Walking into the Silence, a Holiday Meditation

Have you ever walked a labyrinth? I took my first step into a labyrinth, one of my own making, and here’s what happened…I hadn’t planned on going on this journey – but something took over once I stepped into one.

It’s January 2010…

I’m in a studio office in Bath, Maine and I’m taping, with masking tape, a labyrinth on the wooden floor. One of my students has suggested this, making a labyrinth. ‘It would be a great closing tool,” she says.

Personally, I don’t know much about labyrinths but I know it’s a type of walking meditation – so it makes sense to do this with the group. And I get that it’s not a maze but a one-path only into the center and back out. We decide to make a classical-style labyrinth because that’s the simplest labyrinth pattern to tape (but really it isn’t easy so I’m thankful my husband is helping me).

The seven women who are taking my Heroine’s Journey course will be arriving soon. This is their last session. My plan is for them to arrive, journal, walk the labyrinth, and journal again so they have a before and after accounting — and we’ll have our closing. Simple.

I want them to use it as a way to get quiet, introspective, be able to review our three months together — and sort of see what comes up as they walk.

I put a vase of roses in the center, some votive candles around the perimeter and we’re ready. My husband leaves! Everyone arrives – talking, happy, embracing… I explain the process with the labyrinth.

One by one they settle their things, journal about what’s on their minds, find a place to wait their turn to walk…when they feel ready, they walk….me, too. The room quiets…we, and time, slow waaaay down. I’m hooked.

What a great contemplative tool to help someone get centered! When we’re ready to bring our group experience to a close, we’re all in a different place, a better place, a calmer place — and we feel we’ve contacted something deeper within ourselves. I feel like the labyrinth was my co-facilitator.

And I want more, more labyrinth!

February 2010

Now my next group of heroines is ready to have their last session. Since my last graduation, I’ve done the research. Hey, there’s a canvas labyrinth in the next town over at The First Parish Church, that I can rent! It’s a Chartres-style labyrinth.

It’s huge, this labyrinth painted on canvas – 30 feet in diameter! Unfolded it fills their large Fellowship Hall. I rent the labyrinth and the hall for my group. The perfect solution – no more tape! I do more research and find a lot of information about labyrinths on the internet.

There’s a Labyrinth Society, a Worldwide Labyrinth Locator — all sorts of resources. I learn the Chartres style or medieval labyrinth is named after a beautiful, old cathedral in France, right outside of Paris that has a labyrinth inlaid in its floor! I also learned that labyrinths are very old.

Labyrinth expert, Jeff Sayward believes the oldest, found in Galicia, Spain dates from 2500-1800 BCE. The second group arrives for their closing. I suggest that they use the labyrinth as a meditative tool, that it can be used as a metaphor for life’s journey.

I tell them, just see what comes up… and we assemble the labyrinth together, in silence, put votives around, and walk. I let them go first, then I step onto the white canvas, at the mouth or opening…I start walking the narrow path, outlined in deep purple. I soon get into some twists and turns, it looks like I’m nearing the center, but no, more twists and turns.

My mind is busy and chattering – maybe this is too big; it’s taking too long; how are the women doing? After more rights and lefts and unexpected long straight-a-ways that feel inexplicably good…my mind stops and I’m walking, just walking…calming down, slowing down…and so is everyone else. It has the same effect as the last time with my group, but even better.

I think that’s because it’s more intricate, it takes longer, fooling the brain with the unexpected. It settles us, quiets us, we connect to something while walking – an inner part of us that is silence, that is quiet. I love how my mind stops…I want more.

May 2010

I’m on an Air France plane with my friend Barb and we’re going to Paris. We’ve been rerouted because there’s a volcano in Iceland that’s spewing ash! But we don’t care – it’s night and we’re on our way to Paris – and Chartres. By now I’ve done a lot more research – Chartres is like the mother ship of all labyrinths:

• Built in 1201, the labyrinth is inlaid in the nave – in a catholic cathedral – Notre Dame de Chartres

• Dedicated to the Virgin Mary – there is a piece of her garment there • It is known as a very sacred site

• People go on a spiritual pilgrimage to Chartres, coming from all over the world, from all religions and those claiming no religion.

