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.
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.
The 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.
Medieval 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 metaphor 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).
Turf 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.
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
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.
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.
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: