There was a time when Jerusalem was considered the center of the world. In June of 2019 I was privileged to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land: Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. A trip I had always dreamed of, it was a life-changing experience – both spiritually and politically. (You can read/see for yourself from my post-pilgrimage reflections.) But not everyone is able to travel to Jerusalem or other holy sites around the world.
In the first century, Christians would attempt to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem at least once in their lifetime, very much like Muslims make a pilgrimage to Mecca (since the sixth century) even today. When the journey became dangerous due to conflict among countries and people along the way, spiritual travelers sought another means to “journey with God.” The labyrinth, a sacred path to the divine, was introduced as a means of taking such spiritual journey. Instead of walking across the continent, pilgrims could instead walk to a cathedral that had a labyrinth on its floor in the sanctuary. Many went on pilgrimage to seek repentance; the pilgrims would walk the labyrinth on their knees. But above all, any pilgrimage is a questing, a journey of search with the hope of becoming closer to God. Serving as a substitute for an actual pilgrimage to Jerusalem, labyrinths came to be called the Chemin de Jerusalem or Road of Jerusalem. Not a maze, a labyrinth has one pathway in and one pathway out, both the same path. Such it is with walking with God.
Labyrinths are ancient human symbols known to go back at least 3,500 years ago. They appear across the world from prehistory human habitation. Some of these symbols were incorporated into the floors of the great gothic cathedrals of Western Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, notably in France. The most famous of these remaining labyrinths is probably the one on the nave floor of the the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Chartres outside of Paris. An eleven-circuit labyrinth, it was built around 1200 CE and is laid into the floor in a style sometimes referred to as pavement style maze. Labyrinths were also made of hedges or stones out-of-doors. Today we find them in many churches around the world, inside and outside.
A great spiritual tool for all ages, labyrinths can now be “walked” with fingers, drawn on a beach in the sand, unrolled as a canvas, mowed into a lawn, or constructed of stones in a variety of patterns.
I’ve used labyrinths with youth groups, confirmands, adults retreats, and intergenerational events. When on staff in the Episcopal Church in Connecticut (2007-2017), I was able to purchase an eleven-circuit Chartres canvas labyrinth. It was available for diocesan events and for parishes to borrow. To accompany the canvas, I put together a huge plastic tote filled with supplemental resources. These were for individuals (children, youth, adults) to use while waiting their turn to walk.
A “Labyrinth To Go”
Below is a list of the items of supplemental resources. A notebook was included with directions on how to fold the labyrinth and how to use it, including NOT to use real candles. (Dripped wax became a problem and I recall laying out the labyrinth on the floor of the Great Room at Diocesan House and ironing all the wax out with brown paper bags. Not fun.) Also included in the notebook were master copies of documents that could be duplicated for participants.
- Laminated signs that said:
- Please take off your shoes and walk in socks (not barefoot)
- A basket with clean socks with a sign: If you need socks, please return what you’ve borrowed.
- Enter here (to be placed in front of the labyrinth’s entrance on the floor)
- Silence please (there were several of these)
- Add Your Prayers
- Take a Hazelnut (see below)
- Battery operated pillar candles and/or votives (with batteries in an separate zip-lock bag) NO real candles (see above)
- A master copy of an Adult Labyrinth Journal (for duplicating) Note: this was constructed 15 years ago, so they are a bit fuzzy and have some typos.
- A master copy of a Child’s Labyrinth Journal (for duplicating) Note: see above!
- Master copies of a variety of mandalas (for duplicating)
- Colored pencils and crayons
- Blank white paper for drawing or journaling
- Icons on wood, postcards, or paper (two great sources: Br. Robert Lentz, OFM and John August Swanson and Janet McKenzie, who is the awarding winning creator of the incredible Jesus of the People.
- Several CDs of contemplative music, such as Celtic, Taize, Anglican chant, etc. (The user would need to provide their own player. Of course, today a playlist could easily be developed on any number of devices.)
- Sand and shoebox lids for creating your own path in the sand (or check out Labyrinth in a Box (with plastic table cloths to catch spilled sand.)
- Copies of a paper finger labyrinth (laminated) for folks to take home
- Finger labyrinths
- Prayer station materials: post-it notes in a basket with some felt-tip pens for people to write their prayers and “stick” on a wall or easel. I have also written on the newsprint in various colors: What are you thankful for? For whom do you pray? What is on your heart? etc.
- Buddha Boards
- A bag of hazelnuts, a bowl to put them in, and an icon (with an explanatory sign – you know I’m a Julian of Norwich fan). This particular piece is what I bring personally when setting up a labyrinth and was not included in the resource tote.
We can seek God no matter where we are, as God is always present.