• There’s a crypt underneath the cathedral that has a well that some believe was a Druid well, in pre-Christian times - sacred to a virgin who would bear a child.

• You can still see the well.

• You can walk the labyrinth but only on Fridays – otherwise it’s covered with chairs.

Barb shares my love of the labyrinth and has been to Chartres before – maybe 20 years ago and has always wanted to go again. She also speaks fluent French which is a definite plus. We feel like pilgrims. We feel adventurous – what is pulling us here? When we arrive, it’s….cold! I have to buy a coat and gloves! This is Springtime in Paris?? Women are selling bunches of lilies of the valley – Muguet des Bois – on the sidewalk.

It’s May, Mary’s month, Barb explains – and those are her flowers. We eat lunch in my first Paris café. I have a salad with shrimp and grapefruit (Pamplemousse) – delicious! I think I’m in heaven.

Thursday we’re on the train from the Gare de Montparnasse to Chartres – 45 min away. (It’s 50 miles southwest of Paris) We pass waving fields of wheat– there are miles and miles of them.

Then I see the two spires of Chartres rising above everything – dominating the landscape and it’s as breathtaking as everyone said it would be. That cathedral is a presence, and its pull is strong. We walk from the station to the cathedral square. While the outside is beautiful…gloriously so… intricately carved – how could this have been done in 1201 (some say the Templars built it)?

I’m eager to get inside to see the labyrinth. The first thing that strikes me is the windows – the stained-glass windows of Chartres are exquisite…The blue can only be described as heavenly, bluebird-wing blue. They call it Chartres blue.

The light is dim (I later learn that this is purposeful – the builders of these great cathedrals wanted the pilgrims, the parishioners to feel like they were entering a different reality – a holy place).

Then I see it – almost under my feet, the labyrinth. It’s right there when you walk in, inlaid in the stone floor – off white stones set within a darker marble. It’s immense: 42 feet in diameter. The paths are 16 inches wide. The total length of the path is 861.5 feet. It is comprised of eleven circuits or circles and there is a huge rose in the center with six petals. It is awesome.

I take off my shoes and walk on the cold stone floor to the entrance of the labyrinth (luckily I was told to wear socks). Just as I’m ready to step onto the labyrinth, I’m jostled by someone walking quickly by me on my right. He proceeds to walk right across the labyrinth - ignoring all the paths! Horrors – and they are more doing it! They are just walking all over the labyrinth in any direction. Don’t they know about the path?

Then I realize, they aren’t here for the labyrinth. They just want to see the cathedral. I think, how strange, irritating actually…but then I put it aside. By now I had learned that walking the labyrinth was a metaphor for how you walk through life. What and who you meet up within and around the labyrinth is what you meet up with in life.

You choose your reactions — you notice it. You can attach to it or you can let it go…I decide to let go of my crabbiness and judgment about the tourists.

I walk the Chartres labyrinth twice that day. It’s so large that it takes about a half-hour to walk in and a half hour to walk out. I feel the presence of history – of the pilgrims who used to come there because (historians believe) they couldn’t go to the Holy City, Jerusalem, while of the crusades were raging, so they came to Chartres – and the other cathedrals of Europe to walk, in penitence – sometimes traveling the labyrinth on their knees.

There are tiny holes in some of the stained glass windows that when the sun goes through them they make perfect white circles on the stones of the labyrinth…sunspots. It is, indeed, magical – I understand the term “labyrinth time” – the dissolving of linear time as I walk the labyrinth. Au Revoir, Chartres!

But apparently, my labyrinth journey isn’t done!

August 2010

I’m in San Francisco with fellow traveler and pilgrim, Barb, at Grace Cathedral which has a perfect replica of the Chartres labyrinth thanks to the Rev. Lauren Artress who initiated and oversaw its construction.

I’m here to learn to be a labyrinth facilitator. Lauren has trained over 4000 of them. There are people here from all over the world – with this same passion that I have seemed to acquire – a passion for walking a labyrinth.

Here’s her definition of a labyrinth, from her book, Walking a Sacred Path: “The labyrinth is an archetype, a divine imprint, found in all religious traditions in various forms around the world. By walking a replica of the Medieval Eleven Circuit Labyrinth, laid in the floor of Chartres Cathedral around 1201, we are rediscovering a long-forgotten mystical tradition that is insisting to be reborn.”

