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Journey Inward, Journey Outward

Experiencing the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Path
by Theresa Scherf

Pilgrims are persons in motion passing through territories not their own–seeking something we might call completion, or perhaps the word clarity will do as well, a goal to which only the spirit’s compass points the way.  –Richard R. Neibuhr

The labyrinth, within the Christian tradition, is quintessentially a pilgrim path. Like other such paths, it leads in two directions. There is a going forth and a returning, a journey inward and a journey outward. It is a path which the pilgrim seeks to walk with an attitude of reverence and receptivity—to insight and healing, to self-transcendence and transformation. It is a contemplative path that also moves again toward action. It is a path evoking a deep sense of community with those sharing the journey.

The labyrinth itself predates Christianity, and versions of it are found in such widely diverse places as Crete, Finland, and the native American southwest. With its circular or spiral form, it is a version of the mandala, which in eastern cultures is usually created as a meditative act (e.g., Tibetan sand paintings). It thus seems to be something that is archetypal in human culture and experience. Its pattern is evocative of both inner and outer space, of the convolutions of the human brain and of the cosmos with its spiraling galaxies and stars.

The labyrinth began to be used in the western Church during the Middle Ages. As the popularity of making pilgrimages increased, it was recognized that long journeys of this sort, most frequently to the Holy Land, were not possible for most people. Seven European cathedrals were therefore designated as pilgrimage sites to which people from surrounding areas could travel in a similar way. A labyrinth was placed in many of these cathedrals, and walking this “Jerusalem Road” was the culmination of the pilgrim’s journey.

The form of the labyrinth found at Chartres Cathedral is the one most widely in use today. Its circular design has a curving path that twists and turns in such a way that one is not sure where it is going next as it moves nearer to and then away from the center. The labyrinth is not a maze or puzzle; there are no wrong turnings or dead ends. It consists of one path only, which leads to the center and then back out again. If several people are walking the labyrinth at one time, as is often the case, they will pass each other as they go and come or as their pace varies.

The growing use of the labyrinth walk as a spiritual resource has been largely due to the work of Dr. Lauren Artress, a psychotherapist and Episcopal priest serving at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, who has developed a labyrinth ministry both at the Cathedral and at workshops around the country. Her book Walking a Sacred Path: Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Tool (Riverhead Books: 1995) draws together her thoughts and experience of the labyrinth, as well as the reflections of others who have found it meaningful. Another helpful resource is Exploring the Labyrinth: A Guide for Healing and Spiritual Growth by Melissa Gayle West (Broadway Books: 2000), a psychotherapist and program director of Harmony Hill retreat center near Seattle.

The labyrinth seems to function in a variety of ways as a spiritual path. It combines the movements inward and outward traditionally viewed as characterizing the spiritual journey. It has an integrative effect, bringing into harmony the masculine and feminine parts of the self, left and right brain functioning, and a sense of connectedness with God, self, and others. The combination of movement and meditation helps to quiet the mind and focus it on the present moment, creating greater receptivity to healing energy and insights and to the surfacing of inner images.

The labyrinth is a safe space, a gentle path, that often evokes feelings of deep tenderness and a sense of released creativity. It is, in the experience of many, holy ground.

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