By Paul Edwards (Fr. Paul)
THE CHARTRES LABYRINTH
A path to the Presence of God within
by Father Paul D. Edwards
What is it like to walk a labyrinth? Here is an example of a common experience for someone who has made a walk: "Six years ago I walked my first labyrinth, following the loops and whorls into the center, sitting quietly awhile, then slowly wending my way back out into the world. That meditation exercise somehow eased my heart and restored my vision as though the inward walk had unraveled the web of sin that weighed me down. Resting in the center I felt held by the Holy Spirit. Following the pathway out, I felt physically lighter. Whatever it is that binds and batters us, meditative practices such as walking the labyrinth can calm our hearts and help us see the pathway ahead." (Forward Day by Day, January 2004, page 94.)
FINDING THE GOD SPOT WITHIN YOU: "When you know who you are, and what you are to do, you do not let things upset you." This statement is by Bill Murray in the movie Lost in Translation. When you discover the God spot within you, you discover who you are and what you are to do. You do not let things upset you. Walking the virtual labyrinth is a most excellent way to discover the God Spot within.
INTRODUCTION: Twenty years ago I walked the Chartres labyrinth for the first time at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco. The concept was intriguing, the experience was spiritually moving, the potential was beyond my imagination.
OUR SEARCH FOR GOD: One of my favorite films is "City Slickers". Jack Palance, as the old cowpoke, tells the city slickers, "Everyone is looking for this". He holds up one finger. Billy Crystal responds, "Your finger?" Jack replies, "No, everyone is looking for ONE thing." "What is it?" "I can't tell you. You have to find it for yourself."
I can tell you the one thing everyone is looking for, but you still must find it for yourself. We are all looking to feel good. The old English word for good is "Gut" or "God," as in Good Friday or God's Friday. We are all looking to feel God! It is a scientific fact that when we are feeling the Peace, Love and Joy of the Presence of God, we will think, feel, and act differently than when we are feeling unloved, unhappy, and insecure. When we live in the Presence, we find balance to our lives. When we are out of the Presence, we find that our lives become unbalanced.
Certain simple principles will be presented in this book. The labyrinth will be used to illustrate them.
THREE BASIC SPIRITUAL PRINCIPLES:
1. All of us have the Presence of God's Joy, Love and Peace inside of us, which produces Spiritual Wisdom.
2. We think rationally with our head and consciously with our heart. Head thinking creates our external feelings. Conscious heart thinking accesses our inner feelings of God.
3. We can only access the Presence with our conscious heart.
The spiritual principles are basically simple, but need to be personally discovered. Each time we read or write them, they can have a deeper meaning. The power of the labyrinth is its ability to help us move from our rational head to our conscious heart in order to focus on the Presence within. The key to the teaching is in the labyrinth shuffle. The shuffle can only be taught through experience rather than in theory.
Walk the labyrinth to see how your life will change. The exercise will have a synergistic effect greater than the sum total of each daily walk. The dictionary defines the theological definition of synergism is the doctrine that the human will cooperates with divine grace in effecting regeneration.
Christianity turned the world upside down. (Acts17:6.) That is what spiritual thinking does. It turns our physical-world thinking upside down. It is like being lost in the woods. If we are to find our way out, we must go backwards. In the physical world we start with the theory and move to the practice. We cannot expect to do that when dealing with spirituality. Spiritual experience comes before the theory. It starts with the practical. Learning how to access the Presence starts with the experience and then the understanding comes. Trying to understand spiritual things and then experience them is a difficult way to approach spiritual truths. Starting in the head is the wrong place. The understanding of spiritual truths starts in the heart, and then moves to the head. It is hard to get into the heart from a hard head. It is easier to move into the head from an open heart.
When we talk about "head" or "heart", all the spiritual teaching in the world will only cause misunderstanding if we have not experienced what is being taught. Most people have a theoretical concept of a spiritual meaning. With no conscious experience of it, they will go off in the wrong direction. Again, when we write about "head" and "heart", we are not writing about theory, but about experience. Spiritual theory means little without experience. The experience means everything.
To understand this, try looking around the room at some object. Now experience the presence of the object, its "being there". If you find this hard to do, stay with it, get closer to it. Put your hand out. Without touching it, "feel" its presence. Turn around and see if you can sense, not think of, its being there.
Whenever you sense something's presence, recognize that you did something different. First you saw it, then you felt it. This is what it means to go from head to heart. We do this unconsciously all the time. Words themselves can be meaningless. Once we start with the experience, we can become conscious of what we are doing. We can then name it for what it is, moving from head to heart.
