Some of you may not be familiar with our St. Joseph’s Prayer Garden, within which is what’s traditionally called a “labyrinth” – an ancient help to prayer. Ours is based on the one in the floor of the medieval cathedral at Chartres, in France. Here’s the way it’s described on the website of Boston College:
The Middle Ages was a time of pilgrimages. Since most people could not make the grand pilgrimage to Jerusalem, considered by Christians to be the center of the world, and symbolizing the Kingdom of Heaven, they would make pilgrimages to important cathedrals such as Canterbury, Santiago de Compostella and, of course, Chartres. Once at Chartres, they would end their pilgrimage by walking the labyrinth to the center, and then slowly retracing their steps to regain the “outside world” and return to their homes.
The labyrinth of Chartres has been referred to by four different names:
le dedale (or Daedalus, the legendary architect who built a labyrinth for King Minos of Crete) Just as Theseus struggled against the Minotaur, so man struggles against evil, and is guided back out through the maze by Ariadne or divine grace. The labyrinth of Chartres, however, is not a complex maze but a single path with no hidden corners or dead-ends.
la lieue (or league: which is a distance of about three miles) Although the length of the path is only 260 meters, in the Middle Ages some pilgrims would walk the labyrinth on their knees. This exercise would take about an hour, or the time needed to walk three miles.
le chemin de Jerusalem (or road to Jerusalem) By walking the labyrinth, the faithful could make a substitute pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and be united in spirit with the Crusaders.
le chemin du paradis (or road to paradise, the heavenly Jerusalem) By walking the labyrinth, the faithful trace the path of our long and laborious life on earth, beginning with birth, at the entrance, and ending with death, at the center. The way out symbolizes purgatory and resurrection.
Across these interpretations of the labyrinth of Chartres, we see how medieval theologians and artisans adopted pagan myths and symbols to express Christian concepts.
Although the external form looks circular, the deep image is the sign of Christ’s cross (you can see it if you look “down” from above, as you see in the graphic at right). This reminds us that we often don’t see, in the winding path of our lives, the deeper Image in which we are made, and Who shapes our lives into His Image. The path winds – as our lives do – through every part of the territory of the circle; this can remind us of the byways of seeming “accidents” in our lives which are (from God’s point of view) nonetheless parts of the journey. And (as mentioned above) unlike a maze which has dead-ends, the Path of the labyrinth has a guarantee: Stay on it, and no matter how many turnings there are you’re bound to reach the Center – a hopeful vision for the Christian life of faithful discipleship!
How do you “pray with the labyrinth”? Simply follow the path. Walk it to the center, and then back out. Let the experience of walking speak to you, perhaps along some of the lines suggested above. You might begin and end with the Sign of the Cross, and consciously invite the Holy Spirit to teach you something about your life as you walk. Let it quiet you, so that you can hear the “tiny whispering sound” which, as a Scripture reading reminds us, is the Voice of God. Until next week, peace.