Labyrinths evoke metaphor, sacred geometry, spiritual pilgrimage, religious practice, mindfulness, environmental art, and community building. — Labyrinth Society, What Is a Labyrinth?
This week I’ve been drawn to the contemplative practice of walking labyrinths. Walking meditatively is used in many different religious traditions. Walking in circular, meandering circuits can be found in ancient rituals and ceremony. Maybe I’m a little bit restless being inside when it’s so cold out. Or maybe the darkness turning into light is prompting me to look inside myself, then at the world around me, and then inside myself again. Either way, in my prayer life and in my work as a chaplain, the practice and mystery of the labyrinth is very present right now.
This past Monday, I brought finger labyrinths to our staff meeting for our daily centering practice. Working in palliative and hospice care, we often get patients who appear to be at the end of life—but then turn around and go home, renewed of life and energy. Sometimes they come back to us later. Other times they don’t. Their journeys remind me of the labyrinth, of meandering through the waves of life and death, drawing close and then moving farther away again. The labyrinth can be a metaphor for a lot of different experiences. For some people it represents the drawing close and then pulling away of themselves to and from God. For others is may represent their relationships with grief or joy or even with another person. Our lives are not straight paths and our experiences of emotion and the world are rarely linear either. Labyrinths help us acknowledge the complexities of our journeys and honor our place in the world.
While the labyrinth is an ancient pattern that pre-dates Christianity, it was adopted as a decorative motif by churches quite early and soon became a symbol used for meditation and prayer. There are finger labyrinths carved into the stone walls of churches in the Mediterranean dating back to the 4th century. These well-worn designs tell the story of generations of worshipers who would trace the patterns with their fingers before entering church for prayer and worship. In the Middle Ages, cathedrals in Europe began to construct larger labyrinths, inlaid in floors of the nave or outbuildings of the churches. These larger labyrinths were walked or even danced during special services, such as during the celebration of Easter morning. The labyrinth in the floor of the nave at Chartres Cathedral in France is the most well-known of the medieval designs and is the pattern used in the canvas replicas at Washington National Cathedral. The Chartres labyrinth is composed of eleven circuits or paths and is divided into four quadrants, clearly defined by a cross. The center of the labyrinth is a six petal rose-shaped area for resting, prayer, or meditation.
So on this cold January Friday, I invite you out of our usual practice of worship, to share in the contemplative practice of labyrinths. Below you will find a series of pictures of labyrinths that you can use. Pick one that speaks to you and bring it up on your screen. You can click on it and it will conceal the rest of the page, so you can focus on the labyrinth. You can trace it on your screen or, if you’d like, you can print it out. Either way, follow the steps below to enter into and engage with the practice.
Before you begin, take a few moments of silence, listening deeply to what is rising in you. What are you bringing with you on your journey through the labyrinth? Where do you feel resistance? Where do you feel a pull into the labyrinth? If you have a specific request, something that you are struggling with or a particular prayer, take a moment to state your intention for your practice.
Center yourself with a few deep breaths.
Begin tracing the labyrinth with your finger. You can trace the labyrinth fast or slow. Notice your speed and reflect on how you are feeling. Going fast sometimes allows you to get emotions out easier. Try slowing down and try speeding up; find a speed that works for you.
Continue to trace. Surrender yourself to the practice; let your thoughts merge together and your mind wander.
Pause when you reach the center. Take the time you need to pray, meditate, or reflect. Take this moment to feel gratitude for your practice and to notice where you are among your intentions for this practice. Feel free to just be.
After a time of pause at the center, begin to trace yourself out of the labyrinth noticing if you are releasing some of what you brought in, noticing your emotions, and noticing your practice as a whole.
When you get to the end—that is, to the beginning—pause again to give homage to your journey. Offer thanks for all that you have noticed, all you have carried, and all that you have let go. Take a few moments of silence to end this practice and to transition into waiting worship.
Silence-Waiting Worship: This is a time for you to turn your attention fully inward. The songs and passages and the offered message have prepared you to listen deeply to the Divine. Spend at least 20 minutes in silence listening for that still small voice of God. You may want to join an online waiting worship community. A few links for these can be found below.
When you have come to a place of closure in your waiting worship, continue on to bring your time of worship to a close.
Afterthoughts: Afterthoughts are thoughts that rose for you during waiting worship that didn’t completely form into a message. Perhaps you discerned that what was rising for you in waiting worship was a message for you alone, something not to be shared with others or perhaps you only received fragments of a message and it didn’t come together completely during the silence. Take a few minutes to journal these afterthoughts so that you can look back at them another time. Perhaps God is speaking to you through these partial messages and the fullness of their meaning will be revealed in time.
Joys and Concerns: It is traditional in Programmed Quaker Worship to have a time for the sharing of joys and concerns. Take a few moments to write down in your journal a few things from this week that you are thankful for and a few things that you are holding in prayer. Feel free to post these in the comments below as well (though remember that it may take up to 24 hours for them to be available to others to read) so that others can include your requests in their prayers and celebrate your joys alongside you.
Closing: Take another few moments of silence to close your worship time. Breathe deeply and give thanks for your time in worship today. When you feel ready, end by praying out loud, either a prayer of your own creation or the following: “O Holy One, walk with me along this journey towards and away from you. Guide my feet, awaken my heart, and wake in me an awareness of your presence in every step. Help me find center in this practice so that I may listen more deeply to your movement in my life and in the world. Amen.”