The Prayer Labyrinth

Introduction

What is a prayer labyrinth?

A labyrinth is simply a place to walk and pray. There is nothing mystical about it. It gives you the freedom to walk around while focusing your mind on God – and not worry about getting lost.

A labyrinth contains a single walking path to the center and then back out again. It has many turns but, unlike mazes, does not have dead ends. Labyrinths come in a variety of forms: you may walk through them inside on a canvas mat or outside on grass, tile, or a stone-laid path. There are also finger labyrinths and even an online labyrinth. Labyrinths have a long history, both inside and outside the church, and can be found all around the world.

In Christian usage, the purpose of the labyrinth is personal and spiritual transformation. One way to pray a labyrinth is to worship and praise God as you walk to the center, then intercede for people and concerns as you walk back to the outside. Today there are churches from many different denominations that encourage people to use labyrinths as part of their devotional practices.

We invite you to walk the labyrinth and pray. If you find that it helps you relax and concentrate on God, then good – use it. If it doesn’t help you, then use other prayer tools.

The labyrinth at our Lexington campus is located just off the walkway between the parking lot at 59 Worthen Road and our Adult Learning Center at 2 Militia Drive.

History

The earliest rock carvings 4,000 years ago included labyrinths. They have been found in art work, pottery, coins, and drawings around the world: India, East Afghanistan, early Rome, Ukraine, Iceland, Crete, Egypt, Sumatra, and even in Arizona.

In Greek mythology, the labyrinth was a maze in which a half man/half bull was held until killed by Theseus. Therefore, many understand the words “maze” and “labyrinth” as synonyms.  However, current classifications of mazes typically refer to complex structures with multiple choices of path and direction, whereas labyrinths are defined as containing a single, non-branching path that leads to the center.

Classical Labyrinth 2The two most common types of labyrinths are classical, which is made of 7 circuits, and medieval, which has a four-fold pattern and is typically composed of 11 circuits. The classical labyrinth is found on Cretan coins as early as 430 BC, and was often associated with the Labyrinth myth, though the classical model was not limited to that geographic area.

The first labyrinth used in a Christian context dates back to 324 AD in the Basilica of St. Reparatus in Algeria.  While many other labyrinths featured an image of Theseus and the Minotaur in the center, this one contained the words “Sancta Ecclesia” (Holy Church), thereby reminding Christians where their focus should be set.

Reparatus Labyrinth 4Medieval labyrinths were first seen in the 9th and 10th centuries. In the 11th and 12th centuries they were used in manuscripts and on the walls and floors of churches in Italy. They were soon brought to southern and western Europe. The medieval labyrinth began to adopt a Christian symbolism and is typified in the Chartres Cathedral labyrinth. This stone-laid labyrinth was built in the floor of the church around 1200.

This transition from secular to sacred may have been incidental as culture found its way into the church2 or an intentional choice by the church to use the mythological symbol as allegory3.  Either way, use of labyrinths took on a distinctly Christian flavor in the Middle Ages.  Medieval texts recount an Easter celebration in which a priest would walk the labyrinth and upon reaching the center, throw a yellow woolen ball back and forth to parishioners along the labyrinth’s circumference, as they danced and chanted “Praises to the Easter Victim.” This evoked the myth in which Thesesus wandered the Labyrinth, guided by Ariadne’s string, but was used as a metaphorChartres Labyrinth for Christ’s work of redemption. Christ (Theseus) lived in a sinful world (the Labyrinth and its dangers), defeated Satan (the Minotaur), triumphed over death, and offers His salvation (golden string) to all who are ready to receive it.

Labyrinth use in the Middle Ages took on a number of other Christian interpretations. Some viewed it as a representation of the Christian life, full of many turns, but leading towards redemption. Others used it as a substitute for pilgrimages to Jerusalem. Still others purportedly traveled the path of the labyrinth on their knees, reciting prayers written on the floor. (These last two practices date closer to the Renaissance).

Mizmaze 5Turf labyrinths became very popular in England between the late Middle Ages through the 19th century. Many were found on village greens or commons, often near churches, but others were located on hilltops. There are 8 surviving historic turf labyrinths in England from this time period. Around the same time, hedge mazes gained popularity across Europe.

