The labyrinth is an ancient tool for self-discovery, healing, and spiritual enlightenment found in many ancient cultures in one form or another. Its actual origins are yet to be uncovered, but labyrinth designs were found on coins in Crete, where the classical seven-circuit labyrinth is believed to originate around the third century B.C.. Ancient labyrinths were found in European and Asian countries as well as in the Native American cultures of Southwestern United States. In recent years, the use of the labyrinth has been enjoying a revival, as people are more interested in spiritual awareness and development. Labyrinths can now be found not only in churches, but also in schools, hospitals, retreat and healing centers, community parks, corporate buildings, and backyards. The labyrinth is used for meditation, relaxation, healing, spiritual guidance, communing with the inner self and the spirit world, awakening creativity, self-empowerment, enriching one’s spirituality, commemorating or celebrating an event, or just for the fun of it. The labyrinth can be viewed as a metaphor for life’s journey – the path inward represents creation; the center is the place of enlightenment, transformation, or the evolution of spirit into matter; and the journey out represents the integration of the new self with the old.
The labyrinth differs from a maze in that there are no blind alleys and no places to get lost. The center is always in sight with no obstacles to reach the destination. While a maze, with it’s multicursal paths, engages you at the mental level in a linear, problem-solving approach to your quest; the labyrinth invites you to delve into your intuitive, spiritual self as you simply place one foot in front of the other to follow the meandering, unicursal path to the center. The labyrinth is an ancient symbol of the feminine archetype with its spiraling circle into the center (the womb). The many turns to the left and the right along the path stimulate all the dualities in our being and facilitate an integration of body, mind, and spirit to engender a sense of wholeness.
The best-known labyrinth was built during the thirteenth century in the nave of the Chartres Cathedral in France using sacred geometry. The Chartres Labyrinth was carved out of limestone and permanently inlaid into the floor to reign in all its beauty and magnificence for centuries to come. Its long, meandering path with many turns, or switchbacks, allows time to descend into the depths of the soul’s hidden springs as we journey to the center. There are twelve concentric circles that form the eleven circuits of the path. The ten labryses, or spaces between the 180-degree turns, form a cross as they divide the labyrinth into four quadrants. The cross was the symbol of the crucifixion. Each quadrant has seven turns, for a total of 28, which is the number of days in the lunar calendar. At the center, six petals form a rose, the symbol of both human love and divine love, which are embodied in the Blessed Virgin Mary who is also symbolized by the rose in Christianity. The rose, like the lotus, is also a universal symbol of enlightenment. As the center is understood to represent the evolution of spirit into matter, each petal, may represent a stage of planetary evolution. Starting from the left as you enter the center, the petals may represent the realms of mineral, plant, animal, human, angelic, and mystery. The center is the place of transformation. It is a sacred pathway to connect with the hidden springs of the soul in the pursuit of health, love, joy, and equanimity. On the perimeter of the Chartres labyrinth are 113 cusps or teeth of the 112 foils, which are the spaces between the cusps that represent four lunar months. They are called lunations, and in ancient times were used as a calendar to determine the date of Easter – the time of rebirth. The lunations, along with the center and the labryses, hold the feminine energy of the labyrinth. The path, where the physical movement takes place, holds the masculine energy. In its wholeness, the labyrinth is a wonderful tool to manifest our own sense of wholeness and well-being.
In ancient Europe, when it was not feasible for Christians to undertake the long, arduous pilgrimage to the Holy Land, which was believed to be the center of the earth and sacred place of healing and rebirth, they could walk the Labyrinth and experience unity with the crusaders and achieve the same spiritual goal. Over the centuries as the idea of pilgrimages waned, the meaning of the labyrinth was lost, and the labyrinth itself was forgotten. The Chartres Labyrinth was covered over with chairs and remained dormant for centuries. When the revival of the labyrinth started in the United States in the 1980’s the labyrinth at Chartres was uncovered and used on a few special occasions each year. In 1998 it became available for the modern day pilgrims who journey to Chartres for retreats. The Labyrinth Guild of New England and Grace Cathedral of San Francisco offer retreats in Chartres centered on understanding and walking the labyrinth for spiritual growth. Every Friday, the Chartres Cathedral Labyrinth is open to the public.