What is the Labyrinth?
Popular films like Labyrinth, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and Pan's Labyrinth all draw on an ancient Greek literary tradition depicting "labyrinths" as disorienting and dangerous mazes. And yet, the oldest visual image of a labyrinth, found on the island of Crete that was home to the most infamous mythological maze at Knossos Palace, can be easily distinguished from the literary concept of the maze in that it does not contain any tricks or dead-ends. Rather, the labyrinth symbol always shows a singular path that leads to the center and back out again. Interestingly, "puzzle mazes" that included dead-ends were not developed until much later in the 16th century.
The earliest drawing of a labyrinth dates back to the Bronze Age. The symbol is considered by some to be the first work of human "art," in that it is the earliest known drawing that seems to have been inspired wholly by the human imagination, rather than being a copy of something already found in nature (animals, spirals, etc). It is all the more remarkable, then, that this symbol can be found throughout history and in cultures not known to have had any contact with one another, from the ancient Mediterranean to the American Southwest.
Labyrinths became widespread in churches throughout ancient and medieval Europe, but many were destroyed during the Protestant Reformation. Recently, however, there has been a resurgence of interest in labyrinths. In the 1990s, The Rev. Lauren Artress was at the forefront of a movement within the Episcopal Church to reclaim the ancient liturgical practices and theological interpretations associated with the symbol. The Christian understanding of the labyrinth connects the ancient Greek myth of Theseus to themes of Christ's death, resurrection, and redemption. Nowadays, the symbol can be found on everything from jewelry to tapestries to tattoos, and walkable labyrinth paths can be found throughout the U.S., not only in churches but at outdoor parks, hospitals, schools, and prisons.
Walking the labyrinth combines the sense of being lost, disoriented, or out of control with the knowledge that one is not actually lost. This paradox creates a container for prayer and meditation in which we can experience the original meaning of the Greek word "faith," pistis, which means to trust. The invitation of the labyrinth is to trust the path, putting one foot in front of the other without becoming too distracted by how far we've already traveled (the past), or where we stand in relation to our destination (the future). On the labyrinth, we must remain present to where we are right now, and move forward in trust.
Also, by occupying the faculties of our physical body, the winding path of the labyrinth allows us to enter into a "flow" state of quiet mind, and open heart - a posture from which it becomes easier to hear the still, small voice within. In the labyrinth, we can experience a deeper sense of prayer, meditation, intuition, self-awareness, compassion, and insight. Many people find it helpful to have a journal nearby to write down their thoughts, reflections and inspiration after exiting the labyrinth.
The following classes, workshops, and retreat offerings are available as a resource for those who want to learn more about the labyrinth, whether from a historical, spiritual, mythological, aesthetic, or practical perspective.
Introduction to the Labyrinth
This lecture or workshop offers an overview of the labyrinth that combines the mythological, historical, and mystical significance of this ancient symbol. What is the relationship between a "labyrinth" and a "maze"? Why the discrepancy between the literary myth of the labyrinth as a maze and the labyrinth symbol, which is clearly not a maze? Why were labyrinths installed in churches in the first place, and what meaning did it have for medieval Christians? What do labyrinths have to offer us as a spiritual tool today? A number of practical suggestions will be offered for how to approach walking the labyrinth. When a labyrinth is available, a guided walk will be followed by a time for discussion and spiritual reflection.
The History & Theology of Labyrinths
This deep-dive lecture is based on Kristen's extensive research into the history and mythology surrounding the labyrinth. We will look at the earliest drawings of the symbol, and consider its archetypal implications as potentially the earliest work of the human imagination. We will also look at the earliest literary references alongside an examination of the history of Crete and the ancient civilizations that occupied Knossos Palace, in order to reveal how that history laid the historical foundations for much of what becomes classical Greek mythology. We will ponder why the story of Theseus was embraced by Christians, throughout the Middle Ages, learn about some of the liturgical practices associated with church labyrinths, talk about the context for the construction of the famous labyrinth at Chartres cathedral, and consider some of the reasons for the widespread destruction of church labyrinths during the Reformation.
Walking the labyrinth with a group can be a uniquely insightful experience, especially when practiced within the context of a particular season or with a particular prayer intention in mind. Guided walks always begin with a brief bit of practical instruction, followed by a short thematic reflection, and may or may not be accompanied by music (either recorded or played live). After a guided labyrinth walk, I always offer an optional time for further discussion, theological reflection, or spiritual direction. Some ideas for guided labyrinth walks include:
Solar Seasons: Spring or Fall Equinox, Summer or Winter Solstice
Church Seasons: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, All Saints Day, All Souls Day
Prayer Intentions: World Peace Day, social justice issues, community concerns
Spiritual Themes: joy, gratitude, grief, discernment, transitions, surrender (kenosis)
Lectio Divina: walk the labyrinth while meditating on a passage of Scripture
How-To: Drawing or Building a Labyrinth
Do you want to install a temporary or permanent labyrinth at your home, church, or facility? This how-to workshop offers practical guidance for how to design and create beautiful, walkable, and sustainable labyrinths using a variety of materials. We will learn to draw different kinds of labyrinths based on a variety of historical patterns, and discuss the unique symbolic, aesthetic, and practical/logistical qualities of each option. We will also cover issues like materials and maintenance, as well as tips and tricks for achieving geometrical precision.
(created for the McGiffert Roof labyrinth at Union Theological Seminary)
(held at James Chapel, New York on Sept 14, 2011)
"Crete: A Labyrinth of History & Myth" by Kristen Leigh Mitchell
(article with photos and research from Knossos Palace in Crete, Greece)
Solvitur Ambulando: Creating the McGiffert Labyrinth at Union Theological Seminary
(independent study outlining practical construction steps as well as historical research on church labyrinths)
My first encounter with a labyrinth occurred one night in 2006, when I stumbled into the courtyard at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral. I knew after attending one Sunday service there that I had found my church home. Two years later, while working as the manager for the Sacred Garden Bookstore at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Greensboro, NC, I had the opportunity to participate in a weekend-long conference and training event with the Rev. Lauren Artress. Holy Trinity's stone inlay labyrinth frequently attracted sojourners from across the state, and as an initial point of contact for visitors, I became well-versed in introducing the labyrinth to newcomers, and providing resources on the subject.
In 2010, I moved to New York City to attend graduate school at Union Theological Seminary, where I completed an independent research project in my first year on the history, mythology, and contemporary spirituality surrounding the labyrinth, overseen by faculty from several different departments. As part of this project, I designed and painted a permanent labyrinth on the roof of the residential McGiffert building, adjacent to Riverside Church. Upon its completion, I spent my remaining three years at Union offering guided labyrinth walks to new students, teaching my fellow seminarians about the history, theology, and spirituality of labyrinths, and offering practical support and guidance for those who wanted to construct labyrinths at their churches. I also worked for two years as a liturgical assistant for the Nightwatch program at The Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where I set up their canvas labyrinth each week, and offered contemplative worship music for intergenerational and youth walks.
In 2014, I traveled to Chartres, France to walk and study the famous labyrinth at the Chartres Cathedral. Then in 2018, I traveled to the island of Crete in Greece to complete my research on the history of the labyrinth, with visits to the archaeological remains at Knossos Palace, and Heraklion Archaeological Museum.
Photos from the creation of the McGiffert roof labyrinth at Union Theological Seminary:
Other Workshop Topics Include: