Jacqueline Gautier


July 01, 1998
An Ancient Spiritual Resource Rediscovered

The labyrinth is a universal prayer and meditational tool found in nearly all religious and cultural traditions worldwide that has been in existence for over 4,000 years. It is an archetypal "Mandala" symbol which represents unity and wholeness. The Sanskrit word "Mandala" is derived from India and means "sacred circle," a divinely imprinter symbol for reflection.

The labyrinth is a form of walking meditation. There is something special about walking the paths and turns that allows one to pray and meditate more deeply. It has the effect of clearing and calming the mind, allowing one to be open to insights for their spiritual journey. Most religious traditions contain some form of walking meditation, from the Native American Medicine Wheel to the Buddhist Mindful Walking Meditation, it is a place where you can discover the depths of your soul.

There is a distinction between labyrinths and mazes. Unlike mazes which are designed to confuse and pull us out of ourselves, the labyrinth has one path leading to the centre and the same path back out again, drawing us into ourselves.

Another important facet of the experience is that many people can walk the labyrinth at the same time allowing people to meditate and pray together without the intrusion of words. It is a spiritual form that is open to people of all faiths and religious disciplines. Today when so many are seeking spiritual experience and solace, growing numbers are drawn to the healing properties of the labyrinth.

One of the most famous ancient labyrinths is the 7-circuit Cretan style (Greece) around which the mythology of Theseus, Ariadne and the Minotaur is based. During the Gothic era (12th century) in Europe over 500 churches and 80 cathedrals were built. Over 30 of these cathedrals contain large stone walking labyrinths. Historians know that labyrinths were walked by pilgrims in medieval times. Pilgrimage is about reconnecting with out path, walking inwards to meet our Source.

Dr. Lauren Artress, an Episcopal priest at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, California and a modern-day pioneer, has introduced the labyrinth to North America. Following her divine guidance, Dr. Artress visited Chartres Cathedral in France, home of the 11-circuit (42 ft. diameter) labyrinth, where she experienced its tremendous power. Upon returning to Grace Cathedral, in 1991 she initiated and oversaw the building of two slightly smaller replicas, one inside the Cathedral and one outdoors in terrazzo stone. She has also authored a best-selling nook, Walking the Sacred Path (Riverhead Books), which explores the historical origins of this divine imprint and shares the discoveries and experiences of its modern-day seekers. Word quickly spread and a movement began. Thousands of people came to walk the two labyrinths. So much was the impact, that a specific "Labyrinth Project" ministry entitled Veriditas (Latin for "The greening power of the soul") was created.

Thanks to the extensive works of Veriditas, hundreds of labyrinths are now appearing around the globe. The sheer explosion of interest has left Dr. Artress to initiate a Labyrinth Facilitators Training Program. Furthermore, on May 10, 1998 the New York Times newspaper carried a full-colour front page article on Dr. Artress and the labyrinth. Since that date the Veriditas web-site is visited over 10,000 times a day.

The labyrinth came into my life three years ago when I was attending a Mandala Art Therapy course at Hollyhock Retreat Centre on Cortes Island, British Columbia. Two of my colleagues knew Dr. Artress personally and had walked the labyrinth in San Francisco. In doing so, both had received powerful insights and experienced transformational energy. I was so intrigued by their accounts that I began researching labyrinths and developing a smaller version for finger meditation. Last August when I enrolled in an art therapy course in San Francisco, walking the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral was high on my agenda. The several walks I did there were nothing short of amazing. Each time I experienced something powerful and different, sometimes deep release, pertinent images and messages, an incredible energy and a sense of spiritual intervention. Each walk left me profoundly grateful and deeply moved.
Upon returning to Saskatoon, I received intuitive guidance that in September I was to paint a life-size floor canvas. This instruction terrified me, as I had to previous experience of undertaking an artistic endeavor of this size (1,000 sq. feet) and magnitude. As well, the huge expense of the canvas alone was more than my financial situation as a part-time university instructor, fine arts student and musician could bear. The more arguments I came up with the stronger the message came, "Do not worry about money, just paint the labyrinth!" Feeling somewhat like Kevin Costner in his Field of Dreams movie, I decided to listen to the "if you build it, they will come" guidance. With the tremendous support of Veriditas in San Francisco, I ended up purchasing the canvas and painted the 11-circuit Chartres Cathedral style labyrinth in February 1998.

To my knowledge at this time, it is the first canvas of its kind in Canada. The guidance I received was flawless. Within one month of my initial outlay of funds, not one but two sponsors miraculously came forth, completely unsolicited, and covered the entire cost of the canvas. Similarly, space to paint it was provided free of charge and others volunteered to promote it. St. John's Anglican Church in Saskatoon booked lectures and walks before the painting was even finished. CBC TV and Shaw Cable came to cover the inaugural labyrinth walk at St. John's Cathedral and nearly 100 people came and walked it. Response from the community has been exceptional. Victor Hugo once said, "There is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come." Bookings for lectures and walks are increasing not only in Saskatoon, but in Regina, Winnipeg, Calgary and Edmonton as well.

The finger meditations have also become quite popular. For people who wish to experience the circuitous path in their homes, the finger meditation is an extension of the larger walking labyrinth. The journey is the same your finer takes you in, you release your cares and concerns and connect with your Source, often receiving clarity about issues in your life. As your finger travels back outward on the same path that brought you in, you are granted the power to act. The finger meditation can also be used as a piece of beautiful art -- a visual reminder of our sacred paths and the deep inner journeys we are all on.

In May of this year, I had the privilege of attending the intensive Labyrinth Facilitator Training Program in San Francisco with Dr. Artress. Our group of 20 individuals came from around the world and consisted of clergy from a landscape of religious traditions, prison administrators, hospital administrators, therapists, health practitioners, retreat center owners, teachers and many other professions. The labyrinth had guided each one of us there to learn, experience and work first-hand with Dr. Artress and then bring back the energy to our communities to facilitate others in their spiritual journeys.

Labyrinths are turning up in prisons, hospitals, parks, retreat centres, churches and a myriad of places where peace and healing are desired. While my personal experience of the labyrinth has been transformational, it is exciting to hear the stories of others. Whatever experience we have while walking the labyrinth is generally a metaphor for our lives! Many people experience clarity, answers to questions, release of deep grief, epiphanies, joy and peace. One woman stood in the centre and prayed that the baby girl she was adopting from an orphanage abroad would survive the hole in its heart that doctors had discovered. Then, feeling the burden lifted, walked more lightly as the circular path took her back out into the world. Another man said, "my niece was killed in a car accident and my mother-in-law has had multiple strokes, we've had to place her in a nursing home, lots has happened. In the labyrinth I can face these things and leave the pain there."

Dr. Artress says "Walking the labyrinth is a spiritual discipline that invites us to trust the path, to surrender to the many turns our lives taken, and to walk through the confusion, the fear, the anger, the grief that we cannot avoid experiencing as we live our earthly lives. The labyrinth is a place where we can open ourselves to the Holy Spirit. We can ask for guidance and pray for ourselves and our loved ones. It calms the confused mind and chaotic fearful heart."

Saint Augustine said "Solvitur Ambulando --It is solved by walking." The labyrinth helps us to listen with the open ears of our hearts and to realize that the old adage, "we are human beings on a spiritual path," perhaps should be, "we are spiritual beings on a human path!"

As appeared in WHOLifE: July/August, 1998 

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