There was an article in the local paper recently about a woman who built a maze on her property (click the link to read the article). Not a maze with walls, or hedges, rather a path laid out on the ground with coloured paving stones. The article was somewhat vague, but I was excited to see it, since, only a few days earlier, I’d been describing the idea of labyrinths to friends over lunch.
Do you know about them? These are patterns on the ground which contain a winding path, from the outside of the pattern, to the middle. Wikipedia tells us that walking the labyrinth used to serve as a pilgrimage, for those who couldn’t afford to make the journey to holy sites. In the Cathedral at Chartres, medieval pilgrims would follow the path of the labyrinth on their knees (made somewhat more difficult when there were chairs all over the path, as in this photo).
The labyrinth in the Cathedral at Chartres, image by andrewgaijin from flickr
In some cultures, the figure of the labyrinth was used as a trap for malevolent spirits, while in others it may have symbolized a sacred connection with ancestors (Wikipedia). In modern times, the idea of the path of the labyrinth as a religious pilgrimage has broadened so that walking the path is an opportunity for prayer, or contemplation.
Labyrinths can be found in formal settings, such as churches and public spaces such as this one in a subway station,
Powell Street BART station labyrinth, San Francisco, image by jovino from flickr
and in less formal settings, like backyards, farm fields, and rough lands.
image by Chris KWM from flickr
There is a webpage which gathers information on labyrinths throughout the world. Even those who’ve built their labyrinths on private lands seem generally willing to open them up to public use, so take a look to see if there’s one near you. Next time I’m in Toronto, I’m determined to visit the Toronto Public Labyrinth which is located just behind the Eaton Centre, south of Trinity Church (check the link for a map).
Toronto Public Labyrinth, image by Bluelemur from flickr
There are two reasons why I find the idea of labyrinths so intriguing. First, because I am a walker. Walking is my preferred transportation method; form of exercise; stress management tool; and favourite way to do errands. But walking is almost entirely functional for me, I rarely use it for contemplation time (unless the batteries die on my ipod). On the other hand, I’m also a pacer when I’m stressed. The short runs and tight turns of the labyrinth appeal to me as a calming device. (And this is how I first saw them used: on the tv show OZ, there was a labyrinth in the prison.)
Second, I like the metaphor of life as a journey (obviously I’m not alone on this one, this metaphor is frequently invoked on reality tv). The purposeful, point A to point B walking that I perform doesn’t approach that metaphor as beautifully as the twists and turns of the labyrinth do. The path is unclear – yet lovely; sometimes a labyrinth walker seems to be walking back towards the entrance, rather than forward to the middle; while you’re walking, it’s hard to tell how far along the path you have walked, etc. And I wonder, never having walked one, if you might lose your sense of time in the labyrinth, since you can’t judge distance and walking time as you usually do.
What about you? Have you walked a labyrinth? Do you want to? Is life a journey? Are metaphors irritating? Fill me in…