A brief history of labyrinths and their modern usage.
A labyrinth is an ancient symbol which relates to wholeness. It combines the imagery of the circle and the spiral in a meandering by purposeful path, representing a journey to our own centre and back out into the world.
Labyrinths are found in many cultures and date back about 3,500 years. Unlike a maze, a labyrinth is unicursal, having a single path leading to the centre with no loops, cul-de-sacs of forks. All share basic features, an entrance or mouth, a single circuitous path and a centre or goal.
The most common labyrinths are the Chartres and Classic-Seven but there are many variations, including contemporary designs such as the elliptical World Peace Labyrinth. Labyrinths are described by the number of concentric circuits or paths. They can measure from few inches to hundreds of feet wide.
The Chartres, an 11-circuit labyrinth, was constructed around 1201 CE in the stone floor of Chartres cathedral, France. Its distinguishing features are: 11 circuits, the turns arranged in four quadrants, lunations or teeth around the perimeter, and a six-petal rosette in the centre Medieval Christians walked the labyrinth at Chartres and other cathedrals as an alternative to a hazardous pilgrimage to Jerusalem to walk in the "footsteps of Christ." Modern "pilgrims" walk the labyrinth path to enhance prayer, contemplation, meditation, and/or personal growth.
The Classic-seven labyrinth, like the one we have at First Unitarian Church of Victoria, is a simpler design, sometimes called the "Cretan." That refers to the design found on ancient coins in Crete. It is also the oldest style, found in many cultures as early as 1500 BCE. Its distinguishing features are seven circuits, an egg shape and the turns in the lower part of the labyrinth.
Walking a labyrinth
Many community organizations, churches and retreat centers are making labyrinth walks available for public use for prayer, meditation, contemplation or personal growth. The labyrinth walk is popular with a growing number of people because of its simplicity and the ability to approach it on your own terms.
Environment: Begin by setting the environment for the experience. At organized walks, your host or facilitator prepares by adjusting lighting, selecting music, controlling air conditioners and saying opening prayers. Set your personal environment by dropping your physical baggage such as key-chains, pocket change, cell-phones, watches and dangling jewelry. We suggest you remove watches to eliminate the temptation to measure your progress chronologically. On an indoor labyrinth, you may be asked to remove your shoes and walk in your socks. Outdoors, enjoy the sounds of nature; experience a barefoot walk on a grass or stone labyrinth.
The Walk: There is no required way to walk the labyrinth. Approach the experience on your own terms. However, as a guideline, the walk can be divided into these stages.
Entering: (also referred to as shedding or purgation.) You begin to walk the path toward the centre; try to acquire a relaxed, peaceful state. Release concerns and quiet the mind.
Illumination: Time in the centre, an occasion for openness, peacefulness; you experience, learn or receive what this unique moment offers. Take your time.
Union: The journey outward. You choose when to leave the centre, following the same path. This is a time to review, consider what occurred in the centre and how it may be applied to your life.
Implementation: This stage represents your life outside the labyrinth, where your experience or illumination affects your everyday life.
Other approaches to the walk may include:
Intentional walks: where you address a specific intention, issue or concern as you walk, or you ask a particular and specific question.
Intercessory walks: offer prayer for people or needs, perhaps praying for a different person at each turn on the path.
Meditative walks: meditate on a specific word or passage, or pray repetitively, such as the Jesus prayer (Lord have mercy) or the universal prayer for world peace (Let peace prevail on earth).
This material comes from John Ridder (2003) and other web locations, together with comments from Reverend Jane Bramadat.