We could call this movement as going from the rational to the conscious, from the worldly to the Godly, the physical to the spiritual, the seen to the unseen, and many more combinations of words such as red to blue, one to two, or whatever. The words themselves mean nothing. Identifying with the experience of the movement is what gives it meaning.
The experience of being in the Presence has many labels. Talking about being in the Peace of God only has meaning as a shared experience. We find that sensing the Presence is the same as experiencing the Love of God. St. Paul tells us there is only one fruit, Love. (Gal. 5:22.) The rest are manifestations of Love, such as Joy, Patience, and Kindness. Paul further tells us that Love is Patient and Kind in I Corinthians 13. When we look for the specific Joy we may miss it. It is a part of being in the Presence, which is also called the Peace or the Love of God.
Is it possible to live in the state of unconditional Love all the time? Yes. Such Love is the Spirit of Jesus, which God has put into our hearts. We need to learn how to access this Love of God. No one has seen Love. But we know that Love exists because we can feel it. No one has seen God. Yet we know that God exists because we can feel His Presence within us. Walking the labyrinth helps us to feel that Presence of God.
IS THE LABYRINTH NEW AGE?: Yes and no. Spirituality is universal. Some new age spirituality parallels the spirituality in other religions. There is a difference between spirituality and theology. Theology is about WHAT to believe. Spirituality is HOW to believe. Pure spirituality is found in every healthy religion. It is universal to all. When theology and spirituality are joined, we have religion. Religion without spirituality is irrelevant theology. Spirituality without theology is irrelevant religion.
The Labyrinth is a purely spiritual exercise. It has nothing to do with theology. It is like the bread and wine at a Eucharist. Eucharist is merely bread and wine until it is consecrated. Others can use the elements in their worship services and it does not affect the validity of the consecrated elements.
When one visits Jerusalem, places that have deep meaning for Jews or Muslims may have a different but deep meaning for Christians. Pagans and practitioners of other religions have used the labyrinth for spiritual walks for many centuries. That history does not take anything away from the practice for Christians when they walk it. In other words, we bring our own theology into it. When we do, it can light up our theology with new and deep insights. Labyrinths are found around the world from China to Peru, North Africa to France. The most popular labyrinths today are the more classical ones such as the Chartres and the Bayeux in France.
THE HISTORY OF CHRISTIAN LABYRINTHS: There is evidence that labyrinths were walked in the Christian church as early as the 4th century. It may have been earlier, but records before the legalization of Christianity are few, because the church was underground during the persecutions. The Middle Ages were a time of pilgrimages and crusades. Christians considered the Holy City to be the center of the world, symbolizing the Kingdom of Heaven. When the Holy Lands fell to the Saracens, people could not make the grand pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
Labyrinths became popular as a substitute for pilgrimages to the Holy Lands. Pilgrimages were made to important cathedrals such as Canterbury in England and Chartres and Bayeux in France.
Once at one of these cathedrals, pilgrims would culminate their journey by walking the labyrinth to the center. Then they would slowly retraced their steps to regain the "outside" world. Labyrinth cathedrals became the centers for pilgrimages for many years, and still are for many today.
Most people who have walked labyrinths, know of the famous Chartres labyrinth in the Cathedral of the same name. They exists in cathedrals and parish churches from the West to the East Coast. The most noted place on the West Coast in the United States is at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. On the East Coast the Diocese of Southeast Florida among other dioceses has a Chartres labyrinth at their retreat center. In recent years, people have traveled across the United States, just to walk a particular labyrinth.
THE POWER OF THE LABYRINTH: People today seem to be seeking "concrete spirituality" which will impact their day to day lives. They are seeking a balanced life. Walking a labyrinth can help regain, as well as maintain, a proper balance in life.
All of us at times find our lives out of balance. Problems arise when we attempt to bring our lives back into balance with external stimuli. Some seek to relieve pressures through food and alcohol abuse, tobacco and drug dependency, or sexual and chemical addiction. Some attempt to change their external environment by getting married, divorced, or having children. Others might change jobs, careers, locations, or move to a bigger house. Some look for a quick fix from the lotto, others from possessions, cars and clothes.
The list goes on. What many are looking for is a quick fix, rather than something substantial. The problem with crash programs is that they crash. We need to change our way of looking at problems from the external world to our internal selves. We need to learn to keep our internal motors running, or the batteries of our lives will not charge.
