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Are you familiar with the prayer method of walking a labyrinth? Maybe you’ve seen signs at churches that have them. You may have seen extravagant ones in your travels.
Walking the labyrinth is an ancient prayer practice. Read this article by Rev. Sundberg to learn more about them.
May 5, 2020
The Rev. Ann Sundberg
I’m not exactly sure when I first walked a labyrinth, but I think it was sometime in the early 2000’s, on a portable canvas design that had been laid on the floor of Duke University Chapel. What I do remember was that every step I took gave me a new perspective because with every step I faced in a slightly different direction.
In the years since then, I have had the opportunity to walk many labyrinths – at retreat centers, in parks, at churches. And every time, the labyrinth has given me what I needed most at that moment.
The intentional design of a labyrinth
A labyrinth is not a maze. The point of a maze is to get you lost. A maze contains dead ends and choice points where you have to decide to turn one direction or the other. The point of a labyrinth is to enable you to find your way. It is a single winding path leading from the edge of the design to the center and back. There are no dead ends, no choice points.
The design of a labyrinth is originally found in nature. From seashells to cacti, growth happens in a spiral shape. Ancient labyrinths can be found in petroglyphs in Spain, on silver coins from Crete, painted on bark in Indonesia, and carved on rocks in the American Southwest. The 7-circuit classical shape is several thousand years old.
Beginning in the 1100’s, labyrinths were laid in the floors of the great cathedrals in Europe. 23 were installed; 2 remain. The most famous of these is in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Chartres, France. The design of the Chartres labyrinth is 11 circuits; the path winds through four quadrants. At the time, it was not possible for every devout person to make a pilgrimage to a holy site, so the labyrinth became a way to walk a “virtual” journey.
A labyrinth is both a physical structure and a metaphor
To walk a labyrinth is to journey into metaphor. The path is circuitous, not straight. You might (and often do) encounter other travelers, either walking in the same direction or coming toward you. The center might be a destination, but it is not the end of the journey, since you walk back out on the same path. The labyrinth is not about achievement, but about receptivity.
Walking the labyrinth can be a prayer. It can support a mindfulness practice. You might bring a question or a struggle to the walk. You might use the labyrinth walk as part of a larger ritual.
A few months ago I was part of team of volunteers that built a 7-circuit classical labyrinth on top of a hill near Chadron State College. The design is laid in rocks on the floor of an old circular cistern. It has been wonderful to watch how people in this community have found their way to the site and added their own touches. Some built cairns around the edge. Others built a footpath for easier access. Some have left offerings in the center.
The phrase solvitur ambulando is Latin for “It is solved by walking.” Many of us have had the experience of being stumped by some problem or issue, and deciding to walk away from it for a while – maybe literally going for a walk – and finding that a solution or option comes literally out of the walking.
If you don’t live near a labyrinth, you can walk in your yard or in a park using the generally same pattern. “It is solved by walking!”
In the Christian tradition, the path and the journey are metaphors for living a faithful life. I find the labyrinth to be a spiritual tool. It slows me down. It enables me to center myself in delight and peacefulness. And it still encourages me to notice that I face in a different direction with every single step.
The Rev. Ann Sundberg, Certified Spiritual Director