Labyrinths are at least 4,000 years old. A classic, simple, seven-circuit labyrinth appears as a design on cave walls and ceramic vases. It is seen in numerous cultures and religions, and became a form of prayer that Christian churches adopted because of its spiritual value.
In the floor of Notre Dame Cathedral at Chartres there is an eleven circuit labyrinth dating from the early 1200’s. It is the same size as the great rose window and as far from the sill of the main door as the window is above it. Thus if that sill were a vast hinge, the window swinging down would superimpose itself upon the labyrinth, a wonder of light upon a mystery of darkness.
The eleven-circuit form became more popular than the older form, in part because its division into four quadrants manifested more the symbol of the cross. Its four arms are readily visible and provide significant Christian symbolism. It is also shaped more like a mandala, which is a circular symbol of the cosmos taken from the Sanskrit and used in many eastern religious traditions. Its more intricate paths are a metaphor for the journey of life and of the spiritual journey inward, toward the heart.
At one time, the labyrinth served as a substitute for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It came to be called the “Chemin de Jerusalem” or Road of Jerusalem, the center of the world. It was a quest – a journey filled with the hope of becoming closer to God.
In walking the Chartres style labyrinth, the walker meanders through each of the four quadrants several times before reaching the goal. At the center is a rosette design which has a rich symbolic value including that of enlightenment.
In our time, the labyrinth is being rediscovered as a spiritual tool with a wide variety of interpretations. It is still a metaphor for an individual spiritual journey. Churches, schools, retreat houses, hospitals, and other institutions across the country are establishing permanent labyrinths. Portable versions are also being made available. Retreats, lectures, books, and numerous websites are investigating the uses of the labyrinth in the psychological and spiritual life.
John Carroll’s Labyrinth
At John Carroll University we are happy to make a labyrinth available on the terrace of Rodman Hall, on the quadrangle side of the building. It is 42 feet in diameter, a replica of the eleven circuit labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral, and is a paved surface set with bluish-gray and brick colored cobblestones. The path from the start to the center is about 850 feet.This eleven-circuit labyrinth is the form most replicated today. We have set its circular design within an octagon and a square, which enhances the labyrinth’s mandala-like quality, as well as its universal significance to people of all faith traditions.
Two additional symbols have been incorporated in polished granite as representative of the Jesuit heritage of John Carroll. In the center of this ancient symbol we have placed the image from the seal of Saint Ignatius, founder of the Jesuit Order: “IHS,” the first three letters of the Greek name of Jesus, bearing a cross and enthroned above the moon and stars. For, while we invite people of all faiths and none to walk this path for their own purposes and in their own way, we honor the Jesuit perspective which emphasizes that Jesus is the beginning, center and final end of all creation. He is immersed into its deepest sorrows and exalted above its highest glories. He stands at the heart of every human life. Around the perimeter of the labyrinth are the four letters “AMDG,” the motto of the Jesuits and those who share their spirituality: Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam, For the Greater Glory of God. In Ignatian spirituality, this is the purpose of our earthly existence and pilgrimage.
How to Walk the Labyrinth
There are as many ways to walk the labyrinth as there are people. Walk at your own pace, and in the spirit of the moment. You will find you may walk it in different ways at different times.
It could be for fun, for peace, or for healing. You might want to relax from stress, or take to the center a question for discernment or a quest for guidance. You might use it for meditative walking or centering prayer. It may be used for reflection or a search for the depths of your own spirit. You may want to repeat a prayer — a word or phrase with special spiritual meaning for you. If nothing else you may wish to search for the one red cobblestone that the paver, following tradition, has set upside down (with the rounded side down and the straight side up).
Take time beforehand to collect yourself, or to form an intention or a question. Walk at your own pace within the lines, moving aside only to pass a person moving slower than yourself or coming in the opposite direction. When you reach the center pause there awhile before starting out again.
Read some of the abundant literature, or consult any of the hundreds of labyrinth websites to see the great variety of ways in which labyrinths are interpreted and used. Whether your understanding is derived from the Christian tradition or not, may you be blessed abundantly as you walk its path.