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Tricia Kibbe

The Labyrinth: A Path to the Sacred
by Tricia Kibbe

The labyrinth is much discussed and asked about these days. Where does it come from? Why does it look the way it does? How was it used originally and why would we want to walk it today? Those of us walking it in our yards and bringing it on canvas to others are finding much deeper questions and sacred responses.

It is true that the labyrinth is often confused with a maze. Just the word, labyrinth, brings to mind a puzzle to be deciphered with dead ends and no exit. For some, labyrinth evokes the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. The sacred labyrinths of Crete and Chartres being walked by many today hold no tricks; they are unicursal paths. Hence, the only decision needed is when to enter. Once that first step is taken, the path takes you to the center and back out again. This simplistic design is the first hint of the labyrinth’s power.

It is not known how the labyrinth was used in ancient Crete but its use in France and Northern Italy is more widely understood. The records that would document this were destroyed during World War II but the story lives on. Pilgrims ventured to the Holy Land as a sacred journey from all over Europe during the early Middle Ages. When the Crusades began, travel became very dangerous and the Church wanted to prevent a greater loss of life. Cathedrals were being built in France and Italy at that time and the labyrinth was placed in the floor of many of these churches to represent the sacred pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The pilgrims came to the cathedral and walked the sacred path arriving at the center called the "New Jerusalem". Over time, the labyrinths’ use became unpopular and its power came under suspicion. It was torn out or painted over in many of the church floors where it had been widely used.

In Chartres Cathedral, the labyrinth remains. It is an intricate part of the Cathedral’s grand design. The stones that make up the path are not painted with the pattern as you might imagine; the stones are the pattern. The path is laid out in eleven concentric circles intricately woven in a sacred geometric pattern. It is surrounded by lunations, twenty-eight semi-circles per quadrant creating a quarter year’s lunar calendar around the labyrinths’ perimeter. The labyrinth’s relationship to the magnificent stained glass Rose window in the church’s entry is also significant. If the front wall were placed down flat on the floor, the entire window would exactly cover and match the size and shape of the labyrinth. The Sacred space is created in part by the labyrinth’s presence.

All of this being said, the question still remains, why would we walk the labyrinth now? In its simplest form the labyrinth is a walking meditative path. It can be used individually as an alternative to sitting meditation. Because it requires no figuring out, one can simply walk, allow the mind to quiet, and let the body take over. We may walk, dance, or crawl the path, do what the body calls forth; there are no rules, there is no right or wrong way. The labyrinth is also widely used as a group meditation activity. Walking on a painted canvas that is a replica of the Chartres labyrinth or outdoors between the stone outline of the Cretan labyrinth evokes thoughts of our interactions with each other on life’s journey. It becomes a metaphor for life.

The labyrinth is metaphorically a three-fold path. Upon entering one begins the symbolic path of purgation of releasing and letting go. The center represents illumination and opening to the Divine. The return path is union; taking the walk’s benefits back into our lives. But we do not walk the path alone; others share our journey. On the labyrinth someone may be walking ahead of us at a pace we find difficult to follow. Our choice then becomes to stay behind and walk at another’s pace or go around them and honor our own body’s rhythm. There are times when we may come face to with a fellow journeyer. Will we greet them with a smile or even a hug or will we remain within ourselves and continue on the path? There is no right or wrong way, the choice is ours to make. It is in these moments that the labyrinth’s mystery and sacredness become apparent. We begin to take a look at how we are in life about our chosen path and at those with whom we walk. We have the opportunity to consider what is important, what we call sacred.

Intention is an important part of the labyrinth journey. Certainly those who walked it in the Middle Ages came to the Cathedral with a very specific purpose. The pilgrims intentionally emulated their ancestors’ walk to the Holy Land in a new and venerable way. How might we bring intention and purpose to our walk today? One way is to sit quietly before walking and focus on an aspect of life that seems important or of concern at the moment. Then, as the walk begins, with the intention of gaining clarity, release the thought and enter the labyrinth. Wonderful stories abound of the insights and peace found when this idea is used. At the very least a deep sense of peace is experienced -- and what a gift such peace can be, especially during troubled times.

As mentioned earlier, there are those who bring the labyrinth on canvas to church groups, hospitals, even prisons, making the path to the sacred available to those seeking peace. The labyrinth has also been used in cancer support groups with great success. My experiences with the labyrinth have profoundly changed my life. I would never have imagined that what seems like a simple path could make such a difference for so many people. Just placing the canvas in an otherwise normal room creates sacred space. People entering the room immediately soften and brighten; many have spoken of a feeling of coming home. The sense of community that walking together brings, right from the start, helps those who might feel isolated and alone to begin feeling part of a new family.

The idea of walking with intention combined with walking in community can create a breakthrough experience. Imagine for a moment the staff of company, wrestling with a difficult problem related to how they work together. They spend some time talking about the strong and weak points of their interactions. They brainstorm about some possible solutions to the challenges before them, and then walk the labyrinth with the intention to adopt a new, more beneficial way of working together. During the walk they begin to see how they share the same path. They walk in front or behind one another and notice that their pace may be different, some moving slowly while others hasten to the center, all on the same path. They find themselves face to face, each headed in a different direction but still on that same path. When they are finished everyone seems much calmer and willing to look at the opportunities available to work things out. Just imagine how that would be. This is a path to the sacred.

Now imagine bringing the labyrinth out into the community. How often do we walk with people in our neighborhood, or even the members of our own family? What if we began to create parks with labyrinths in them, where we could walk with our friends and neighbors? What if a canvas labyrinth was available for town officials or local church groups to walk? Let’s make the dream a bit bigger. Let’s imagine people walking the path to the sacredness of our common humanity. What if we created an intention to walk together in small and large groups all over the planet in peace and harmony? What if we had a walk of that kind to commemorate the anniversary of 9-11? The Labyrinth Guild of New England is dreaming that dream and would love to partner with others interested in making it a reality.

Working with the labyrinth is a true honor and privilege. I am often asked about it being just another New Age thing. My response is, "It’s so old it’s retro!" I hope you’ll consider walking the path either by yourself or in your community. I think that, like so many others, you will find it a true path to the sacredness of who you are.

© 2002 Tricia Kibbe.  All Rights Reserved. 

Tricia Kibbe
Tricia Kibbe, president of the Labyrinth Guild of New England is a Veriditas labyrinth facilitator trained at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco in August, 1997. She has facilitated many workshops and walks throughout the Northeast. Visit: www.labyrinthguild.org.

For the past three years Tricia has participated as a facilitator and co-coordinator of the program at Chartres Cathedral in France, "Let Us Walk With Mary" Retreat sponsored by Veriditas, the World-Wide Labyrinth Project. Tricia cherishes each moment spent with those walking the path and searching for fulfillment.


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