The Labyrinth

With acknowledgements to Michael Standcliffe’s five sermons on The Labyrinth published in Jacob’s Ladder (SPCK,1987)

The maze at ChartresAt the west end of the nave in Chartres Cathedral it is just possible to make out in the shadows an indistinct pattern of stones on the floor in the form of a circle. It is in fact an elaborate maze, some 40ft in diameter, which has been a feature of the church since medieval times. Most of it is usually covered by chairs, but once a year at Pentecost the chairs are removed and the maze is available for pilgrims to follow the ancient custom of walking the 1000 paces from the edge of the circle to the centre in silent meditation. In earlier years people did not just walk, many followed the path on their knees, painfully and slowly, as a penance – a way of coming closer to God. Labyrinths were featured in a number of medieval cathedrals, though few have survived, some removed by local clergy fed up with children playing games on them.

The labyrinth is not just a mathematical or logical puzzle but an ancient archetypal image, deep and powerful, engaging with profound aspects of human nature. In one way it is like the forest or the wilderness in earliest times, standing as a symbol for being lost, disorientated, with no familiar landmarks, no certainties to guide. Confusion and fear are associated with the uncertainty of where we are, where we are heading, or which way we should go. Some of us see in this a reflection of our situation as Christians in a confusing world. For some the urban jungle is now as bewildering as was the wild forest for our forebears.

Perhaps the best known labyrinth is that attributed to King Minos of Crete where the fearsome Minotaur, part man, part bull, was imprisoned and fed every nine years with a diet of young Athenian boys and girls. One of these boys, Theseus, laid a thread from the entrance through the twisting tunnels into the depths of the labyrinth, where he confronted and slew the Minotaur, later following his thread to return safely to the entrance. This story reflects a common experience of the need sometimes to journey in dark and dangerous places to reach the wholeness, freedom and innocence for which we strive. Maybe to face up to the reality of death. Maybe to journey inwards, with increasing dread and without a map, to confront, engage and integrate some dark and unpleasant aspect of our own self.

A labyrinth can also be about pilgrimage. For many medieval people, too poor or sick to travel, following a cathedral maze was an alternative to a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The journey has a beginning and a goal to be reached, but the possibility of many distractions and tribulations on the way. The Chartres maze is a particularly good example. One starts in hope and optimism, moving directly towards the centre, only to be diverted at an angle. Then, after coming tantalisingly close to the centre again, the path meanders further and further away, to the outermost rings, only near the end suddenly plunging towards the centre, with a final diversion just before approaching the central finishing point.

There are innumerable illustrations of how the labyrinth idea is deeply embedded in our culture, from the journeys in Hades and Heaven in Dante’s Divine Comedy, through Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, to the labyrinth dances of Morris Men; from the topiary maze at Hampton Court to the Helston ‘Furry Dance’. When you next get lost in the back streets of the city, when you next sing ‘Lord of the Dance’, or even dance the ‘Conga’ – think on these things.

Jim McLean
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 31st October 1999