most important spiritual work we can do at this time.' The labyrinth is a profound tool, and a safe container, to look within and trust our inner voice of wisdom.
So, the meandering path that takes us to the centre becomes a mirror for the spiritual journey and where we are in our lives. So, when walking the labyrinth be mindful of your life. What is the labyrinth teaching you about your life?
'Your life is a sacred journey. And it is about change, growth, discovery, movement, transformation, continuously expanding your vision of what is possible, stretching your soul, learning to see clearly and deeply, listening to your intuition, taking courageous challenges at every step along the way. You are on the path... exactly where you are meant to be right now... And from here, you can only go forward, shaping your life story into a magnificent tale of triumph, of healing of courage, of beauty, of wisdom, of power, of dignity, and of love.' Caroline Adams
To travel the winding road to the inner self may be the most important journey we make. As Thomas Merton said:
‘What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it, all the rest are not only useless, but disastrous.’
Pausing at the start before you begin, prayerfully quiet your mind and become aware of your breath. Try to come with an open heart and open mind to all God wants to show you. Beginning slowly, allow yourself to find the pace your body wants to go.
Walking a prayer labyrinth can be seen to involve 3 stages:
Purgation (releasing) - During this stage as you journey toward the centre, the pilgrim seeks to shed the cares and distractions of life and open their heart and mind. A releasing and letting go of the details, the excess 'baggage' of your life. A time to open the heart and quiet the mind.
Illumination (receiving) - When you reach the centre, stay and rest there as long as feels right. This is the time to listen and “receive what is there for you” through prayer and meditation.
Union (returning) - As you leave, following the same path out of the centre as you came in, you enter the third stage. This is about crossing the threshold (returning) and responding to the experience and what was received at the centre, integrating any illumination received it into your life.
There is no single “right” way to pray a labyrinth. Praying in whatever way helps you connect with God during the labyrinth encounter is the “right” way and serves as the best guide possible. Journaling before or after the walk may help provide focus and insights.
Please see my Prayer Series if you would like to explore more forms of contemplative Prayer
The images below are a continuous finger labyrinths. You can "walk" them on the screen with your finger or mouse. Tracing the path of the labyrinth in this way can be relaxing and calming. It also can be balancing as you journey back and forth to the centre. Repeat several times in succession to get the most benefit.
Chartres Labyrinth photo by Asaf Braverman used under Creative Commons license
Labyrinth at Marble Collegiate Church by JL Wong and used under Creative Commons license
Chartres Labyrinth at San Fransisco by Giovanni and used under Creative Commons license.