We experience labyrinth walks as we learn. Lauren takes us one night up into the majestic sanctuary, which has been covered with votive candles, and on the labyrinth, she has placed handbells.

She tells us that during this “Harmony Walk” we can, if we choose, pick up a bell and take it with us as we walk – ringing it as we go – then just place it down when we’re ready. In the labyrinth, with about 30 other fellow seekers – toning these beautiful bells.

I leave my “little self” and exist for a moment somewhere among those perfect tones. Then, before I leave I take a side trip to Lands End where there’s an outdoor labyrinth, next to the Pacific Ocean. I return to Maine.

I bring the canvas labyrinth from the Brunswick church to my congregational church in Bath. I watch as the people I know and love walk like beautiful choreography upon the canvas Chartres style labyrinth. They love it. I bring it again. Susan from the Brunswick church and I plan a Harmony Walk in January 2011, in Brunswick.

40 people come – even from as far away as Portland. The labyrinth and the bells again work their magic. OK – What’s going on here? What does this mean to me…and possibly to you? At the very least I believe the labyrinth is the perfect antithesis to our ever more rapidly moving world, to the onslaught of information, new technology, and myriad ways to connect… It’s a way to slow down… It does slow me down; it also… quiets me down, quiets my mind… things float up – ideas for me to consider; I notice things more – how I’m breathing, feeling.

I’m focused on staying on the path I’m more present. I’m definitely HERE on the path. It encourages trust – “Oh, I can’t get lost – there’s only one way in and one way out.” And I find when I do this within the labyrinth it has a way of continuing with me when I’m outside of the labyrinth… somehow.

Besides the physical, emotional benefits of slowing down, I would add that for me there’s something spiritual going on:

• Maybe it’s because once you get quiet there’s room for something else to enter in – intuition, guidance, the Universe, God – whatever you want to call it.

• I also feel, every time I “sink into” the quiet of the labyrinth and I’m reassured by its one way in, one way out unicursal path, that the underlying order of the labyrinth is a reminder that even in the midst of the chaos of today’s world, there’s also an underlying order – if we just quiet ourselves enough so we can feel it, connect with it.

I have met many wonderful people because of the labyrinth. I had the privilege of speaking with Kimberly Sayward, Jeff’s Sayward’s wife. They live in Thundersley, England and one might say she’s there because of her experience with the labyrinth.

She first walked the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral in 1995 in San Francisco “I both walked and watched...and in doing so felt the direction of my life shift subtly yet perceptibly from an attitude of shutting down, to one of opening and flowering.”

She continued to walk the labyrinth regularly. In 1999 she was elected to the board of The Labyrinth Society (she would later become it’s president) In her words, from her doctoral dissertation, Ariadne’s Thread: The Transformative Potential of labyrinth Walking: “Six months later I responded to an unexplainable and irresistible, though seemingly impossible, inner call to visit the historic labyrinths of England and France.” There she met Jeff Saward, the world expert on the history and development of the labyrinth.

She recalls this as a time of intense introspection and remembers being back home in California, with so much going on in her life, going to the center of the labyrinth, praying “you take this...I’m turning it all over to you.” What happened was “like putting my foot in a river and having it take me.”

By February 2000, she was selling her home and moving to Britain in order to marry Jeff and build a new life that revolved personally and professionally around the labyrinth. She told me she lives her life “labyrinthically”. She invented the word. It means living your life as though you were walking on the labyrinth, moving along one’s own unfolding path by simply continuing to put one foot in front of the other in order to successfully navigate the twists and turns of the journey, one step at a time. 

Walk The Labyrinth

I feel like I’ve been kicked into some journey initiated by the labyrinth. I, too, am moving along an unfolding path, putting one foot in front of the other – just as I would on the labyrinth – and I’m trusting there is underlying order (or inner order) supporting me. Oh, and I hope it has occurred to you – the order of the labyrinth; its pattern; how we proceed through…it’s a physical representation of The Heroine’s Journey. This holiday season, find one, walk it. You’ll be glad you did.