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12 May 2005

a Labyrinth free of fear

How did this Labyrinth thing start, anyway? I know a long time ago, maybe in the Comment Sewers of Vleeptron, we were talking about ancient Minos on the island of Crete and its Labyrinth and the Minotaur (and some dirty stuff about how the half-bull-half-man Minotaur got born).

So anyway, just because I know how to get in and out of Any Conceivable Labyinth on Vleeptron without crying, I figured I was a Big Labyrinth Expert.

But yesterday I went surfing for nifty Labyrinth images. And learned a metric shitload (0.8673 English shitloads) that I never knew or suspected about Labyrinths.

(The first thing I learned is that there are very few Labyrinths which my free image software can be fooled into thinking are raw sausages, but I am still hunting.)

First of all, there are sorta two kinds of Labyrinths. There are Labyrinths, like the one in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, with walls, high borders, boundaries, so you can't see or move from one part of the interior to another. The high design forces you to go from entrance to middle, and then out again, by the pattern of the Labyrinth. This is the kind of Labyrinth that can cause little children and probably many Very Large Children to get very frustrated and upset and cry. These Labyrinths are full of dead ends and wrong turns and traps. Frustration and confusion are purposely built into them.

But since the Middle Ages, European cathedrals have very often featured another kind of Labyrinth, usually inside the cathedral, a Labyrinth pattern just set into the stone floor, without any tall boundaries. So there is never a Panic Factor. At any moment, you may exit the maze just by walking directly out of it, saying, "That was interesting, but now I've had enough." Seen strictly as unusual architectural features, these are quite beautiful, and wholly unexpected when they bump up against our modern ideas of what sort of thing is supposed to go on in a church and what sorts of things aren't supposed to be in a church.

These Cathedral Labyrinths have no confusion or frustration or puzzle in them. Prepare for a nifty new word: They are unicursal, one single path from entrance to center -- where there is a cross. They symbolize life's twisting, turning journey, and to the Medieval mind, also suggested the Pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

They are devices for meditation. The Panic Factor is completely absent. Nothing is at stake, and it isn't even challenging or intended to be fun. It focuses the attention very effectively against the outside world, against the echoing noises of other people in the Cathedral, and as you concentrate on the path your feet must follow, the more your personal worries and problems receed and vanish. You may have come to the Cathedral to mourn or remember a loved one or a lost friend, or to seek God's inspiration about a very difficult and upsetting life problem. Or you may be there just to try to commune with God *self.

The worry-free floor Labyrinth is a machine for clearing your mind of all the annoying, distracting, trivial things of the world and even in the busy Cathedral. Your eyes are directed to a small zone at your feet, a holiday from the hundreds of gorgeous artistic and architectural details with which the Cathedral is filled. For the time you spend traversing the path, the fabulous stained glass windows don't matter, the remarkable statues of saints just aren't there. But meanwhile, there's something totally neutral, totally unimportant -- but still worthy of your mind's attention -- to occupy that instrument of the Devil's distraction, your active, easily overstimulated mind.

And with the rest of your mind -- and there's plenty left over, and all your heart is available, it isn't necessary at all to negotiate the Labyrinth -- you can think about your lost cousin, your ill parent, the personal troubles for which you would like to find a solution compatable with high spiritual values, or God *self.

Such a thing is just designed into the floor of the Cathedral, without a big sign, without instructions. (One website about our Paris Labyrinth says that at the entrance there's a sign: THE PLAYING OF GAMES IS FORBIDDEN IN THE LABYRINTH.)

* * * * * * *

Twenty-two alumni of Boston College died in the terror attacks of Tuesday 11 September 2001. On Thursday 11 September 2003, the small Jesuit College dedicated an outdoor Labyrinth to their memory, in the design of the Labyrinth set in the nave of Chartres Cathedral in France, which was built between 1194 and 1250. From the college website's remarks:

The symbolism of the Chartres labyrinth is complex. The circle, a perfect form, can be seen as symbolizing eternity, the universe, the repetition of the seasons, the cosmos -- the overall perfect plan of the divine. The cross that bisects the circle can be seen as a symbol for Christ in the world. The meandering path is the journey of life. It can also be seen as a path of truth through the maze of choices that the world presents.

The path through the labyrinth constitutes the longest possible way to arrive at the center. It is important not to hurry the experience, but to submit to its structure and discipline.

Pass others by stepping to the side and around them. Similarly, step around others walking in the opposite direction.

This path is an opportunity for meditation. Walk its circuitous route mindfully. It is a symbol of the universe, God's masterpiece.

From the dedication remarks of Boston College President William P. Leahy, SJ:

Labyrinths have long been a symbol of life’s journey, and in medieval times they became associated in the Christian religious imagination with the pilgrimage to Jerusalem -- the primal journey through uncertainty and trial to God. We have surely known trial and uncertainty in these last years. We have known pain and doubt. Perhaps we have felt lost on our journey, uncertain of our next steps.

May this labyrinth, influenced by the faith of medieval pilgrims, built in loving memory, dedicated today in prayer and community, forever be a place of healing, consolation, and peace.

May its presence on the Boston College campus call us to understand that even in darkness, there is a path on which we can walk. Even in confusion there is grace to guide our journey. And even when we seem to stand most distant from where we began, we can turn yet again toward home, moving according to the sure compass of God's enduring love.

I think the next time I take a trip to Boston, I'll build in a visit to this Labyrinth. What a task the College faced: How to absorb and go on living after the sudden horrific loss, by hate and violence, of so many of their college family. But of course to the Medieval world, such things were commonplace (cf. "A Distant Mirror" by Barbara Tuchman), and they faced the same questions: How shall we survivors continue on life's journey after this plague, this horrible siege, this famine, this brutal war?

This is the first time I've ever heard that Labyrinths were, and continue to be, machines for contemplating these questions and helping our easily distracted minds and easily frightened hearts come up with answers. The Chartres Labyrinth is a favorite for modern church architects to reproduce. Grace Cathedral (Episcopal) in San Francisco has both an indoor and an outdoor Chartres Labyrinth, and its website has these suggestions for walking the Labyrinth:

Walking the Labyrinths at Grace Cathedral

The Labyrinth is an archetype, a divine imprint, found in all religious traditions in various forms around the world. By walking a replica of the Chartres labyrinth, laid in the floor of Chartres Cathedral in France around 1220, we are rediscovering a long-forgotten mystical tradition that is insisting to be reborn.

The labyrinth has only one path so there are no tricks to it and no dead ends. The path winds throughout and becomes a mirror for where we are in our lives. It touches our sorrows and releases our joys. Walk it with an open mind and an open heart.

There are three stages of the walk:

  • Purgation (Releasing) ~ A releasing, a letting go of the details of your life. This is the act of shedding thoughts and distractions. A time to open the heart and quiet the mind.
  • Illumination (Receiving) ~ When you reach the center, stay there as long as you like. It is a place of meditation and prayer. Receive what is there for you to receive.
  • Union (Returning) ~ As you leave, following the same path out of the center as you came in, you enter the third stage, which is joining God, your Higher Power, or the healing forces at work in the world. Each time you walk the labyrinth you become more empowered to find and do the work you feel your soul reaching for.

Guidelines for the walk: Quiet your mind and become aware of your breath. Allow yourself to find the pace your body wants to go. The path is two ways. Those going in will meet those coming out. You may "pass" people or let others step around you. Do what feels natural.


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