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Labyrinths Latest Fad for Spiritual Seekers
by Mark Tooley
It’s the latest fad in spirituality. Labyrinths, or maze-like circular walking paths intended for meditation, are appearing in hundreds of churches across the country from every denomination. Even hospitals, town squares, the Smithsonian Institution, and the US House of Representatives office building have opened their doors to the labyrinth.
Actually, a labyrinth is not literally a maze. Mazes have many paths, with dead ends and multiple destinations. A labyrinth consists of a single winding path that leads to the center. In the current craze, the labyrinth is usually printed on a piece of canvas thrown down on the floor of a church meeting hall. But more permanent labyrinths are constructed of raised earth, granite, or wood, sometimes at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Walkers of the labyrinth move through it in a meditative state.
Is the labyrinth inherently New Age or can orthodox Christians embrace it as an acceptable tool for prayer and meditation? The labyrinth has its origins in ancient pagan rituals, most famously at Knossos in ancient Crete, where one was located in the basement of the famous palace where the man-eating Minotaur was said to roam. The mythic hero Theseus journeyed through the labyrinth to slay the creature, which had a human body and the head of a bull. Theseus’s double-headed ax was called a “labrys,” hence the name. Other labyrinths in ancient cultures were tied to fertility rites and goddess worship.
But the example most enthusiasts cite is the labyrinth embedded in the floor of the medieval Chartres Cathedral in France. There is speculation, but seemingly no firm evidence, that ancient or medieval Christians literally walked through labyrinths, at Chartres or elsewhere. Its advocates within the Christian Church today like to portray labyrinth walking as a “rediscovery” of a lost form of Christian spirituality.
Some proponents believe that medieval Christians walked through labyrinths as a substitute for pilgrimages to the Holy Land. To support their theory, they point to the placement of labyrinths on cathedral floors as opposed to walls or ceilings. Labyrinths in medieval cathedrals and churches almost certainly had symbolic meaning, although documentation is scarce to nonexistent. One possibility is that the ancient Greek myth was Christianized, so that the Minotaur represented the devil, and Theseus represented the victorious Christ. Doreen Prydes, a professor of medieval history at the University of Notre Dame, says there is absolutely no evidence of labyrinth walking in the Middle Ages. She believes that Christians of that era saw the labyrinth as a symbol of redemption, not pilgrimage.
A Big Open House
The mother of the modern labyrinth movement is Lauren Artress, canon of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. In her public speaking, she is sometimes vague about the theological implications of the labyrinth, which she calls a “big spiritual open house.” Artress, who is also a psychotherapist, speaks more often in the lingo of Jungian psychotherapy than of traditional Christian practice. For her, the labyrinth is for the “transformation of human personality in progress” that can accomplish a “shift in consciousness as we seek spiritual maturity as a species.”
Artress says she walked her first labyrinth at a seminar in 1991 with psychologist and mystic/channeler Jean Houston, who several years ago assisted First Lady Hillary Clinton in trying to contact the departed spirit of Eleanor Roosevelt. A subsequent visit to Chartres Cathedral, where the medieval labyrinth can still be seen in the floor, further encouraged Artress to write her 1995 book, Walking a Sacred Path: Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Tool, and to launch her national movement, based at Grace Cathedral.
Having become canon pastor at Grace Cathedral in 1986, Artress established “Quest: Grace Cathedral Center for Spiritual Wholeness,” whose goal is to construct “understanding” between the traditional Church and “nontraditional forms of spirituality.” She calls her discovery of the labyrinth one of the “most astonishing events of my life.” For her, the labyrinth is a “spiritual tool meant to awaken us to the deep rhythm that unites us to ourselves and to the Light that calls from within.”
Artress had earlier studied with Houston in 1985. At a 1991 “Mystery School” seminar hosted by Houston, Artress recalled that she was overcome with an “almost violent anxiety” as she stepped onto a labyrinth for the first time. Although assured by Houston that the ancient pathway would “lead each of us to our own center,” Artress said she knew immediately it would dramatically shake her life.
In her book, unlike her public speaking, Artress does not disguise her contempt for “fundamentalism” and the “religious right,” whose “literal interpretation of the Bible . . . breeds small-mindedness and mean-spiritedness.” Its supposed emphasis on following strict rules reminds her of the “shadow of the human spirit that led to Hitler and World War II.” Artress assures readers that she identifies with the “open-minded Christian church,” but confesses plainly that this tradition has lost its spiritual force. The Church must “forge a new identity.”
After returning from her visit to Chartres, Artress arranged for a labyrinth to be displayed at Grace Cathedral. It immediately drew thousands of San Franciscans to walk its path. Her book recounts that many spiritual seekers openly wept as they found inner healing. Others have even found physical healing from the labyrinth’s supposed power.
The labyrinth contravenes notions about the “straight and narrow” found within Christianity, which imply that we can make mistakes. Instead, Artress tell us, the labyrinth is more forgiving and leads its followers forward in a flawless path.
Like many modern adherents of the labyrinth, Artress emphasizes its syncretistic inclusiveness. Found historically in almost every culture, from Hopi medicine wheels to Tibetan sand paintings, the labyrinth is a tool useful to all religions and to persons with no specific religion. Its “sacred geometry is based on ancient, sacred knowledge” that is universal, Artress notes.
