Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Walking the labyrinth

With Miss V away in Utah for Thanksgiving, we had a quiet weekend. A cup of Coconut Cocoa herb tea steeping in front of me, Roxy-cat dozing on the chair beside me, and the hail that came down hard on our roof tapered to rain, then to mist, and finally to silence.

And I started thinking again about walking the labyrinth.

No, not the one with David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly. No, not the one with Theseus and the Minotaur, either. I'm thinking about the Chartres-style labyrinth at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.

It looks like this. Only much bigger.
There's a difference between a labyrinth and a maze, although we moderns tend to confuse the two. Both labyrinths and mazes have lots of twists and turns, but mazes also have multiple false paths and numerous dead ends. True labyrinths, on the other hand, have only a single path leading to the center. (Try tracing the one above with your finger if you don't believe me.)

Labyrinths like this have been around for a long time, and many predate Christianity, but this particular labyrinth is patterned after the one created in the year 1200 at Chartres Cathedral in France. There's a great deal of numerical symbolism involved in its dimensions, for those who enjoy digging into such things, but that's not what I found most engrossing about it.

The Grace Cathedral labyrinth is big enough that you can easily walk along the twisting path of the labyrinth to get to the center. As you take the time to walk this path, you enter a deeply introspective state where you begin to notice things you might otherwise have missed.

Here's what I noticed:
  • The different ways one person can experience the labyrinth are a fairly potent metaphor for being led to and then choosing to follow the path of a particular faith. One labyrinth at Grace Cathedral is outside, on the pavement. As a passerby walks up the steep San Francisco sidewalk toward the cathedral, the first thing she usually sees is what appears to be a person or persons randomly walking in odd twists and turns. Not yet seeing the labyrinth pattern on the ground, her first response is likely to be, "What an odd/eccentric/insane thing to do." If she continues walking up the sidewalk and notices the labyrinth layout on the ground, her second response is likely, "Oh, they're following a path. Why?" Depending on her interest, she may go over and watch people walking the labyrinth, asking questions of bystanders to get a better understanding of what she observes. If something about the experience touches her emotionally and compels her toward personal experience, she may enter the path and begin walking the labyrinth herself. And there is something about watching the experience that entices many to try it, if only to understand it better.
  • The extreme hairpin twists of the labyrinth mean that others walking close beside you may be much further along the path than you are, but it's not self-evident. I've seen examples of this in my life, as I've come into the orbit of many people who are outwardly humble and modest, but who conceal huge reserves of experience, intelligence and wisdom.
  • Those same twists and turns can confuse you or alter your perceptions of your progress, making it seem you are laboring in futility, making no progress or actually going backward, but this is an illusion. As long as you persist in walking the path, you will reach the center.
  • The labyrinth is an example of the need for a specific journey in order to reach a destination. Since there's only one way into the center, you must stay on the path to reach it; you'll never get there if you turn around in frustration and walk the other way, or leave the path altogether. Likewise, if you ignore the path entirely and just walk directly from the outside to the center, you will feel no sense of arrival or accomplishment. Having gotten to a particular locus without taking the necessary journey to arrive there, you will not have reached the destination you sought.
  • Because of the difficulty medieval Christians encountered in making a religious pilgrimage to the Holy Land, walking the labyrinth became a substitute for such a pilgrimage -- which is why the center of the labyrinth is called Jerusalem or the Holy City. The significance of this place is different to different people, but often those who walk the labyrinth experience a strong emotional response when they arrive at the center. Many report experiencing a sense of love, peace and/or emotional calm while in Jerusalem. Some surreptitiously wipe away tears as they stand in silence. There is often a sense of one's particular worries being stilled while one is in the center of the labyrinth. It can be thought of as a liminal space, where the individual is freed from quotidian life roles and experiences a transformation. Labyrinth walkers may stay in Jerusalem for as long as they like, experiencing whatever it has to offer them, before retracing their steps out of the labyrinth. This particular Mormon sees a strong connection between the labyrinth's Jerusalem and the temple, a highly spiritually significant location where worldly cares are stilled, where inner transformations occur, and where man may commune with God. Leaving this holy place to walk the path back out into the world, one has experienced a transformative viewpoint and is thus uniquely fortified to deal with life's daily frustrations and challenges.
  • Shortly after I walked the labyrinth, I was informed that many other religions believe only the twisting, indirect path leads back to deity, and that the "straight and narrow" path of my own "narrowminded" faith tradition leads directly to hell. A little nonplussed by this statement, I looked up the term later and realized that the quote wasn't quite right -- the scriptural phrase is actually "strait and narrow," where "strait" means strict or rigorous, not straight or easy. In other words, the path back to our Creator is rarely if ever straightforward, but -- much as in the narrow path of the labyrinth -- it will certainly be strait or exacting for each of us.
There are certainly many more things to be learned from walking the labyrinth; these were just a handful of things that happened to occur to me. If you're interested in giving it a try, the World-Wide Labyrinth Locator has a list of various types of labyrinths available to walk all around the world. There may be one near you.

If you experience any unusual insights or epiphanies while walking the labyrinth, won't you please share them here? I'm always curious to know what others have discovered as a result of this exercise. Thank you.


Doug said...

We have a small labyrinth at a nearby park. It has been years since I walked it. I had no notable experience when I walked it.

D. Galloway said...

The Unity Church in Kent set one up many years ago. I can't remember whether it was a giant rug or taped on the floor, but I remember having the same sense of introspection. I also remember that after the newness wore off, for a while I had a hard time being patient. I wanted to take a shortcut to the middle. It took a bit to get my thoughts to settle. I think there are parallels in that as well: )