Jacqueline Gautier

Articles

January 26, 2010
The Labyrinth

An Ancient Spiritual Resource Rediscovered

By Jacqueline Gautier

The labyrinth is a universal prayer and meditation tool found in many spiritual and cultural traditions worldwide.  It 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 imprinted 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 is a practice of mindfulness that has the effect of clearing and calming the mind.  Many religious traditions contain some form of walking meditation such as the Native American Medicine Wheel and 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 them to meditate and pray together without the intrusion of words or ritual.  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 centering properties of the labyrinth.

One of the most famous ancient labyrinths is the seven-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 contained large stone walking labyrinths.  Historians know that labyrinths were walked by pilgrims in medieval times as a form of metaphorical journey.  Pilgrimage is about reconnecting with our 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.  She was guided to visit Chartres Cathedral in France, which is the home of the eleven-circuit (42 foot in diameter) labyrinth.  When she walked it, she had very powerful experiences, so much so, that upon returning to San Francisco she initiated the building of two slightly smaller replicas at Grace Cathedral, one indoor and one outdoor.  Word spread quickly and soon thousands of people were coming to walk the labyrinths and a labyrinth project entitled Veriditas was created.  Thanks to the extensive work of Veriditas, labyrinths are now appearing around the globe.  She also created a Labyrinth Facilitators Training Program at Grace Cathedral to instruct people on the building and uses of them.

The labyrinth came into my life in 1995 when I was attending a Mandala Art Therapy course at Hollyhock Retreat Centre on Cortes Island in British Columbia.  Two of my classmates knew Dr. Artress and had walked the labyrinth in San Francisco.  In doing so, they both had received powerful insights and experienced transformational energy.  I was so intrigued by their accounts that I began researching labyrinths and created a small version for a finger meditation.  It was not long after that I enrolled in an Art Therapy course in San Francisco with a secondary agenda to walk the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral. 

The several walks I did there were nothing short of amazing.  Each time I experienced something powerful and different; sometimes deep release, pertinent images, messages, an incredible energy and a sense of spiritual connection.  Each walk left me profoundly grateful and deeply moved.

At that time I was living in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.  When I returned from this course back to Saskatoon I received guidance to paint a life-sized portable canvas labyrinth.  This idea terrified me as I had no previous experience with this kind of artistic undertaking, not to mention the expense of 1,000 sq. ft. of canvas.  The more I tried to logically suppress this idea, the stronger the message came to go ahead, to trust and that all would be taken care of.  So, feeling somewhat like Kevin Costner in his Field of Dreams movie, I decided to listen to intuition and follow the "if you build it, they will come" message.

In short, the guidance was flawless.  Within one month of my initial outlay of funds for the canvas, not one, but two, sponsors miraculously came forth completely unsolicited and covered the entire cost.  Similarly, space to paint it was provided free of charge and once the word was out, volunteers showed up to promote the inaugural walk.  The painting went very well and the first walk was held at St. John’s Anglican Church in Saskatoon.  I expected a handful of people to come…….200 people came and so did the TV camera crews.

A month later I returned to San Francisco to take Dr. Artress’s Labyrinth Facilitation Training Program, because I felt that I would need it.  Victor Hugo once said, “there is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come.”  My life for the next 2 years became centered around the labyrinth.  I could barely keep up with workshop bookings.  I traveled mostly in Western Canada, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia, but did take the Labyrinth as far south as Acapulco Mexico to present it at a conference there.  Many church organizations, retreat centres, and private groups booked me.  I was hired by towns and private individuals to help build landscape and garden labyrinths.  The finger meditations I created were also in great demand.  It was a wonderful and fulfilling time for which I have been very grateful.

Even when I packed the labyrinth away to attend graduate school in San Francisco, it followed me symbolically.  For example, I was hired by my University to present it at Grace Cathedral to several classes.  The hospital in San Francisco where I did my internship, the California Pacific Medical Centre had an eleven-circuit labyrinth in the foyer….it seemed to show up wherever I went.

Labyrinths are turning up in prisons, hospitals, parks, retreat centres, churches, gardens, hotels, and a myriad of places where peace and healing are desired.  While my personal experience with 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.  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 take and to walk through the confusion, the fear, the anger, the grief that we cannot avoid experiencing as we live our earthly lives.  We can ask for guidance and pray for ourselves and our loved ones.  It calms the confused mind and the 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.”

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