From Chartres to San Francisco
Nearly every major newspaper in the country has written at some point over the last five years about the growing popularity of labyrinth walking. And nearly every article cites its supposed roots in medieval Christianity and Chartres Cathedral. This claim is odd, because even Artress, the self-described “Johnny Appleseed” of the labyrinth movement, makes no claims, at least in her book, about early or medieval Christians walking labyrinths. Instead, Artress admits there are “no known records of anyone walking the labyrinth” at these churches, and she acknowledges that she knows of “no Christian writers or artists who directly refer to the labyrinth as a spiritual tool” in early or medieval history.
But she speculates that labyrinths were perhaps a “sacred tool that no one was allowed to talk about.” Unfortunately, she writes, the historical records of Chartres Cathedral from the period when the labyrinth was constructed have been lost or destroyed.
At first, Artress apparently had trouble persuading the officials of Chartres Cathedral to adopt her intense interest in the labyrinth. She notes that when she first “discovered” their labyrinth in the floor, it was covered by 256 chairs. She and her friends, without official approval, surreptitiously moved the chairs aside so they could take their first meditative walk through it. Afterwards, cathedral officials erected a sign warning that the labyrinth “cannot be a magical place where man pulls hidden forces from the Earth. That would be (were one to do so) a perversion of the builders/creators. For in doing so, one would substitute man in place of God.”
Since then, cathedral officials seem to have become more open towards the labyrinth movement. Artress has conducted two programs there. Last year, the cathedral devoted a month to examination of the labyrinth, and hundreds of labyrinth walkers were invited to walk the path by candlelight. The rector at Chartres has become an honorary canon at Grace Cathedral, with Chartres reciprocating with an honorific title for Artress’s superior, Dean Alan Jones of Grace Cathedral.
The Divine Mother
At least initially, officials at Chartres Cathedral seemed to understand about the labyrinth movement what many US churches apparently do not. The emphasis of the labyrinth’s proponents is upon the mystical powers of the inner self, not on the transcendent God of traditional Christianity.
Artress frequently mentions “the Source,” “the Sacred,” and “the God within,” which has been “destroyed through centuries of patriarchal domination, through fears of creativity and of the traits associated with the feminine.” Artress prefers this “Source” to the transcendent God “out there” who “keeps track of whether we follow the rules.”
Besides cases of both emotional and physical healing found in the labyrinth, Artress cites “revelatory experiences” resulting from the walk. One friend, she reports, frequently experiences a “Hara” stream of energy beginning at her abdomen and rushing through her body.
Artress repeats the claims of some radical feminist theologians that nine million women were burned at the stake as witches during the Middle Ages in a patriarchal attempt to suppress feminine spiritual vitality. “The old religions that embraced the connection to the natural world were destroyed,” she laments. “We lost our connection to creation. Trusting the labyrinth is one step towards reclaiming that connection,” she concludes.
Tragically for Artress and other labyrinth enthusiasts, Yahweh remains a “stumbling block for many seekers.” This stern, jealous, male God, who is so “repugnant” to many people, is supposed to have created all of the natural order, “usurping” the role of the “Mother, the creator of life.” Artress asserts that too many Christians are afraid to liberate themselves from this tyrannical deity and to trust instead “our inner, objective experience.”
Artress likes to quote Carl Jung about “archetypes” and Joseph Campbell about “the numinous.” She has helped Matthew Fox organize his pantheistic “planetary mass.” She also seems to be an adherent of process theology, believing that “God” is constantly unfolding into a new process and new identity, revealed through our own experiences. Like the labyrinth, this “Mother god weaves the web of creation.” The labyrinth, like the goddess, is “all-encompassing in its twists and turns, reflecting the presence of the Divine.”
A Dubious Tapestry
Admitting that some still find mercy in Christ, whose teachings she admits illustrate compassion, Artress also observes that Jesus as the Christ is too often not helpful because he is closely tied to the patriarchy. Instead, she summons us to the more inclusive “Father and Mother God” and “The Greening Power of God, the Holy Spirit in all Her mystery,” who is found in the “power of The Divine within.”
“She [the Holy Spirit] weaves each of us into the tapestry of this physical life,” Artress continues. “It is this Power that will bring spiritual transformation to fruition. The labyrinth is a tool that can connect us to this Power. The creative intelligence that gave us this labyrinth understood the Mystery behind human existence.”
Despite Artress’s contempt for their faith, no doubt some faithful Christians have walked the labyrinth that Artress has popularized. No doubt they have prayed to Christ as they turned and swiveled through the curving path, believing that they have been drawn closer to the Lord by the experience. It should be acknowledged that there is historical precedent for the transformation of pagan symbols into instruments for Christian worship.
But Christians who walk the labyrinth should know there is little if any proof in church history that labyrinth walking has been a spiritual tool for Christians. More important, they should know that its current popularizers see the labyrinth’s spiritually amorphous path more as a partial replacement for the transcendent God of Christianity than as a tool to bring followers closer to him.
Mark Tooley directs the United Methodist committee of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (www.ird-renew.org) in Washington, D.C.