Around the 17th and 18th centuries, church officials of the French Gothic cathedrals destroyed a number of the ecclesiastical labyrinths, noting that they had become a diversion rather than a sacred experience. The labyrinths at Chartres, Saint-Quentin, Saint-Omer, and Gand were the only French labyrinths to survive this purge.

Through their history, labyrinths have been used for a variety of purposes. They were not originally a Christian invention, and have therefore been used in a variety of pagan rituals: trapping evil spirits5, protection from bad circumstances and insurance of good luck6, fertility rites, and goddess worship7. As noted above, they were also used for amusement. Some non-religious applications included: a test of skill for riders on horseback, a children’s game8, a place in which suitors could chase their potential bride9, a dancing ground10, use during fairs and holidays11, and as a garden feature12.

Today, interest in and construction of labyrinths has resurfaced. As in the past, some use it as a sacred tool (whether Christian or otherwise), and others as an amusement.

1 Source: W.H. Matthews, Mazes and Labyrinths, (Detroit, Singing Tree Press, 1969). Accessed from www.sacred-texts.com.
2 Saward, www.labyrinthos.net/irelandlabs
3 Fresson, www.cathedrale-chartres.org
4 By Jim Champion (Own work) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons
5www.labyrinthos.net/labyrinthstory
6www.labyrinthos.net/magiclabyrinth
7www.catholicculture.org
8www.labyrinthos.net/firstlabs
9www.labyrinthos.net/labyrinthstory
10www.labyrinthbuilders.co.uk/about_labyrinths/history.html
11www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turf_maze
12www.labyrinthos.net/turflabuk

Christian Use

Is the labyrinth for the Christian Church today?

The labyrinth did not find its origins in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and it has been used for non-Christian purposes throughout the ages. Does it have a place in today’s evangelical church? Given its uses and misuses, how should Christians approach it?

Though the labyrinth was not invented by Christians, it has been used by Christians over many centuries. The first documented church use of the labyrinth was in 324 AD, at the Basilica of St. Reparatus in Algeria. While some cultures used the labyrinth to trap evil spirits or for fertility rites, the church used it to remind Christians of the forgiveness and redemption found in Jesus, and a reminder of our walk with and towards God.

Today, as in the past, some use labyrinths for distinctly non-Christian purposes. For example, New Age enthusiasts may walk the labyrinth with an intentionally empty mind, or to connect with their chakras, or to experience oneness with Mother Nature and the universe. Others use labyrinths for reasons that are neither intentionally Christian nor contrary to Christ’s teachings. One might call these “neutral” intentions: to think, relieve stress, or grieve a loved one.

Christians can choose to walk the labyrinth in an intentionally Christ-centric way, in prayer, reflection on Scripture, and/or listening to God. Labyrinth prayer is by no means an essential Christian discipline, but many find it useful in focusing their thoughts on God and minimizing physical or mental distractions while praying and listening to God.

How to Use the Labyrinth in Your Prayer Time

While there are no specific “rules” to walking the labyrinth, the following guidelines can be useful:

1.  Intentionally offer this time up to the Lord. If there is a particular issue weighing on your heart or a direction you feel God leading you, be ready to include this topic in your walk.

2.  On the walk inward, you might meditate on a Scripture passage, or talk and listen to God about a particular topic or question. Give your cares and distractions over to Him. God is with you in this walk and in your daily walk with Him.

3.  When you arrive in the center, rest and rejoice in the Lord’s presence. God longs to be the center of your life.

4.  On the walk outward, think about how you will take what God is saying to you back into your daily life. Thank God that He will be with you even after this time of retreat.

5.  Process and reflect on your experience in the labyrinth. You may want to write, draw, or share your thoughts with a friend.

For more thoughts on walking a labyrinth, see the document Labyrinth Prayer prepared by Grace Chapel’s Pastor of Community Care Jim Ennis.

Resources

Web and Print

  1.  Labyrinth handout created by Grace Chapel Pastor Jim Ennis for use at Soul Care retreats.
  2. www.labyrinthos.net : Created by labyrinth historians Jeff and Kimberly Saward. Includes many detailed articles and photographs.
  3. www.labyrinthbuilders.co.uk : Builders of labyrinths who work closely with labyrinth historian Jeff Saward.
  4. www.cathedrale-chartres.org/fr/le-labyrinthe,121.html : Articles on the Chartres Cathedral’s website regarding the labyrinth. No English translation available; French only.
  5. www.jillgeoffrion.com/Labyrinth/Prayer/labyrinthpraying.html : Articles by author and retreat facilitator Rev. Jill Geoffrion, Ph.D.  Includes topics such as Christian uses of labyrinths and Scripture suggestions to use when walking a labyrinth.
  6. Mazes and Labyrinths - Their History & Development by W.H. Matthews. Longmans, Green & Co., London, 1922 - reprinted, Dover Publications, New York, 1970.
  7. Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun. Intervarsity Press, 2005.

