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The Labyrinth: A Brief History and Practice

Updated: Oct 12, 2019

A Brief History of the Labyrinth:

We are all on the path... exactly where we need to be. The labyrinth is a model of that path.


A labyrinth is an ancient symbol that relates to wholeness. It combines the imagery of the circle and the spiral into a meandering but purposeful path. The labyrinth represents a journey to our own center and back again out into the world. Labyrinths have long been used as meditation and prayer tools. A labyrinth is an archetype with which we can have a direct experience. We can walk it. It is a metaphor for life's journey. It is a symbol that creates a sacred space and place and takes us out of our ego to "That Which Is Within."

The myth of the Minotaur is one of the first, if not THE first, use of a labyrinth. The labyrinth in that story was built by Daedalus and designed to keep the Minotaur trapped and imprisoned within the maze. Of course, at that point labyrinths and mazes were indistinguishable.


Slowly over the years and decades and centuries, a split occurred between a labyrinth and a maze. A labyrinth is not a maze; it has only one path. It is unicursal (a new favorite "word that shimmers"). There is only one way in and the same way out. There are no blind alleys. The path leads you on a circuitous path to the center and out again.


Around the year 1000, labyrinths begin showing up in churches and cathedrals on walls and on floors. One of the more famous labyrinths in the world was included in the cathedral at Chartres, France. It was completed around 1221. For more information of this famous labyrinth - Click Here.


One reason labyrinths began showing up in churches was to simulate the pilgrimage journey. This journey is foundational to many of the world’s religions but can be expensive, arduous, and time consuming. With a labyrinth, one can make a pilgrimage journey without ever leaving their hometown.


Over the last decade or more, labyrinths have begun showing up in more and more churches of all types and denominations. Many Unitarian Universalist churches have a labyrinth on their grounds or even in their building. These days labyrinths are often used for spiritual practice and sites for equinox and solstice and other Earth-based rituals.


The Practice:

A labyrinth involves intuition, creativity, and imagery. Unlike a maze there is only one choice to be made in a labyrinth; the choice to enter or not.The choice is whether or not to walk a spiritual path.


At its most basic level the labyrinth is a metaphor for the journey to the center of your deepest self and back out into the world with a broadened understanding of who you are.


There is nothing to learn in order to walk a labyrinth, just put one foot in front of the next, but here is a recent version three-stage form that I lead at church for the Autumn Equinox and may be helpful.


REFLECT: The first stage, the path into the center, is an opportunity to recall the abundance of summer (perhaps travel, fruits and vegetables of the season, new growth in whatever form) and offer gratitude for that abundance.


RECEIVE: The second stage, the center, is a time to be receptive and open to Spirit; like an empty crystal bowl; a time to listen for what’s next.


RECONNECT: The final stage, the path out, is a chance to coalesce what was learned; to gather what may be needed for the next part of the journey into darkness which may bring fear and uncertainty or comfort and rest.


These stages aren't static - reflection, receiving, and reconnection can happen at any point, at anytime on the labyrinth and for days, weeks and months afterwards.


You simply begin walking and praying or meditating alone, giving space to the person in front and behind. If someone is walking very slowly, it is OK to pass. It is not OK to ask the person to walk faster. Once people reach the center, they may stay as long as they wish, depending on how many people the center can hold at one time.


People leaving the center are likely to encounter people still walking in. Whoever has more room to sidestep without impeding someone else in an adjacent path, does so. Then each person resumes walking on the path.


When ready simply enter at your own pace and in your own time. Here is a labyrinth reading from the Rev Leslie Takahashi that sums it up quite nicely:


Walk the maze within your heart:

Guide your steps into its questioning curves.

This labyrinth is a puzzle leading you deeper into your own truths.

Listen in the twists and turns.

Listen in the openness within all the searching.

Listen:

A wisdom within you calls to a wisdom beyond you

And in that dialogue lies peace.


The labyrinth walk will be one of many spiritual practices offered during the Contemplative Spiritual Practices retreat I and others will be leading the weekend of April 3-5. More information on the retreat will be coming as we get closer to next spring. I hope you will join us and experience the peace and contemplation of the labyrinth walk. Until then, many blessings for your journey.

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