Tuesday, 10 June 2008

On Labyrinths

Our local Anglican church has recently opened a (rather good) exhibition focussed around 'The Beauty of Holiness'. One of the largest exhibits is a 'labyrinth', painted onto canvas. This isn't it, in the picture, but one I found on the net. One is supposed to walk the track laid out, and experience, well, something anyway. And there is a book to write in to record your feelings.
It seems that there are a few labyrinths on church floors dating from a long time ago. A famous one is at Chartres. And some people figure that wandering around and having feelings is what they are there for.

The labyrinth is an ancient spiritual tool that has been used throughout the world for over four thousand years. A labyrinth is a circuitous path with one entrance point that leads through a series of switch-backs to its center. A labyrinth is not a maze. A maze, by contrast, has dead-ends and blind alley ways. Its intention is confusion and mystery. The labyrinth, when followed, leads eventually and without making choices to the center. It is designed for one to find his/her way. The labyrinth may be thought of as a map, but as such it should not be confused with the territory that it represents, that is the inner Being and its relationship with Spirit. Two basic principles: One, on the labyrinth, everything is metaphor. Two, there is no right or wrong way to walk the labyrinth. Find more of that here (if you want to, that is).

Others (myself included) wonder whether some bishop of long ago said 'that bit of floor looks a bit dull. Wouldn't a labyrinth look nice there?'

Many people seem to find the experience moving in some way. I have to confess that I just don't get it.


Anonymous said...

sounds a bit like some sort of 'spiritual retreat' exercise. I rather like the idea of having a go...but only if no on else was present at the time...yes, I know that probably says a WHOLE lot about me!

Anonymous said...

I remember some time ago hearing a precis of a paper delivered to a local hospice about the curative qualities of the labarinth. It struck me as one of those things that you maight believe in if you happen to believe in those things, but there are other things I'd rather try first.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the post on Labyrinths ties in with 'The Irish Question'? In the Northern part of the Republic a mile or so from the border there is St. Patrick's Purgatory at Lough Derg. There from the 1st June until the Assumption thousands of pilgrims spend three days, largely without sleep, on a starvation diet walking barefoot around and around 'beds' that are supposedly the remains of early monastic cells whilst saying stational prayers.

This alludes to be part of a heritage of Celtic Christianity whereby the body was put through a series of repetitions of simple physical movement in order that prayer becomes easier. The Labyrinth is the same sort of idea I guess.

I tried Lough Derg once and couldn't get away fast enough.

Fr Ray Blake said...

Interesting that the ancient ones I know of are all by the west doors of cathedrals. I think they are an ancient queuing device now re-invented as BA check-in labyrinths.
I wish they had books in airports to record one's feelings, of grrrr and urrhhhhhhhhh!!!
Perhaps today they are used by the New Agers to turn the tedious into the spiritual.

Anonymous said...

En route to a wonderful exhibition in the chateau at Tours in 2002 I stopped off at Chartres to walk the labyrinth. Much to my dismay I discovered that it was 98% covered over with chairs!

However, I have often walked the labyrinth at the wonderful cathedral of St Quentin. This delightful old city is in the north of the L'Aisne departement, a part of my favourite French Region - Picardie. I DO recommend a thorough exploration of the religious delights of Laon (a truly marvellous hill-top cathedral), Soissons, St Quentin, and Chateau Thierry. (In the last named town I arrived at 9.30pm on the first evening of a huge academic conference, with every hotel room in the town booked. I was obliged to stay in the local brothel - the only place with both a hotel licence and a room. They were terribly kind, and even found me some breakfast the following morning, although this was clearly a novelty for them).

Anyway, back to St Quentin - the cathedral is truly glorious (the diocese is supressed) with a rich array of stained glass from the modern to the mediaeval, and a marvellous sense of light and space inside. The labyrinth has always been uncovered whenever I have visited, and I must say that walking it IS a highly reflective and contemplative experience. And as a note for ukok - as St Quentin is off the tourist trail, one often has the labyrinth and the whole wonderful building to oneself! There are some gruesome relics too, which are illuminated by an automatic sensor as one approaches - giving a sort of 'ghost train' effect!

If anyone wants to visit, I recommend the cheap but tasty pate de foie gras at the Auberge Albert in the main town square. However, for those in the Adur Valley, or surrounds, perhaps a cheaper option is to start with the temporary exhibit at St Mary's, Shoreham-by-Sea.

GOR said...

No, I didn't 'get it' either, Father. It seemed very "New Age" to me - despite the fact that they have been around for an age...

But Old Believer's comments about Lough Derg gave me pause. I never 'did' Lough Derg, though my sister and many in my family have been there.

But I did the Croagh Patrick pilgrimage once, many years ago. There too, there is a series of 'stations' or 'beds' which one circles a number of times saying certain prayers.

So perhaps these repetitive steps have a 'labyrinthine' quality to them - covering the same ground over and over while praying?

Of course, come to think of it, doesn't that resemble The Rosary also...?

Anonymous said...

Did enjoy your imaginary bishop's comment, father and also that of fr Ray regarding the 'origins' of the labyrinth.

I was curious enough to follow your link to the site on labyrinths and see that it is suggested that a bell can be rung and a scarf waved as you walk the labyrinth! This indeed seems very New Age and it is a relief that at least in Chartres it is covered by chairs otherwise one can just imagine the scarf waving and bell ringing which might go on!

However I can imagine walking in silent contemplation as anon has obviously done and am interested to learn of the cathedral in St Quentin where anon says the labyrinth is uncovered.

Incidentally the labyrinth site dates them back 4,000 years so it was obviously something of pagan origin later adopted by the Church and I understand that people who were not able to go on pilgrimages trod the way round, and round these stone designs.

I wonder whether they ever got giddy?

Alastair Cutting said...

Oh dear. If you didn't like that, you will probably like this even less:


However, it is proving to be very effective locally amongst the bereaved, local church members, and others who pass by...

Anonymous said...

An interesting aspect of "New Age" concepts is that many of them derive from or replicate Christian practices of the Middle (and earlier) Ages. These came out of a time when Western "civiliztion" was much less civilized and religion pervaded daily life much more than possibly it does today. Mysticism was and is a search for the numinous. Labyrinths were and are paths toward the meditative state that releases us further from ourselves and into closer connection to the holy. I'm no New Ager, rather someone whose perceptions have benefitted from a little study and a belief that what goes around comes around.