Labyrinth Locations

www.labyrinthlocator.com : The World-Wide Labyrinth Locator, with photos and contact information.
www.labyrinthguild.org/index.php/newengland/locator: A list of labyrinths in New England, with photos and contact information.

Here are a few of the labyrinths in eastern and central Massachusetts:

Construction

Grace Chapel has been using a canvas mat labyrinth in our Soul Care Mini-Retreats since February 27, 2010. We have also used outdoor labyrinths at various summer and staff retreats. In 2011, a team formed to build an outdoor labyrinth on Grace Chapel’s property, by the walking path between 59 Worthen Road and the Douglass Funeral Home, and work on the labyrinth began that autumn.

Constructing the labyrinth was a labor-intensive but joy-filled project. Special thanks to:

Blake and Catherine Callais, who were the very first to volunteer to help build our version. They have worked tirelessly in coordinating the workers and leading our construction team.

Melody Orfei, for contributing her photography, researching various layouts, and being part of the construction team.

Dana Baker, a member of the construction team who combined her passion for prayer with her former professional discipline as an architect. Dana designed Grace Chapel’s labyrinth layout based upon the one in the Chartres Cathedral, adapting it to fit within the space constraints of our site.

Shirley Geick, for being part of the construction team and doing the initial research for the website.

Alex Stephen, who came with his family to one of the workdays – his granddaughter brought one of the first donated rocks.

Scott Gatchell, for helping to grade the site, relocate logs and other large elements on the site, and coordinating the labyrinth progress with the construction of the playground, which provided many of the rocks for the pathways.  Scott also assisted in identification of key plants, like the burning bush, which were present on the site and giving suggestions for future landscaping ideas.

Jim Ennis, whose wisdom and experience in utilizing these forms for focused, freeing, deeper prayer has helped many of us in drawing closer to the Living God.

Judy Pierce – being the person of prayer she is, Judy’s encouragement and support has helped us persevere in our construction journey.

Maria Kakolowski, who assisted in one of the construction days, did additional research for the website, and provided administrative support.

What follows is a photographic tour of the construction process.

Labyrinth Construction Start 2 Sept 1, 2011: This is what the property looked like before we cleared it…
Labryrinth Clearing Sept 9, 2011: … and after the first day of clearing.
Choking Vine Before and after, Sept 9, 2011: We discovered that the oak and pine trees were being attacked by a choking vine, and removed it.

Rock Pile

Sept 9, 2011: We began to collect piles of rocks to use for the labyrinth path. Some came from the church property, and others from people’s homes.

Playground Rocks

Oct 29, 2011: Soon, work began on construction of Grace Chapel’s playground. This unearthed many more labyrinth-sized rocks. We could tell that God was at work with us!

Burning Bush

Oct 29, 2011: Another “God sighting.” We discovered a “burning bush” plant, and were encouraged by another reminder of the Lord’s presence.

Grading 2 Nov 19, 2011: By the time of our next work day, the land had been graded (leveled off) and the logs had been moved.

Labyrinth Layout

Nov 19, 2011: To lay out the labyrinth, we needed to measure out the distance between the circuits and place stakes in the ground, using string to make sure the lines were straight.
Volunteers

 

Nov 19, 2011: Some of our volunteers pause for a photo. Thank you to everyone who helped to build this labyrinth!

Markers April 28, 2012: The circles and paths are marked.
Entrance and Borders May 12, 2012: The entrance and borders are laid out – this is starting to look like a labyrinth!
Paths and Small Stones
June 9, 2012: More of the paths are laid, and small stones are used to round out the corners.
Children June 9, 2012: Our first group of children walks the labyrinth.

Burning Bush 2

June 23, 2012: Final work day. The burning bush is flourishing…

Phase One Done

… and phase one of the labyrinth construction is complete! If you are interested in helping with future development and maintenance of the labyrinth site, please contact Blake and Catherine Callais at .