I’ve been in a corn maze once and that was more than enough. It was July: hot, humid, and Pennsylvania. My sister and I were in it together and by the time we were part way through we were about ready to kill each other. I’ve been leery of mazes ever since.
Labyrinths are different, however. They do not puzzle or tease. They were not designed to be frustrating, but rather enlightening. Oddly enough, the first labyrinth I encountered was also in Pennsylvania. It had been dug into the curved top of a hill at my Alma Mater, Bryn Mawr. I didn’t know much about labyrinths at the time, but nevertheless, every few months or so I found myself walking the winding path of the maze which was not a maze. The labyrinth gently led me into the center and guided me out again. There were no false turns or dead ends, just a looping way that somehow set my thoughts in order and my heart at ease.
The labyrinth has a long and rich history of ordering minds and easing hearts. It has served as a sacred symbol and tool not just within Christianity but in Buddhism, Hinduism, and Native American Spiritualties as well. In all cases to walk the labyrinth is to go on a journey: into one’s heart, through one’s mind, towards enlightenment.
For Christians, the labyrinth is closely tied to the spiritual practice of going on a pilgrimage. In the middle ages it was common for believers to make a spiritual journey, a pilgrimage, to a holy location. People would travel to Rome to see the ancient Christian shrines and remains of the saints. They would travel to Jerusalem and worship where Jesus walked. Such trips were long, hard, expensive, and not easily undertaken. The labyrinth served as a miniature pilgrimage of sorts. By walking its winding path, Christians were able to take a journey of penitence and prayer without leaving their hometown. As a result, medieval labyrinths can be found built into the floors of churches and cathedrals. There are many churches even today which have labyrinths included in their floor plans.
When we walk the labyrinth, we pray with our feet. As we walk we remember that whatever twists and turns our life may take, God continues to draw us to Godself. With each curve and loop, our minds grow quieter and our reflections grow deeper. To the center of the labyrinth we bring our questions, our doubts, our worries, and fears. From the heart of the labyrinth we emerge with God’s peace and blessing.
Perhaps most important is the truth that no matter how much the path winds, how cluttered our minds may be, or how long the journey lasts, God is with us the entire way, walking beside us from the beginning, through the middle, and to the end.