I have been reflecting, recently, on labyrinths as spiritual symbols and an invitation to a specific form of prayer. Our parish, Saint Ignatius, contains an art gallery which does some three shows a year around religious art. It has sponsored, just now, for the University of San Francisco, a lovely, temporary outdoor labyrinth made out of cut pieces of carpet. Its color and swirling arabesque shapes make it notable. It is more colorful than any earlier labyrinth I have seen or traversed. I have been asked to do an inter-faith blessing of it this week.
Of course, prayers for labyrinths should be inter-faith since that somewhat varied, but still similar, shape of swirling curves and ways of walking is found all over the world and in many religions. The original labyrinths were associated with Greek mythology. In the center was the fearful Minotaur and the person who first traversed it needed Ariadne's thread to lead him back. But many labyrinths are also found in pre-historic sites: Egyptian labyrinths spoken of by Herodotus; stone labyrinths in Sweden and the ancient turf mazes in England. The Hopi saw the labyrinth as a symbol of birth, re-birth, transition from one world to the next. In the center was a sort of cross formation pointing to the four cardinal directions of east, west, north and south. There are also pre-historic labyrinths found in Goa and India. Variants of the labyrinth swirls can be found in Australian Aborigine art.
Unlike a maze (which is a puzzle and a serious problem to navigate), a labyrinth has no dead ends. There is one clear entrance and way to exit (like our birth and death). Over time, labyrinths have come to symbolize the passage of time (the transiting through it takes time but, often, leads us to feel also in a timeless zone); spiritual growth; enlightenment; initiation; re-birth; walking a spiritual path. The point of transiting through a labyrinth is to slow down our walking speed, to look at the swirls and curves and to experience a profound sense of life as a kind of pilgrimage. Spiritually negotiating labyringhs demands that we so slow down and reflect and center.
I was quite taken, last Sunday, when the carpet labyrinth done by the Spanish artist, Paz della Calzada, was first installed on an open plaza of the University, by how many young people seemed fascinated by it and tried to walk it. Knowing that I was going to be asked to take part in a special inaugural ceremony for this new labyrinth on the campus of the University of San Francisco, I made a point while in Ashland, Oregon in late August to traverse a lovely labyrinth in an outside garden beside an Episcopal church. As it slows us down, a labyrinth forces us to center and become less distracted, reminds us that life is a pilgrimage with its own swirls and curves but ultimately with no dead ends.
San Francisco has a number of well-known labyrinths. Two are found in the Episcopal cathedral, Grace Cathedral (one indoor, modeled on the famous labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral, one outdoor). The Cathedral makes much of hosting weekly yoga sessions on their indoor labyrinth and once a week sponsors peace walks traversing it. Another well known labyrinth garden is found at the entrance of California Pacific Hospital in the city. It links the labyrinth to motifs of health, re-birth and enlightenment for the sick and dying. I have been visiting a dying parishioner in that hosplital and have walked the labyrinth as a way of connecting with her journey home toward death.
A famous labyrinth (in a spectacular setting) is found at Land's End overlooking the ocean and the Golden Gate Bridge. An amateur (but quite gifted) Mexican artist, Eduardo Agulera, constructed this labyrinth from large rocks on a promontory overlooking the ocean. A friend of mine who has often visited that labyrinth at Land's End said that, when he first saw it, he remarked to himself: "O, I can not walk that, it would take a half hour!" and, then, remonstrated against himself: "Where are my values, if I am here in such a beautiful spot and can not stop everything else and all my haste and just linger to journey through it?"
Some time in the second millenium, Catholic cathedrals started to build labyrinths. The symbolic form is much older than Christianity but at Chartres, Reims, Amiens (happily, I have visited all three of those cathedrals and saw their labyrinths), Christians adapted the ancient form to their own purposes. There is some evidence that in some of these cathedrals, priests did a kind of ritual dance through the labyrinth to celebrate Easter. Later still, Cathedral labyrinths became a kind of chemin de Jerusalem. Pilgrims who could not go to the Holy Land did a ritual loop through the labyrinth as a sort of alternative pilgrimage. Sometimes they walked the labyrinth on their knees as a kind of penance. Labyrinths remind us that, like life, there are no real dead ends but also rarely are there straight and uncomplicated paths to get us where we want or need to go.
Not every form of symbolic prayer is, of course, everyone's cup of tea. But the labyrinth evokes a powerful image of journeying, of slowing down, of trying to move to the center, of quiet time in a holy place to find one's inner center and soul. We are all pilgrims together. I am reminded of Umberto Eco's lines in The Name of the Rose: "Show not what has been done but what can be. How beautiful the world would be if there were a procedure for moving through labyrinths." Walking the labyrinth we reflect not on just what we have done but on what can yet still be!
In another poem, entitled, "Other Paths," T. L. Stanley writes of a labyrinth: "There must be other paths, more winding, tangled into sweet nothingness; insignificant, sleeping, hidden, overgrown, darker, deeper, rock bound paths, misted and rain drenched, where with one misstep you might stumble, you might slip, if you are lucky—into a real life!"
I plan this week to spend some extra time—not just with our colorful, arabesque carpet labyrinth, but also to return to Land's End where, like the famous stone labyrinths in Sweden, the stone labyrinth faces the sea and the horizon beckons us to gaze beyond where we now stand.