Spirituality is primarily about learning HOW to access the Presence within. I have a web site which challenges one's thinking. It states, "I have never heard anyone ever preach, teach, or write on how to access the Presence." People have responded by giving me Brother Laurence's Book, "Practicing the Presence". It is a good book, but it does not tell HOW to do it. Instruction from some of the greatest spiritual writers, lecturers, and preachers in Christianity center on WHAT to do, not HOW to do it. Some people point to recent writers such as Henry Nouwen and Thomas Merton. These writers also taught the WHAT, not the HOW.
If we do not know how to do it, and we do not know that we do not know how, then we will think that we do know how. The only way that we can know what we do not know is to know we do not know it. Otherwise, we will think we know what we do not know.
I have asked people how they get into the Presence. They reply that it is by taking communion, praying prayers, singing praise hymns, and so on. These are not "how's", they are "what's". A person could be stuffed with Eucharistic bread and still not be in the Presence. Others can pray prayers and not pray, sing praise hymns and not praise, smell flowers, take hikes, sit by the seaside, go on retreats, and still not be in the Presence. These are "what" to do, not "how" it is done.
Knowledge is a work in progress. We do not really know members of our families. We know something about them, but not everything. We do not even know ourselves very well. And we certainly do not know God. God is infinite and we are finite. God is eternal and we are mortal. God is mysterious. And we are not.
We can get to know God by wondering what difference it makes being in or out of His Presence. Wondering moves us into the heart from rational head thinking. Walking the labyrinth has the power to help us do that. You cannot wonder from your head. Wondering is a function of the heart. Look back on your day and wonder what difference being in or out of the Presence would make during a certain relationship event. A relationship event is either how you react to what you did, to what others did, or to what happened to you.
SPIRITUAL DIRECTION: We all look for spiritual direction from God. If we were given the most precious gift in the world, what would it be? Would it be riches, as King Midas sought? Would it be what Paul discovered, the secret of being content (at Peace) under any circumstances? (Phi.4:13.) The secret is to be in the Presence of the Peace, Love, Joy and the Wisdom of God.
THE GOD SPOT: We all need a quiet place, especially for those in large cities like New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago. Where is there a quiet place? Well here is a quiet place you can take with you wherever you go. At the center of the labyrinth is the Presence that is in all of us. It is called by some "The God Spot."
We as Christians see the God Spot as the Spirit that was in Jesus which God has put into our hearts. (Gal. 4:6). It is the experience of the Love of God which has been shed abroad in our hearts. (Romans 5:5.) There are many ways to discover and access this Presence. The labyrinth offers one of the best and most immediate ways. When you discover the labyrinth Peace, you know you have discovered the God Spot in your life. It needs to be practiced. It is food for the soul. The soul, when it is in touch with the God Spot, brings homeostasis into one's life.
WE ARE "OUT", WHEN GOING OUT, WE ARE "IN": When we start to walk the labyrinth, going in we are thinking about certain issues. The movement from left to right stimulates our conscious faculties. As we move inward, we become more and more conscious of the God Spot in the center, the holy sacred place in the labyrinth. We become conscious of the Presence of the God Spot in there, and then in us. As we journey toward the outside, we tend to remain conscious of the inner Presence of God's Peace. We learn the difference between being out or being in this Presence. When we go in we tend to be OUT and when we come out we tend to be IN. When we are going in, the heart feels what the head thinks. Coming out, the head thinks what the heart feels. We begin to think, feel, and act differently. Coming out, try to wonder what difference being in the Presence makes.
BASIS FOR ALL LABYRINTHS: We can only think rationally with our head about one thing at a time. We can be conscious in our heart of several things at the same time. If we concentrate rationally on the shuffle, we will become confused. When we are conscious of both the design of the labyrinth and the movement of the shuffle, we can then focus on the Inner Presence at the center.
You can make square or circle labyrinths. There was a time a conflict arose as to which was better, square or circular labyrinths. They are both good. It is the shuffles that hold the power. You can walk over old paths while completing two outside and two inside shuffles going in. Coming out by reversing them, you have eighty percent of the spiritual power of the labyrinth.
The purpose of the labyrinth is to get us out of rational head thinking and into conscious heart feeling.
WALKING IN THE SPIRIT: The ultimate purpose of walking a labyrinth is to walk in the Spirit. It has nothing to do with actually walking; it is the ability to stay conscious of the Presence while going about one's daily business. This is done by moving from the head to the heart and staying there. Look at something with rational thinking. Say "There it is." Turn away and open your heart, becoming conscious of its presence. Focus on the Presence of God within you. Then practice staying conscious of the "here" Presence of God.