Labyrinths and Pilgrimages

“Walking the labyrinth” became all the rage a few decades ago.  A labyrinth is a circular pattern that looks like a maze but has one important difference.  In a labyrinth there is one single path to the center, unlike a maze which is a puzzle with many paths and directions.  The labyrinth has one path, one direction, and takes one to the center — although not directly.  And therein lies the adventure and even fun.

Walking the labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral (Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres) in Chartres, France. Photograph taken by en:user:Daderot.
Walking the labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral (Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres) in Chartres, France. Photograph taken by en:user:Daderot.

Many Christians may think of the labyrinth as a “New Age” practice. But labyrinths have an ancient history, both pagan and Christian. The patterns can be found in stone and on coins dating from around 400 B.C. Around 1000 A.D. labyrinths began to appear on church walls and floors. What was their use?

Labyrinths seem to have substituted for going on pilgrimages, especially to Jerusalem, when war and conflict made those journeys too dangerous. Worshippers would enter a cathedral like the one in Chartres, France, and walk around the huge labyrinth, literally set in stone, on the floor of the cathedral.  They would recite prayers as they moved from the outer rings into the center, imitating in a ritualized way, travel as a pilgrim to the Holy Land.

I mentioned in my post of July 10th that I ventured into the campus of St. Kate’s looking for the large labyrinth that used to be there.  Unfortunately it had been removed in the construction by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet a few years ago.  But there is a new smaller one — not as well kept but still serves the purpose.

Green and grassy labyrinth at the Sisters of St. Joseph
Green and grassy labyrinth at the Sisters of St. Joseph

I started walking the labyrinth once in a while as a prayer practice back in the early 2000’s.  I was in a time of transition that had become a time of personal turmoil.  The process of walking the labyrinth became almost a litmus test for how my soul was doing. Sometimes I was impatient and wondered why I had started the whole process.  Sometimes I was fearful that, despite the fact that you can’t get lost walking a labyrinth, I was somehow never going to make it to the center. Sometimes I became absorbed in whatever prayer or Bible verse I was meditating on and the time to the center passed quickly.

There is but a single path to the center but sometimes it requires trust to believe that I’m still on the path.  The labyrinth twists and turns; just when I think I’m very close to the center, the path turns away and I wonder how long….Just when I resign myself to walking a lot longer than I thought I would, suddenly the path opens up into the center.

Great practice for going on a pilgrimage.

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