Evoking the Spiritual Journey

A Christian Labyrinth Meditation

The word “labyrinth” had always conjured up images of David Bowie as the Goblin King or more lately “Pan’s Labyrinth.” With pagan and new age symbolism my only association, I never expected to hear the word “labyrinth” and the words “Christian” together in the same sentence. Yet, here they were coming out of my pastor’s mouth.

“You know, like labyrinths as a worship tool.” he said. I did a mental double take and the little, sarcastic voice inside me asked ‘worship what?’ Fortunately, that wasn’t what spilled out my mouth. Instead, the far more intelligent sounding “Huh?” prevailed…

“Labyrinths as a tool for Christian worship were used for hundreds of years. They’re really neat.” He smiled at me and continued “If you want I can loan you some books that mention it.”

“Uh, thanks, that does sound interesting.” I put what I hoped was a halfway intelligent look on my face – probably as good as my last comment – but inside my imagination was racing away. I hadn’t heard more than that little bit, but I was already hooked.

Really, I was hooked on labyrinths long ago. The movie “Labyrinth” came out when I was a teenager and looking for escape. The idea of the convoluted path that was full of danger seemed a great allegory for my life at the time. I wasn’t particularly picky about how dark the movie seemed then… Later, listening to my pastor talk, it seemed like labyrinths might be something our culture had forgotten how to understand and so, demonized.

So, I got on a research binge, asking the question “What is Christian about a labyrinth?”

First, a labyrinth is a symbol. Many cultures worldwide have used labyrinths for thousands of years with very similar themes. Symbols of complexity, rebirth, gateways between the physical and spiritual worlds are so common among the labyrinth using cultures that it gives credence to Carl Jung’s concept of an archetype, a collectively similar reaction to a particular image or idea.

This concept of a primordial reaction hardwired into us finds resonance for the Christian in Paul’s writings “

For Christians of the early church, the labyrinth was such a bridge. The labyrinth symbol was extremely prevalent in the ancient Greek and Roman world and represented the story of Theseus and the conquest of the Minotaur. The story figured in religious dances, coming of age ceremonies, even as household charms against evil.

For Christians however it held a deeper story. The son of a king volunteering to rescue his people from a monstrous evil. Condemned to death, love gives him a thread to follow. He conquers evil and death, follows the thread of love through the labyrinth and returns to life, triumphant. Christians saw Theseus as an archetype of Christ, the thread a symbol of the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and Theseus conquest of the Minotaur as the triumph of Christ over sin and evil. The path of the labyrinth was Christ’s path coming ever closer and then farther from Jerusalem.

In the west, the labyrinth became a natural vehicle for the Christian message through the mythology of Theseus. As time passed, the symbolism was adopted widely and developed further. Around the 13th and 14th centuries, labyrinth usage reached its peak, then slowly diminished. The symbolism was lost as the larger culture adopted labyrinths and their cousins the maze in a more frivolous path making fad. Four hundred years of symbolism faded into dust and was buried under chairs in the great cathedrals.

Archetypes never really seem to fade away however. They seem to reawaken from time to time, freshly surprising us like an old fashioned tool that works better than we expect…

Labyrinths are a tool. A tool that helps us connect to God. If you want to get a screw in or out of something, you use a tool – usually a screwdriver – and the tool makes it easier to do the job. Everyone knows that the right tool for the right job makes life a whole lot easier. But there isn’t one tool for every situation. And often using a tool correctly is a learning process -when did you learn “righty tighty, lefty loosy?”. A labyrinth is a tool, but it isn’t the only tool, or always the right tool for a given time or place. And it might take some time to learn how or when to use it. But, it’s as easy, or easier than a screwdriver.

While we may not need the labyrinth as a bridge from disbelief to belief, symbolism that entices us nearer to God is infrequent in our culture. We have modernized ourselves into facts, figures and concrete examples. Have we forgotten that we are made in the image of the Almighty who imagined the world into being? Symbols lend themselves to creative spirituality – they suggest truth, enticing us to explore and become. Too often we’d rather demand the line in the sand and order the world to line up according to our perceptions. Tools are used to create.

At its heart, a labyrinth is all about connecting us to God. We don’t have the cultural context to see Theseus in the way the ancient romans and greeks did – his story isn’t alive for us in that way. But the symbolism of the labyrinth doesn’t rely on Theseus as a vehicle – the stories of death and rebirth, the conquest of evil, the intersection of the physical and spiritual realms resonate with us through Christ. We can see, walk, imagine and be reminded of the symbolism from the other side – the path of the believer drawing close to God. Nowadays, we live at the end of the age of reason – our culture has attempted to reduce existence to its numbers, facts and figures. We are our social security numbers, ethnic percentage of population – addressed and indexed away from our uniqueness We can GPS our location on the face of the planet to the inch, We have measured the distance to the stars, the mass of the atom, the height of the mountains and the depths of the seas. But for all our knowledge, all we determined is the confines of our physicality – And God, God is limitless, beyond what we are able to quantify. The age of reason has measured its limits and found for all its order and precision, that it cannot measure God. And yet we still seek our creator, still seek to fill the God shaped void we feel. The language of symbolism, unfamiliar to us and long out of favor, is regaining its influence. For how else can you describe the invisible, unquantifiable qualities of the Divine? The spirit cannot be measured in feet or microns, but can be hinted at by metaphor and symbolism. By loosening our hold on our defined and numbered world view and allowing ourselves to enter the medieval realm of symbolism and relationship, we can rediscover the wonder and magnitude of God that is beyond our ability to quantify.

Hugh of St. Victor (1100-1141AD) wrote “When we lift up the eyes of the mind to what is invisible, we should consider metaphors of visible things as if they were steps to understanding.”