On a beautiful summer’s evening I found myself at an informal outdoor celebration of the Lord’s Supper held in a labyrinth which had been created by a careful cutting of the grass. The communion table had been placed right at the centre, with chairs for the participants placed around the edge.
My initial reaction was one of surprise – this was a new experience for me, as indeed for everybody else there. However, all became clear in the ‘sermon’. The ‘presiding minister’ began by explaining the difference between a maze and a labyrinth:
- A maze is a confusing pathway that has many branches, choices of path and dead-ends; while a labyrinth has a single through-route with twists and turns but without branches
- A maze is a puzzle and can be designed with various levels of difficulty and complexity; while a labyrinth is not designed to be difficult to navigate – it may be long, but there is only one path
- A maze may have different entry and exit points; while a labyrinth has only one entrance and that is also the exit – there is just one path from the entrance to the centre.
I confess that as the minister spoke, I initially questioned whether the distinction he was making. I remembered the story of the Cretan labyrinth, constructed by King Minos, within which was the half-bull, half human offspring of Minos’ wife, Pasiphae, called the Minotaur. When Theseus, the son of Aegeus, King of Athens, went inside the labyrinth to kill the Minotaur, Ariadne – the daughter of King Minos – gave him a ball of string for him to use so that he could find his way back safely. The Cretan labyrinth was clearly akin to a maze. However, I have since discovered that in ancient times there was no real distinction between a labyrinth and a maze. But in the middle ages the distinction emerged – labyrinths were composed from various pieces of coloured marble or tile and set in the floors of many European cathedrals, and they were used as a substitute pilgrimage experience for those unable to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
But to return to the communion ‘sermon’, the presiding minister then went on to draw spiritual significance from the labyrinth – with Jesus (and not a minotaur) at the centre. For many the journey of life can be likened to ‘confusing maze’; but for people of faith the journey has purpose and direction, for Jesus is at the centre. I found this a helpful way in to communion, even although the imagery is inevitably limited, for Jesus is not just the goal, he is also ‘the true and living way to God’ (see John 14.6). At this informal communion none of us ‘walked’ the labyrinth. Instead, in the context of eating bread and drinking wine, we were encouraged to focus on the Lord Jesus, who as a result of his death and resurrection, alone given meaning and purpose to life.
Some ultra- conservative Christians are suspicious of labyrinths. They point out that labyrinths are pre-Christian in origin, and dismiss them as a form of ‘New Age’ spirituality. However, rightly used, the labyrinth can become ‘a tool for prayer’. I am one of the patrons of the Society of Mary and Martha based at Sheldon, a beautiful retreat centre on the edge of the Dartmoor National Park. This retreat centre has a labyrinth, which involves walking one-third of a mile around its eleven ‘circuits’:
The focus and narrowness of the path can be very settling for a restless body, mind or spirit. There is only one path – that’s the difference between a labyrinth and a maze. But although it is simple and there are no choices, the complexity of the design means you can’t jump ahead in your mind. The twists and turns of the path, the constantly changing outlook across to the hills or facing the trees, the boundaried space provide endless metaphors for the conscious or unconscious mind to work with. It can be especially helpful at times of transition or turmoil. Sometimes people simply approach the labyrinth with an ‘intention’ – a person, an issue, a relationship, a choice, a question – and allow the walking of the labyrinth to unfold the intention in their heart.
There is, of course, nothing ‘magic’ about a labyrinth. It is just a ‘tool’, but used as a means for prayerful meditation a labyrinth can indeed allow Christians to set their lives within the loving purposes of God – and what a difference that can make. Yes, a labyrinth can point us to Jesus.