Here in our town, the local Episcopal Church blessed their brand-new labyrinth catching up to a spiritual trend begun in the late ’90s. For those who are joyfully not on the cutting edge of new spiritualities, you may be wondering: What is a labyrinth? For those who know but do not know the history, here is the part of the history and my reflection on labyrinths. In an excellent 2000 Touchstone article, “The Maze Craze” by Mark Tooley, he answers:
It’s the latest fad in spirituality. Labyrinths, or maze-like circular walking paths intended for meditation, are appearing in hundreds of churches across the country from every denomination. Even hospitals, town squares, the Smithsonian Institution, and the US House of Representatives office building have opened their doors to the labyrinth.
Actually, a labyrinth is not literally a maze. Mazes have many paths, with dead ends and multiple destinations. A labyrinth consists of a single winding path that leads to the center. In the current craze,the labyrinthis usually printed on a piece of canvas thrown down on the floor of a church meeting hall. But more permanent labyrinths are constructed of raised earth, granite, or wood, sometimes at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Walkers of the labyrinth move through it in a meditative state.
Is the labyrinth inherently New Age or can orthodox Christians embrace it as an acceptable tool for prayer and meditation? The labyrinth has its origins in ancient pagan rituals, most famously at Knossosin ancient Crete, where one was located in the basement of the famous palace where the man-eating Minotaur was said to roam. The mythic hero Theseus journeyed through the labyrinth to slay the creature, which had a human body and the head of a bull. Theseus’s double-headed ax was called a “labrys,” hence the name. Other labyrinths in ancient cultures were tied to fertility rites and goddess worship.
But the example most enthusiasts cite is the labyrinth embedded in the floor of the medieval Chartres Cathedral inFrance. There is speculation, but seemingly no firm evidence, that ancient or medieval Christians literally walked through labyrinths, atChartres or elsewhere. Its advocates within the Christian Church today like to portray labyrinth walking as a “rediscovery” of a lost form of Christian spirituality.
Some proponents believe that medieval Christians walked through labyrinths as a substitute for pilgrimages to the Holy Land. To support their theory, they point to the placement of labyrinths on cathedral floors as opposed to walls or ceilings. Labyrinths in medieval cathedrals and churches almost certainly had symbolic meaning, although documentation is scarce to nonexistent. One possibility is that the ancient Greek myth was Christianized, so that the Minotaur represented the devil, and Theseus represented the victorious Christ. Doreen Prydes, a professor of medieval history at the University ofNotre Dame, says there is absolutely no evidence of labyrinth walking in the Middle Ages. She believes that Christians of that era saw the labyrinth has a symbol of redemption, not pilgrimage.
A Big Open House
The mother of the modern labyrinth movement is Lauren Artress, canon of Grace Cathedral inSan Francisco. In her public speaking, she is sometimes vague about the theological implications ofthe labyrinth, which she calls a “big spiritual open house.” Artress, who is also a psychotherapist, speaks more often in the lingo of Jungian psychotherapy than of traditional Christian practice. For her,the labyrinthis for the “transformation of human personality in progress” that can accomplish a “shift in consciousness as we seek spiritual maturity as a species.”
Artress says she walked her first labyrinth at a seminar in 1991 with psychologist and mystic/channeler Jean Houston, who several years ago assisted First Lady Hillary Clinton in trying to contactthe departedspirit of Eleanor Roosevelt. A subsequent visit toChartres Cathedral, where the medieval labyrinth can still be seen in the floor, further encouraged Artress to write her 1995 book,Walking a Sacred Path: Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Tool, and to launch her national movement, based at Grace Cathedral.
Having become canon pastor at Grace Cathedral in 1986, Artress established “Quest: Grace Cathedral Center for Spiritual Wholeness,” whose goal is to construct “understanding” between the traditional Church and “nontraditional forms of spirituality.” She calls her discovery of the labyrinth one of the “most astonishing events of my life.” For her,the labyrinth is a “spiritual tool meant to awaken us to the deep rhythm that unites us to ourselves and to the Light that calls from within.”
Artress had earlier studied with Houston in 1985. At a 1991 “MysterySchool” seminar hosted byHouston, Artress recalled that she was overcome with an “almost violent anxiety” as she stepped onto a labyrinth for the first time. Although assured byHoustonthat the ancient pathway would “lead each of us to our own center,” Artress said she knew immediately it would dramatically shake her life.
In her book, unlike her public speaking, Artress does not disguise her contempt for “fundamentalism” and the “religious right,” whose “literal interpretation of the Bible . . . breeds small-mindedness and mean-spiritedness.” Its supposed emphasis on following strict rules reminds her of the “shadow of the human spirit that led to Hitler and World War II.” Artress assures readers that she identifies with the “open-minded Christian church,” but confesses plainly that this tradition has lost its spiritual force. The Church must “forge a new identity.”
After returning from her visit to Chartres, Artress arranged for a labyrinth to be displayed at Grace Cathedral. It immediately drew thousands of San Franciscans to walk its path. Her book recounts that many spiritual seekers openly wept as they found inner healing. Others have even found physical healing from the labyrinth’s supposed power.
A Roman Catholic retreat center in Baltimore, run by an order of nuns, has a labyrinth where I was for a Lutheran retreat. I tried walking the labyrinth. I felt stupid. A few months ago when I hosted our monthly circuit meeting, one of the pastors was interested in a tour of Lexington. We walk by the labyrinth still under construction and our colleague volunteered that he thinks labyrinths are a good thing and he liked them. I countered, I don’t think so, they are all about me.
This type of “spirituality” is literally secular schwarmaism, as it is all centered on the ‘sacred’ Me walking around in circles going nowhere…well, actually, to the center of the labyrinth. And what is at the center? Nothing. No Bible, no altar, no table, no Crucifix, no icon, no pulpit…just emptiness. A labyrinth is all about one’s spiritual jollies and receiving the Holy Spirit apart from the Word…if it is even the Holy Spirit! In one sense, these labyrinths have taught me that apart from Verbum extra nos, that they are a perfect symbol of the denial of that Word: nothingness. As the Talking Heads sang, “We are on a road to nowhere, come on inside…” No thanks. I also find it frightening is that liberalized (secularized) Christianity in all it’s forms (Roman, evangelical etc) go hand in hand with the promulgation of labyrinths. The pilgrimage is still a better image of the Christian faith, going from this world to the next (John Bunyan).
I walk with Jesus all the way,
His guidance never fails me;
Within His wounds I find a stay
When Satan’s power assails me;
And by His footsteps led,
My path I safely tread.
In spite of ills that threaten may,
I walk with Jesus all the way. (TLH #413)