Praying the Labyrinth

In June of 2023, a group of All Saints’ teens and I walked a labyrinth in Erie, PA. By the time I entered there were people already returning. Questions arose: “Do I step aside or do I let others step aside for me?” The answer came in silent negotiations with each walker, sometimes resulting in me stepping aside and sometimes resulting in me walking through. About halfway through the experience, other parkgoers arrived and jumped onto walking the labyrinth.  Immediately the noise increased. I was reminded of walking the last hundred kilometers of the Camino de Santiago: noisy, crowded, people moving around, and the nagging question of “How do I maintain my center in the midst of all of this?” to which my spiritual director responded, “Isn’t this like life?” 

After leading teens on the labyrinth walk, I spent part of my vacation walking labyrinths and walked 13 labyrinths in the US and Canada. I am excited that All Saints’ will once again have the opportunity to walk the labyrinth here. I’m grateful to the people of St. Anne’s, Winston-Salem, for loaning us their labyrinth. 

Brief History of the Labyrinth

Evidence of labyrinths dates back more than 3,000 years in the area of the Mediterranean Sea.  Ancient labyrinths have also been discovered in India, the British Isles, Scandinavia, Peru, and Arizona. The most famous ancient labyrinth, built by King Minos on Knossos to contain the Minotaur is not, in fact, a labyrinth. It is a maze. Although the terms labyrinth and maze are often used interchangeably, they are not the same. A true labyrinth has one path in and one path out with no “dead ends,” whereas a maze can have many paths in and out, and many dead ends. With a labyrinth, you are safe. Just keep putting one foot before another and it will take you to the center and bring you out again, guaranteed.   

The Labyrinth Today

Today’s most popularly known labyrinth is the medieval labyrinth at Notre Dame Cathedral, Chartres, France, completed in 1220 CE. During construction, the labyrinth was inlaid in the floor of the nave. Some think the labyrinth was added to offer a symbolic route for Christians unable to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Pilgrimages were very popular in the thirteenth century; they were also expensive and dangerous. Including an option for everyone to participate in, by laying a labyrinth in the floor of the new cathedral, was probably an attractive option. Twenty-three Gothic cathedrals constructed at the time of the cathedral at Chartres made a similar decision and installed a labyrinth.

The destination of any pilgrimage is truly only the halfway point of the pilgrimage, like mountain climbing where the summit is only halfway. The pilgrim had to return home. This is true of the labyrinth and beautifully illustrated in its design. The center, no matter how large or inviting, is only a “way point” in the labyrinth. You do not, and cannot, stay there. Returning from the labyrinth center offers time for the reintegration of insights. 

The labyrinth design at All Saints’ is based on the labyrinth from Chartres. It will be available to all to walk in the Parish Hall, March 9-17, during times when the church is open. There is a pamphlet with some suggestions available in the Parish Hall. Shoes are not appropriate on a canvas labyrinth. Please either remove your shoes or use the shoe covers provided.