Meditation is defined by Laurence Freeman, O.S.B, as a universal spiritual wisdom entered into through silence, stillness and simplicity. A meditation or prayer labyrinth enhances that experience by utilizing one of several basic design structures.
The labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral, France, an 11-circuit design, is the most widely known to Catholics. The oldest (3,000 years or more), simplest, and most widely used labyrinth pattern in the world is the Cretan or 7-circuit labyrinth. With its 7 interconnecting paths, this pattern closely resembles the human brain and is commonly used for contemplative and healing purposes.
It is important to note that the labyrinth differs from a maze in that there is one path in and out with no dead ends. The structure is a tool to facilitate contemplation by directing the mind in a way that allows one to meditate, pray and connect with God, through the journey as well as at the center of our being. One can physically walk through the labyrinth, or simply traverse one’s finger along the winding paths of a wooden replica or an illustration of the labyrinth while focusing mind and spirit on the journey. This is particularly helpful to those who may have difficulty with achieving stillness while seated and prefer a moving meditation.
Although it is an ancient meditation tool, the use of labyrinths for Catholic contemplation can be traced to cathedrals of the Middle Ages. In the European cathedrals they were used traditionally as a site of pilgrimage. Research shows that there were 22 labyrinths in the 80 Gothic cathedrals that went up during the Middle Ages throughout Europe.
Some of them were pilgrimage cathedrals, such as the one at Chartres, a major pilgrimage site. Early Christians would take a vow to visit the Holy City of Jerusalem at some point in their lives, but during the Middle Ages the plague and the Crusades made travel to Palestine unsafe. Thus labyrinths were used as a substitute pilgrimage. Walking the labyrinth was a way of fulfilling their vow to visit the holy land and so it was nicknamed the “New Jerusalem.”
To most Christians who walk the labyrinth journey today, the walk in is called Purgation--a time for releasing, letting go of the cares and concerns that keep one distracted and stressed.
The center of the labyrinth represents divine Illumination and Christ within, a place for receiving clarity and insight. The return walk is viewed as the path of Union, joining God, bringing back to the world a renewed vision or a refreshed spirit. To others the labyrinth enhances their prayer life as a symbol of the world’s complexities and difficulties, which we experience in our journey through life. These are but some of the historic uses for the labyrinth embraced by Catholics and Christians throughout the world.
Labyrinths can be found today in churches, parks, retreat centers, hospitals, schools, homes and prisons. One architect notes that, like Christ, the Labyrinth is a "sure path in the changing and uncertain world."
God of wisdom, you are ever with us
to reveal Your path of truth.
Enlighten us with your Spirit
that we may work to bring about your love
and justice among your people.
Strengthen us with your insight to be
faithful to your word revealed among us.
We ask this in Jesus who is our path,
our truth and our life. Amen.
You can find additional information about labyrinth meditation and prayer walks by visiting these websites or reading these books:
- Way of the Winding Path: A Map for the Labyrinth of Life by M.A.Eve Eschner Hogan
- Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church Labyrinth: this Chartres-style 11-circuit labyrinth was built by the parishioners
- Labyrinth Locator: an easy-to-use database of labyrinths around the world
- The Sacred Labyrinth: synopsis of history and offer for instructions on building a labyrinth
Looking for opportunities to experience labyrinth meditation? Consider visiting one of the many retreat houses, cathedrals and churches that have built a labyrinth on their grounds. You may also explore these links: World-Wide Labyrinth Locator Labyrinth Links
Try this example of “walking” the labyrinth by tracing your finger along the route provided here: www.users.cloud9.net/~bradmcc/labyrinth.html