Monday, September 22, 2014

we are living in a labyrinth

My son, Blake, and I recently found a lovely surprise while we were out having a walk at the wetlands near our house. Somebody had celebrated the beginning of spring by creating this labyrinth out of sticks, twigs, rose petals and sprigs of lavender.

I know labyrinths have ancient origins, which piqued my curiosity. Some people say they have deep spiritual meaning, while others simply see a twisting path which ends in the middle. Looked at like that, it may be hard to see their significance. I remember being let loose in hedge mazes on holidays, but labyrinths don't even have dead ends to get lost in. I can imagine kids saying, 'What's the fun of them, then?' That's why I decided to look them up on Google.

I already knew that some Christians get a bit edgy about them because they are found in other spiritual traditions. It didn't take long to discover this is true. Some labyrinths are said to have been used as traps, with fierce, mythical creatures in the centre, a bit like an elaborate cage. Yet they've also been used as part of worship in the Christian tradition. They started appearing on church and cathedral walls and floors around 1000 AD. The Chartres Cathedral labyrinth in France is said to have the most famous design in labyrinth history. It would seem that devout pilgrims such as those Geoffrey Chaucer wrote about in Canterbury Tales might have used them as substitutes for actually visiting the Holy Lands. I can imagine these people crawling through the labyrinths on their hands and knees, wearing out the edges of their cowls as they scraped along the ground, and having their time of intense prayer in the centre, which represents the heart of God.

Some people regard the journey through a labyrinth as a three-staged trip. First comes the journey inward. Second, you get to spend time in the centre, regarding it as a nesting place where you're held in God's safe and loving embrace. Finally, there's the trip back out, to join the world again.

With all this in mind, I've returned to our wetlands labyrinth, sometimes with the kids and sometimes alone. We've fixed it up from time to time, when twigs have blown away in the wind. I've walked through, and although I haven't felt quite the same awe as the ancient pilgrims, I can see how people may say there are life analogies.

1) With all the twists and turns, it may look as if you've simply walked in circles, and returned back where you started from, but appearances may be deceptive. Although you're standing by the start, it will take only one more curve and you'll have arrived at the centre. In the same way, we've probably all had a whine, saying, 'After all my hard work, I'm right back to where I started,' without realising that we have actually have come a long way along the labyrinth that is our life.

2) Similarly, you may think you see the end in sight, because you're standing right beside the centre, and then another sudden sweep will take you right back to the outer limits of the labyrinth again. It's not going to be as quick and easy as you've hoped. We may think we've exhausted our knowledge about a particular topic, and then a curve in our path will reveal that we probably know only a fraction of all there is to know. We've been fooled by the labyrinth twists. It turns out we may be self-proclaimed 'experts' who are really further away from our destinations than we thought.

3) We may appear to be walking alongside other people, so close that we can reach out a hand to touch each other and speak. But we're actually at different stages in the labyrinth. Suddenly, one of us will be veering out to one of the outer paths again while the other is on his way around the last little curve to the centre. And the one who looks as if he's closest to the middle may, in reality, be further away. That's why we shouldn't judge each other for the way we react to the peripheral subjects of life. We're simply on different stages of the labyrinth.

4) When you're on the ground actually walking it, every step of the path may look pretty much the same as the rest, with the centre coming suddenly. It takes more of a birds-eye view to see the beautiful pattern we've been walking. The bigger the labyrinth, the more true this may be, and I can't think of a bigger one than life itself. Unlike a maze, there are no actual dead-ends for us to get lost in and have to turn back. There may seem to be dead-ends in life, but looking at them from a higher perspective, they turn out to be part of the labyrinth after all. We learn our lessons from the apparent false detours and kept moving toward the centre.

The famous labyrinth of Chartres Cathedral, France, which has been duplicated for other places.

5) We get an enforced chance to deliberately slow down to the speed at which life is meant to be lived. In these fast-paced 21st century times, we're encouraged to choose our goals and zoom after them, like an arrow whizzing straight to the target. Life is really designed more like a labyrinth, with twisting paths we all have to follow, and the walk is as important as the destination. My older son and daughter seem to be on a stage of life's labyrinth where they don't get this. If we ask them to come for an afternoon walk with us, they say, 'No, because you don't walk with a particular destination in mind. You just ramble around for the sake of it, and that's boring.' Our younger son still seems to understand the point of doing things which seem to have no point, but I think he's showing signs of catching up to the part of the path which they're on.

I can't help hoping our local labyrinth will last for a long time. No people or animals have walked past and messed it up yet, after several weeks, which I think is a nice surprise on its own. When I go to walk in the wetlands, I can often tell with a glance that it's still there, when I occasionally see people walking in weird circle shapes on the ground. I wonder if that's how we all look to the angels above.  


  1. While driving home from work the other day I listened to a discussion about labyrinths. Interesting timing that you've blogged on this now, Paula, given my curiosity was already piqued. Love the parallels you've so beautifully drawn about life's journeys, and your own, in relation to this ancient winding path. Valuable reflections.

  2. Hi Adele,
    They are certainly interesting. For something that has been around for so long, there is not a lot of information to be found, so I'm sure the discussion you heard was fascinating. I even came across the name of a website where you can print of labyrinths to go through with a pen, when you don't have a chance to walk them directly. I'd like to see that one in France :)

  3. Replies
    1. Thanks, Autumn. I get the feeling there are a lot of interesting things about labyrinths still to tap into :)

  4. oh my!! oh my!! oh my!!!!! I love mazes and labyrinths!! and I love your post! I have felt like I've been walking in circles, wondering when or how to get out of the rut. I see, tho, that I've been progressing even when I can't recognize the forest for the trees, or maze-hedges... your post gives me much to chew and meditate on!! wonderful, wonderful!!
    ~ Robin E. Mason

    1. Hi Robin,
      Those are the exact reasons I was intrigued by the labyrinth too. I'm sure it must have something to do with why they have lasted so many centuries. Thanks for dropping by. Since I posted this, I've even come across a website which lets you print labyrinths to do with a pencil, when you're not in the position to walk through one.

  5. One of the nicest things about labyrinths is that walking meditation. You need to focus on what you are doing, because there are no walls, so you can easily walk off the path if you aren't paying attention. Just like in life, the key is finding your center and avoiding distractions from within as well as from the world around us. I'm so glad you found a labyrinth to walk, I hope it stays there for as long as you need it!

    Peace and Laughter!

    1. Hi Cristina,
      Yes, it was one of those beautiful surprises, proving that we never know what a day will bring. It's still there at the moment, perhaps looking a little worse for wear.


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