National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  October 3, 2003

A labyrinth at St. Martin's-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church in Columbia, S.C., replicates on canvas the original at Notre Dame in Chartres, France. Popular in the Middle Ages, labyrinths are coming to prominence again.
-- KRT/Erik Campos
The ancient labyrinth makes a comeback

Walk through maze recalls our wander journey through life


I recently completed an exhaustive 15-minute study of the enigma of the labyrinth, from which I derived more enjoyment than the return of the yo-yo.

Labyrinths are everywhere these days. They are on corporate logos, school T-shirts, and next to putting greens at the local country club. One can spot them on strategically placed tattoos. Churches galore are installing them on the back lawns of old rectories. One can find them on the mastheads of parish bulletins or the backs of priests’ chasubles. Jean and I found one in the woods on a rather remote resort island in upper Michigan. Jean lectured for a week in Tennessee, where a colleague had installed one in her backyard that her neighbors visited often after 9/11. Heck, Starbucks must have a labyrinthine-latte coffee that can have one walking in circles.

For those unfortunates who can’t tell the difference between a labyrinth and a maniple, the former is an intricate structure of interconnecting passages through which it is difficult to find one’s way. (It is often called a maze, but “labyrinth” is sexier.) Today, the meaning has evolved to mean something highly intricate and convoluted in character, composition or construction -- sort of like an IRS 1040.

Labyrinths are said to date to mythical times, when a vast labyrinth was built in Crete by Daedalus, the Athenian architect and father of Icarus of the wax wings. Daedalus built one of the first mazes at the command of King Minos, in order to house the Minotaur, a monster with the head of a bull and the body of a man, who liked to chomp on human flesh. The structure made its way into early Greek, Egyptian and Roman practices as early as 1300 B.C., and then into church culture as a kind of sacramental and meditation aid.

Labyrinths can vary in size and shape depending on the space available. In medieval times, they were as common as McDonald’s. In France, there were large ones in the floor of cathedrals in Sens, Arras, Amiens, Reims and Auxerre, together with lesser ones in smaller cities. The faithful often made the journey through the maze on their knees, sometimes taking up to four hours.

By the 17th and 18th centuries, the spiritual meaning of labyrinths was no longer understood. Furthermore, the constant movement of crowds walking the labyrinth apparently disturbed the clergy. One cathedral canon, Jean Baptiste Souchet, who died in 1654, considered the labyrinth “a senseless game, a waste of time.” Before long, many were destroyed.

But the one at Notre Dame in Chartres -- one of the oldest and biggest -- survived, even though it was covered with dirt and chairs and was walked over like a city hall lobby. Today, on Fridays, the chairs are moved from the 42-foot wide circle and crowds of people walk to the maze’s center. Little children, speaking flawless French and using the subjunctive, dash around the labyrinth with unerring accuracy and French-accented giggles. It’s fun just to watch.

Jean and I flew to France and lolled about Paris. Jean was lecturing on Impressionism on a river cruise down the Seine. We took a train to Chartres and walked to the city’s magnificent Notre Dame cathedral, which would make you want to fly home and turn your parish church into a wine and cheese bar.

The cathedral has roots that date to the fourth century. However, its present splendor may date only to the 12th century. It is said to be the resting place of the Sancta Camisia, the sacred garment supposed to have been worn by Mary when she gave birth to Jesus. (Other sources claim she was wearing it at the Annunciation.) Pilgrims went to Chartres the way many now go to Turin to view the Shroud of Turin.

When we were there, Mary’s garment was at some secret place being repaired. So, we were left to view the windows, the statues and the labyrinth.

The French government now owns the cathedral, but the church enjoys its use. Separation of church and state is a very fluid thing in this beautiful country.

While Jean sketched, I went to the labyrinth at the nave of the cathedral and watched the hundreds of pilgrims who came to walk the narrow paths that took them to “The New Jerusalem” at its center. But without assistance, we are incapable of finding our way through the maze and, like Dante, get lost in the forest. We need, like Theseus -- the hero and king of Athens who slew the Minotaur -- to be led by Ariadne’s thread. (Ariadne was the daughter of Minos who gave Theseus the thread with which he found his way out of the Minotaur’s labyrinth.)

The labyrinth is a universal symbol for the world, with its complications and difficulties, which we experience on our journey through life. The entry to the labyrinth is birth; the center is death and eternal life. In Christian terms, the thread that leads us through life is divine grace. Like any pilgrimage, the labyrinth represents the inner pilgrimage we are called to make to take us to the center of our being. It is but one example of how early Christians adapted pre-Christian allegories to Christian doctrine. The center of the labyrinth at Chartres actually once contained an engraved copper plate depicting the battle between Theseus and the Minotaur.

Perhaps this explains why the people walking in circles were so intense. Many of the women, dressed in floor-length frocks, walked with arms extended from their sides, with glazed eyes and with lips moving. Some had rosaries; others, small crucifixes. Some whimpered.

There were fewer men. They looked young and were barefoot. Their eyes were more trancelike, as if they were about to lift something very heavy.

The kids darted in and out, treating the circles as if they were boxes on a hopscotch grid. Hopscotch is still with us. The grid of hopscotch boxes is shaped like a cathedral floor. Years ago, the sisters who taught us in grammar school would sometimes suggested that the bottom square be marked “Hell” and the top square be marked “Heaven.” One achieved salvation by hopping from one end to another without going outside the lines. The hopscotch grid is a mini-labyrinth. It remains the sacramental center of morning recess.

Labyrinths, like most pilgrim sites, tend to attract some souls whose porch lights have flickered for ages. I followed one guy who walked barefoot with his arms above his head, doing a kind of slow dance and consciously holding up traffic. His face was carefully contorted in phony pain. No one but his significant other paid any attention.

A British tour guide told me that I had just missed a fat lady in a pink tutu. She looked like a pile of tires. She swirled in circles, barking like a walrus in heat. But she had lugged her tutu from the ends of the earth in order to absorb over eight centuries of accumulated meditation.

Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago where he designs backyard labyrinths. He’s at

National Catholic Reporter, October 3, 2003

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