A Labyrinth is a complex, usually circular, path on which it is impossible to get lost. One has only to keep going to find one’s way into the center and finally back out again. It may look superficially like a maze, where choices must be made and where there is a constant risk of becoming lost, but the experience is utterly different. While a maze engenders anxiety, the labyrinth brings peace and focus.
The oldest known labyrinth, at Knosos in Crete, seems to have been designed for dancing and labyrinths in cultures throughout the world and through human history have been used for a great variety of purposes, generally associated with peace and safety. The form seems to be an archetype which has appeared independently in cultures on all the inhabited continents.
In the Medieval Period the classical labyrinth came to be commonly employed for specifically Christian spiritual purposes. The most famous medieval labyrinth still surviving is at Chartres Cathedral near Paris. The path, long and complex, but with a single goal in the center, came to be seen as representing the spiritual journey of life, toward the heart of God.
Many people walked these labyrinths in place of making a major pilgrimage, to Rome or Canterbury or Jerusalem or Compostela. Pilgrimages were an important aspect of medieval spiritual life, a time to separate oneself from the mundane cares of life and focus entirely on relationship with God. Spiritual Directors often prescribed making a pilgrimage in order to complete repentance for a particular sin, or simply to enhance spiritual health. But not everyone has the time, physical stamina, and money to make these long and perilous journeys. Waling a labyrinth made possible an interior pilgrimage. The pilgrim entered the path fully confident of coming at last to the center (God) and returning to daily life again, strengthened and healed. Having reached the center, having rested and prayed there, the pilgrim hoped to live a more centered life.
The many turnings of the labyrinth sooth the mind and gradually shut out distractions, as the walker concentrates on following the path. It is a meditative exercise, which employs body and mind and spirit together, appropriate to our understanding of how we are created and how we are called to live. The walker thus brings a complete self to God, seeking connection and strength to live with focus and wisdom.
Outdoor labyrinths are an offering to the community, where anyone seeking spiritual comfort and focus can find a place of peace and reflection. Walking a labyrinth in company with others furthers the sense of our life journeys which are at once alone and in company. When a group walks, each individual’s focus is drawn ever inward to hear the voice of God, but at the same time all are peripherally aware of the others journeying the same path, toward the same goal.
We of St. James Episcopal Church invite everyone interested to walk the labyrinth at any time. Please feel free to set your own pace and find your own experience of inner pilgrimage.
The Labyrinth is set in our Helm Memorial Garden, a hallowed place for remembering those who have died. We invite you to join us in this quiet retreat and place of spiritual growth.