Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Tool
Book by Dr. Lauren Artress © 1995, Review by Denice Moffat
“A division has emerged in Western culture. We have confused religion with spirituality, the container with the process. Religion is the outward form, the “container,” specifically the liturgy and all the acts of worship that teach, praise, and give thanks to God. Spirituality is the inward activity of growth and maturation that happens in each of us.” Dr. Lauren Artress
Lauren Artress is a Canon of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco and author of three books on the labyrinth. Her first book was instrumental in launching what is now known as The Labyrinth Movement.
She founded a non-profit named Veriditas, the World-Wide Labyrinth Project in 1996 to “pepper the planet with labyrinths”. Her office is located in The Presidio in San Francisco, California. Lauren is an Episcopal priest, spiritual director and licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in the State of California. She offers Spiritual Direction, Life Coaching and brief psychotherapy in her home office or by phone. She offers couples’ therapy to those in the Bay Area.
So what is a Labyrinth and how does it differ from a maze?
When I asked my brother in Mt. Vernon, Washington if he knew of any labyrinths in the area he directed me to the local corn maze. Actually I’ve noticed that when I mention the world labyrinth to people without telling them what it is first they think of a maze. Most of my clients don’t even know what a labyrinth so I thought I’d write about it. I’ve found upon researching that there are hundreds of labyrinths all over the place and lots of them are on the grounds of churches. And it doesn’t really matter what kind of religion as almost any church can have a labyrinth.
The word maze is frequently used interchangeably with the word labyrinth which is confusing. But, as Dr. Artress explains, the term labyrinth has not been in use for approximately 350 years. Labyrinths have only one well-defined path that leads to the center and back out again. On the other hand, a maze has dead ends and no intersecting paths with a variety of choices. Mazes also can have many entrances and exits and are often constructed of hedges and materials that are higher than the line of vision. Mazes can make people claustrophobic whereas walking a Labyrinth is more of a spiritual adventure. A labyrinth does not engage our thinking minds but invites our intuition to come forth and is more of a meditative experience.
The earliest labyrinth appeared on a wall at St. Lucca Cathedral in Italy and dates back to the ninth century. This labyrinth was about 18 inches in diameter and designed for people to trace with their fingers before they entered the cathedral. Kind of a way of quieting the mind and mentally preparing to take the walk on the larger labyrinth within the sacred space of the Cathedral.
I like this idea actually because it slows the next person in line down a little. I don’t like to feel pushed into walking faster because someone is directly behind me.
The Medieval Labyrinth (also known as Chartres, cathedral or eleven-path/circuit) is the one we’ll focus on today to describe all the parts. The famous use of this labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral has led many writers to term this design the “Chartres” labyrinth.
To Walk the Labyrinth: Generally there are three stages to the walk after one kind of calms themselves before walking the labyrinth. Often it’s more effective to have a question to ponder about before walking the route as well. These steps are:
- Releasing. As one walks into the center of the labyrinth the mind stills. You release the worry and fears of the challenge.
- Receiving is focused upon in the center of the labyrinth. Some feel this is where you commune with God, listening for the guidance for the question you brought in with you.
- Returning. When you follow the return path back out of the labyrinth, symbolically, and sometimes actually, you are taking back out into the world that which you have received.
What Makes Up A Labyrinth?
There are several parts to a labyrinth and I’m going to discuss the classical eleven-circuit labyrinth here.
The Path of the Labyrinth: This is a singular path has eleven concentric circles with the twelfth circle being the center. The path wanders throughout with 34 right-angle and 180 degree turns before reaching the center. Sacred geometry is thought to be very specific in a labyrinth so some of the components include the number 12 and its multiples. Three represents heaven and four represents earth. The labyrinth path which wanders on all four segments of the circle represents creation.
The Center or Rosette is made of six petals representing a lotus or rose. The rose is a symbol for the Virgin Mary, the Holy Spirit, the earth and sun (or Son), enlightenment, Divine Love and love in all its forms worldwide. The center can also symbolize the evolutionary process of Spirit coming into matter. Each petal symbolized one of the six stages of planetary evolution. Dr. Artress says that as you enter the labyrinth on your left the first petal is mineral, then vegetable, animal, human, angelic and then unknown. Some people visit each of the petals once they reach the center meditating and asking questions of each.
The Labyrs of a Labyrinth: There are ten labyrs in the classical eleven-circuit labyrinth. These are visible in the 180 degree turns and look a little like hour glasses (see picture below). These are traditionally seen as a symbol of women’s power and creativity. When looked from above they form a large cross.
Gosh, I had to copy this verbatim from the book on page 63 because I find it so confusing. I tried to find a picture for you on the net but couldn’t so I’m scanning the picture in. Here it is:
The Lunations of a Labyrinth: There are 28 1/2 lunations on the outer ring of the labyrinth and these join to make 113 cusps which look like partial circles or cogs on a wheel and 112 foils (the bowl of the cusp). The four quadrants of the labyrinth mark each quarter of a year. Some believe that the labyrinth served as a calendar. And finally. . .
The Invisible Thirteen-Pointed Star of of the Labyrinth: This is the most important part of the labyrinth and one that is not well understood by people trying to recreate a replica of the Chartres Labyrinth. Each point of the star connects the outer lunations with the center. Two of the lines of the star intersect directly in the middle of the labyrinth and this point is at the center of the right-handed path. The crossing of these lines determines where the petals will be placed. The number 13 in numerology (which I don’t really know anything about) represents Christ and is also symbolic of 13 moons in a year. Pretty complicated and well thought out stuff.
I loved Dr. Artress’ style of writing. She really did a good job of looking at all aspects of the labyrinth as a historical tool and how it fit into today’s society. She had a couple of great quotes. For example: Gandhi was once asked, “What do you think of Western Civilization?” He replied, “I think it would be a good idea.”
She says no negative psychological or spiritual upheaval has ever occurred by walking the labyrinth. It has only deepened the insight of the people under stress. It’s a place to order the chaos and calm the frightened heart Dr. Artress has summarized after interviewing thousands of people who have walked the labyrinth.
Michael and I decided to find a labyrinth and walk one after reading the book. So, we went to the Labyrinth locator (https://labyrinthlocator.com) and found a listing for over 90 labyrinths within a 300 mile radius of us, most of which were in Montana. So, I narrowed down the search again and was amazed to find a medieval classical labyrinth in Pullman, WA right on the Washington State University campus at the Trinity Lutheran Church just 30 miles away.
Although neither of us had a spiritual experience with all the distractions of dorm music playing, wind blowing, truck horns honking and a lack of peaceful habitat, it did give us a few ideas of how to build one here on our property some day. It’s something to look forward to.
Helpful Links and References on Labyrinths:
- Labyrinth Society https://www.labyrinthsociety.org
- Great site on labyrinths: https://www.crystalinks.com/labyrinths.html