"It was all so senseless," a friend told me after his 43-year-old brother died. "I had prayed for months as I watched him suffer and slowly die. He was a good man. His family needed him. After his death, I couldn't pray anymore. I tried, but it wouldn't come."
At the time, our church had rented a portable labyrinth. The canvas spread across the floor of the sanctuary, surrounded by warm candles which provided the only light in the dark of the evening. Soft music played in the background. My friend said, "By the time I finished walking the labyrinth, I fell on my knees and prayed. I hadn't prayed in months. It was an incredible, emotional experience. Walking the labyrinth was a breakthrough for me."
What exactly is a labyrinth? It consists of an ancient pattern of twists and turns said to represent the path of one's life. Found in most cultures, the design dates back more than 4,000 years. One circuitous path leads you to its center and out again. According to Melissa Gayle West, author of Exploring the Labyrinth, "The labyrinth is one of the oldest contemplative and transformational tools known to humankind, used for centuries for prayer, ritual, initiation, and personal and spiritual growth."
A labyrinth can be confused with a maze. Unlike the maze, the labyrinth's path does not intersect other paths. Lacking any walls or barriers, it offers you no choices. You simply walk on the twisted path to the center and back out again. You cannot get lost in a labyrinth.
One can compare this to consciously following the will of God. If you do accidentally cross a line and end up in a different circuit by mistake, it doesn't matter. The center always remains within your view. In a labyrinth, you have chosen to abandon yourself to the will of God. As you slowly place one foot in front of the other on your journey, you eventually reach the center. The mindless path permits you to focus on your meditative prayers.
As you enter the labyrinth and slowly follow the path towards the center, empty your mind and give your problem to God. When you reach the center, spend time in prayer and open yourself up to hearing God speak to you. As you move back out of the labyrinth, give thanks to God for your new insight as you are directed back into your life.
One of the most well known labyrinths is a permanent stone labyrinth set into the floor of the Chartres Cathedral outside of Paris, France, during the 13th century. "After the crusades, when the pilgrimage to Jerusalem became more difficult and too dangerous due to the wars, Christian pilgrims could journey to designated cathedrals and walk the labyrinth there as the final metaphorical stage of their pilgrimage. The labyrinths were often known as the Road to Jerusalem, and the center of the labyrinth was called Jerusalem," states West.
The Rev. Dr. Lauren Artress, canon for Special Ministries at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco and founder of Veriditas, the worldwide labyrinth project, estimates 1800 public labyrinths exist in the U.S., and hundreds more private ones. Located indoors or outdoors, they are found in schools, churches, spas and even prisons as a way for people to pray, meditate or quiet their minds.