Joy Bowles, New South Wales Regional Meeting.
Labyrinth walking can be a form of contemplative practice, or meditation. The design we will be using at our Summer School seminar is taken from Chartres Cathedral in France, a beautiful Gothic cathedral that was designed according to sacred geometry principles in the 12th Century. At that time going on pilgrimage was a common practice amongst Christians, and those who were too old or infirm to go on a pilgrimage were able to walk the labyrinth inside the cathedral instead.
The labyrinth at Chartres is encountered at the entrance of the cathedral, and draws the pilgrim along its path before they can enter fully into the body of the church. When the pilgrim finishes the walk by stepping out across the paths into the body of the cathedral, they are drawn towards the apex of the church – the apse – which has a magnificent blue stained glass window dedicated to Mary.
When I was there in 2010, the French guide said that the black ‘arms’ of the cross embedded in the labyrinth design are a symbol of how the Cross has overcome the travail of the world, and you step out of the labyrinth into the New Jerusalem or Kingdom of Heaven, leaving behind the twists and turns of the path which are symbolic of the twists and turns that our life path takes us on.
In modern times, the Chartres-style labyrinth has been popularised by Lauren Artress who started her transformational labyrinth walks at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco in the 1990s. The essence of Lauren’s approach was to provide walkers with a safe sacred space or container in which they can take time out of their busy lives to reflect on where they are on life’s journey, and also to wrestle with questions as they walk. She suggests that the inward journey towards the centre of the labyrinth is one for “going inwards”, asking yourself or God whatever it is that you need to be considering at that time.
When you reach the centre there is an opportunity to pause for a while, to pray, or to receive blessing or just to rest a while. If you choose to return by the way you came, as Lauren suggests, you can use the walk outwards to consider how your insights and experience of the labyrinth can be implemented into your daily life.
Some people may choose to step out the ‘short’ way by the arms of the cross as my French guide described.
I walked my first labyrinth in 1997 at Paddington Uniting Church in Sydney when I was at a crossroads in my life – not sure of which direction I should go. The metaphor of life as a journey felt pertinent to me then, as now – we are a pilgrim people, with ‘no fixed address’, “on safari” as my Kenyan-born mother says.
As I walked the labyrinth that first time I had a vision of how my life was, and how it might be – initially a misshapen lumpy ball of brown clay was suspended in the air between a pair of beautiful hands. As I watched the ball began to spin, somehow made to do so by the hands, though they did not touch it. As the ball spun faster and faster, the lumps smoothed out, and the clay began to glow until it was a shining spinning golden orb, emitting light itself. I noticed that the clay did not have to TRY to do anything except submit to the emanations from the hands – much as a labyrinth walker does not have to TRY to do anything except just keep on taking the next step.
Another powerful opportunity available in the labyrinth is for walking it in community, or with people you know. I have found it to be an amplifier or magnifier of whatever is going on energetically with people. One New Year’s Eve labyrinth walk here in Armidale I was not at peace with the father of my child and, surprisingly, he agreed to attend the labyrinth walk, and actually participated. We were in the labyrinth together, and I met him as he was coming in, and I was going out. Because the paths are only a hip-width wide, when you meet someone on the path, there is no avoiding them. I was able to extend my hand and ask for peace from him, an experience that has resonated through our relationship since that time.
When I walk the labyrinth with my son we often walk quickly, run or skip together, and it’s a mad, fun scamper, just like our relationship – with a still space in the middle where we flop down onto the grass, laughing.
On ANZAC day this year, a group of us in Armidale walked the labyrinth for peace, using a canvas labyrinth in the pedestrian Mall in the centre of town. Several passers-by stopped and some also joined us.
At Summer School, we hope to be able to have the labyrinth painted on the grass in an outdoor area, which will allow people the delight of reconnecting with the earth via their feet as they walk. Bare-foot walking is encouraged! If it is line-marked, then it will be available for anyone to walk at any time during Yearly Meeting, and I hope people will find it a useful tool for reflecting on and integrating what they experience during the sessions.
If you need any more information, please email Joy Bowles at labyrintharmidale[at]gmail.com or ring 0403 966 517.