The Chartres Labyrinth
Around 1230, as the Cathedral of Chartres was being built, a labyrinth forty feet across was set with blue and white stones into the nave of the church. Similar labyrinths were installed in other French cathedrals in places such as Amiens, Rheims, Sens, Arras and Auxerre. Around the 18th century, all of these except Chartres, were destroyed. [The labyrinth at Amiens was later restored in 1894.]
These labyrinths were arranged using the same geometric pattern: twelve circles enclosed within a single meandering path which slowly guide one to the center (rosette). The path makes 28 loops, seven to the left side of center, seven to the right of center followed by seven to the left on the outside and finally seven to the outside right concluding with a 90° turn inward toward the rosette.
The Middle Ages were a time of pilgrimages. Most people; unable to make the grand pilgrimage to Jerusalem, considered by Christians to symbolize the Kingdom of Heaven, would make pilgrimages to important cathedrals such as Canterbury, Santiago de Compostella and, of course, Chartres. Once at Chartres, they would end their pilgrimage by walking the labyrinth to the center, and then slowly retracing their steps, returning to the “outside world” and to their homes.
The Chartres Labyrinth has been referred to by four different names:
le daedale (or Daedalus, the legendary architect who built a labyrinth for King Minos of Crete) Just as Theseus struggled against the Minotaur, so man struggles against evil, and is guided back out through the maze by Ariadne or divine grace. The labyrinth of Chartres, however, is not a complex maze but a single path (unicursal) with no hidden turns or dead-ends.
la lieue (or league: which is a distance of about three miles) Although the length of the path is only 260 meters, in the Middle Ages some pilgrims would walk the labyrinth on their knees. This exercise would take about an hour, or the time needed to walk three miles.
le chemin de Jerusalem (or road to Jerusalem) By walking the labyrinth, the faithful could make a substitute pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and be united in spirit with the Crusaders.
le chemin du paradis (or road to paradise, the heavenly Jerusalem) By walking the labyrinth, the faithful trace the path of our long and laborious life on earth, beginning with birth, at the entrance, and ending with death, at the center. The way out symbolizes purgatory and resurrection.
These references to the labyrinth at Chartres, show how medieval theologians and artisans utilized pagan myths and symbols to develop Christian concepts.
How to Walk the Labyrinth
Stay on the path – walk it between the darkened lines. You will discover that this takes a bit of concentration and a focused intent. Hint: look down, staying focused on the path, and centered in mind, body and spirit.
Once you enter, think of nothing else but the path. Don’t worry about stepping over the lines and onto the next turn. If you step over a line just allow spirit to provide direction to your walk.
It is perfectly all right to pass someone if you wish to go at a different pace. Step into the next path as you pass, and then return to the path you were on. (You may also step off onto one of the cruciforms to allow others to pass if you find you are walking slowly)
The Chartres labyrinth is a single (or unicursal) path – there is only one way in, and the same route out. This means that you may meet people walking the other direction. When you reach the center, you will have come only half way. Rest awhile, meditate and then return the same way you entered.
When you reach the rosette (center), stay for a while. Notice any sensations in your body, or if there are any changes in your awareness of self, time or surroundings.
If it is not too cold, walk the labyrinth barefoot. You may even run or dance. Enjoy the contact with the energy of the surface. Sing or hum to yourself as you journey the labyrinth, repeat a prayer (mantra), or simply smile and enjoy the serenity of the walk.
If you are with group, you may want to hold hands and move together in a great whirling dance, or walk meditatively single file.
At a time when the labyrinth is still & quiet, you may wish to do a Zen meditation walk. You do this by placing one foot directly in front of the other, moving slowly, taking one step with each breath while focusing on your feet.
Four Paths through the Labyrinth
There are many ways in which the labyrinth can be walked. Begin each by quieting the mind and following the path that is right for you.
Path of Image:
Follow any memories, dreams, or images that arise as you walk.
Path of Silence:
Empty your mind and open your heart to the silence of the walk.
Path of Prayer:
Recite a prayer, scripture verse, or line a poetry as you walk.
Path of Questioning:
Focus on a question, don’t expect an answer. Simply explore the possibilities.
There are as many different ways of experiencing the labyrinth as there are walkers. Enjoy her gentle embrace as you find the way that suits your temperament, spirit and journey.