A labyrinthine approach

Published April 1, 1998


The sound of a softly squeaking floor mingles with the music of 12th century visionary Hildegard Von Bingen. Shoeless people wander within the design pointed at their feet; some bow their heads. A man and woman stand facing each other with eyes closed for 10 minutes.

St. Paul’s associate priest April Stanley stands inside the Labyrinth which is modeled after one in Chartres Cathedral, France. [Keith Morrison] This is a typical day in the church hall at St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Vancouver’s West End. The St. Paul’s labyrinth has received an average of 60 visitors per week – and national media coverage – since it opened several months ago. Associate priest April Stanley instigated the project after attending a workshop by Lauren Artress, an Episcopal priest at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco. Ms. Artress’ book, Walking A Sacred Path, has sparked much current interest in the labyrinth concept.

The St. Paul’s labyrinth has been popular with people exploring non-traditional spirituality; some dance through the labyrinth, while others chant mantras. Could this indicate that pagan spirituality is encroaching on Christian territory?

Not so, says Ms. Stanley. While labyrinths have a wide variety of symbolic and mythological meanings, she emphasizes that they also have a rich and solid Christian tradition.

The most famous labyrinth legend originated in ancient Greece. The heroic Theseus entered a labyrinth on Crete, and killed the dreadful Minotaur. Labyrinths are associated with various cultures; several legends involved fertility symbolism. Native American Hopis, according to author Nigel Penniuk, “refer to the labyrinth figure as mother earth.” In Labyrinths: Ancient Myths and Modern Uses, Sig Lonegren writes of Swedish legends involving men seeking a woman at the centre of a labyrinth.

In The Labyrinth: Symbol of Fear, Rebirth and Liberation, Helmut Jaskolski describes the first known church labyrinth, a mosaic dating to 324 A.D. In its centre is printed “sancta ecclesia,” or “holy church.” This, he says, demonstrates “the notion (that) the church, as the mystical body of Christ, is the centre of the world, the final goal of all striving … There is just this one way: out of the world of pagan error, inward into the truth of the Church.”

St. Paul’s labyrinth is modeled on one in Chartres Cathedral, France, one of many churches built after the First Crusade. Church labyrinths were used for prayer and contemplation, and as substitutes for pilgrimages to holy sites. Some labyrinths were called “Jerusalem;” many pilgrims walked them on their knees.

The Christian perspective is not pertinent to some visitors to St. Paul’s. Counsellor Stephanie Rink’s spirituality is influenced by “the ancient mystery schools of Egypt, Tibet and Hawaii.” In the labyrinth, she says, she senses that “the energy of everyone that’s ever walked it is in that path.” Spiritual teacher Barrett Biggs extols the “tremendous transformative healing power” of labyrinths. At the centre of this one, he says, “I felt a tremendous energy surge through my body and hands.”

Ms. Rink considers one’s view of Christ “irrelevant” to the labyrinth experience. But, she says, “Having it in a church allows it to hold more sacredness, to contain that energy.” The church setting does not influence Biggs: “I follow the spirit within me. God is a personal experience to be found from within rather than searched for without.”

These views do not concern Ms. Stanley, who responds: “Part of our intention was to make a bridge to people who would not normally think of a church as a place to make a spiritual connection.”

Printed by permission of David F. Dawes and ChristianWeek.


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