Pilgrimage: Trusting Myself to the Other

Irene Alexander Part 8 of 17


Table of contents


Pilgrimage and Hospitality

From their beginnings monasteries have practiced the charism of hospitality. In the first centuries C.E., monasteries provided a safe place for the wayfarer, for the troubled, for the fugitive—and ever for the pilgrim. Pilgrims journey to sacred places as an act of religious devotion. While we may tend to think of Muslims making their once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca, or Hindus making the annual pilgrimage to the Ganges, Christians, too, have a long history of pilgrimage. From earliest centuries Christians have journeyed to the Holy Land, to visit the “holy places” where Jesus lived. And everywhere monasteries provided hospitality and refuge. By the year 400, there were already some two hundred monasteries that took in pilgrims visiting Jerusalem.

But Jerusalem was not the only destination for Christian pilgrims. Rome was associated with Paul’s imprisonment and death, and many other destinations also became popular. Sometime around the end of the first millennium C.E., Santiago de Compostela in Spain became a popular place of pilgrimage because it was thought that the bones of St James were there. Over the centuries millions have journeyed, seeking somehow more of God. And the number of pilgrims has not diminished—today over 100,000 pilgrims each year travel to Santiago de Compostela alone, from points all over Europe and other parts of the world.

All the while, the monasteries have been in the background, providing hospitality and a safe place to stay the night, making the journey safe, providing sustenance, holding the space, and welcoming the traveler. The task of the monastery has been to be and to welcome, to encourage the journey by making a place of safety.

Pilgrimages have come to be associated with transformation for the pilgrim, whether through penance, adversity, or some kind of revelation. And so through the centuries Christians have walked, sailed, and now, of course, jetted into Rome, Assisi, Nazareth, Bethlehem, and countless other places—busloads of them every day. The very hardship of the Santiago walk—weeks of hard walking—seems to draw people. It is as though we know that transformation must come if we would only make the journey.

But while the physical journey to Jerusalem might be undertaken, is it not the road to the New Jerusalem that we are called to walk? The real journey is life. It involves the penance and hardship, and the transformation comes through the intentional walking of that journey with our God. Hebrews 11, the great faith chapter, tells of our biblical heroes who walked with God. But then verse 13 tells us, “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13, KJV).

We are pilgrims, and our calling is to pilgrimage. The gift of monasteries, convents, churches, pastors, and spiritual directors is to make a safe place where we can pause on the way, reflect, and receive sustenance and encouragement to go on. And the task of the pilgrim is to trust: to trust that the journey is safe enough for us to risk, to trust that others will help us on the way, to trust that those with the charism will provide safety and wisdom for us to keep journeying, and, over all, to trust the Divine Other that we will be kept safe in this journey of life. We trust that even though we will meet trials and tribulations, even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, somehow it is a safe universe, and the Creator will shelter us even in death.

Symbolic Pilgrimage

We cannot all make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Rome, or Santiago de Compostela. In medieval times the possibility of making those sorts of journeys would have been daunting. So, over the centuries, walking the labyrinth became a way to make a pilgrimage symbolically. Through the medieval era and the building of the great cathedrals, labyrinth paths were built into hundreds of sites. Probably the most famous is in Chartres, a hundred kilometers southwest of Paris, built in the twelfth century.

Labyrinth paths are simply lines built into the floor of the cathedral in the pattern of the flagstones. In early times the congregation were expected to stand through the service, and the cathedral floor was clear. Parishioners could walk into the great cathedral, and there, between them and the altar, was a path set out in circles on the floor. Parishioners could simply walk straight across it, as many tourists do today. Or they could stand facing the altar at the entrance of the path and then slowly walk circle upon circle, leaving behind the cares of the week and the anxieties of this world, stilling their hearts and minds until they arrived at the center, which symbolically represented heaven or Jerusalem.

The circles of a labyrinth are not simply concentric. The pilgrim cannot see the end from the beginning—or, rather, she can see the center but not the way to it. Initially one comes very near to the center but then winds one’s way out to the very edge again. The difference between a maze and a labyrinth is that in a maze one can take wrong turns; one can get lost; one can get stuck. In a labyrinth the path leads through many turns, but only toward the center and then out again. To me there is a profound learning here. If I keep walking the spiritual journey, if I trust myself to the journey and to the Divine Other, I must at last come to the Center. My task is to trust and to continue to journey.

Labyrinths have been used down the centuries, and Christians have used this form of spiritual journey as a way of pilgrimage to help them pray and to find God and rest in him and be renewed.

Chartres Cathedral labyrinth set in the floor tiles.

The Meaning of the Labyrinth

At some point the Chartres labyrinth is said to have had at the center a bronze plaque with an engraving of the minotaur and Theseus. The Greek legend is that the minotaur—half bull and half man—was kept captive in a labyrinth. Theseus dared to venture into the labyrinth to kill the minotaur because Ariadne, in love with him, had given him a thread by which he could find his way out to safety.

The oldest known Christian labyrinth is in Algeria in northern Africa. This labyrinth dates from the fourth century and differs from the classic Cretan design by the incorporation of a cross through the pathways. Thus the cruciform shape was overlaid on the pathway and remains present in many of the later Christian labyrinths.

Cretan design

Cruciform shape in St. Reparatus labyrinth


Through the centuries the Christian church adopted the symbolism of the labyrinth as our need to overcome our own inner temptations and our need of Divine grace to do so. An example of this understanding is quoted from an early seventeenth-century book regarding the labyrinth on a bishop’s emblem: “The device may be taken as emblematical of the temptation-labyrinth of this worldly life, which can only be safely traversed by means of the Ariadne thread of divine grace.”1 For Christians the labyrinth had thus become a symbol of the spiritual journey, the twists and turns along the way, the not knowing, the need to trust the Divine, and the faith that if we persevere, by grace we will eventually come to the full presence of God.

One of the traditional ways to walk the labyrinth is to fit it with the classic stages of the Christian spiritual journey: Purgation, Illumination, and Union (or releasing, receiving, and integrating). As I walk toward the center, I bring into the presence of God anything that troubles me. I release anything that I need to repent of or surrender. As I come to the center, I stand as long as I wish, expecting illumination from God, knowing myself held. And then I walk gently back out into my everyday world, taking with me a renewed sense of union with God, or a small shift of revelation, or even a solution to what I had brought. As I walk, I integrate my new finding into my being. I can come with a particular issue I want to bring into God’s presence, or I can come with no other expectation than that God is present.

The first time I walked a labyrinth was at the Mercy Center in San Francisco, where I was participating in a course in spiritual direction. Part of the course was experiencing different ways of prayer, and walking the labyrinth was one of them. The Mercy Center labyrinth is set in flower gardens with oak and pine overshadowing it. The path is bare earth with pavers marking the way. At the center is a standing stone. As I walked the labyrinth alone and with others, in sunlight and at dusk, in tears or in celebration, I began to absorb some of the significance of walking a prayer. Each time I walked, somehow the presence of God was there.

I have found this particularly striking in the labyrinth I have walked most often. I live in Brisbane in Australia. I often visit the rose garden and find God present in the beauty of the trees and flowers and river. Nearby is the old Powerhouse, now an arts center. And on the old concrete forecourt of one of the buildings, between the car park and the Powerhouse is painted a mauve copy of the Chartres labyrinth. There is an old railway sleeper embedded in the concrete. There are old cement repairs and cracks. A small dandelion grows up in one of the joints. People walk past to their cars, chatting. I walk the circles in slow reflection. This is so like life: the brokenness and old patched places, people oblivious, in their own worlds. And the spiritual journey continues. I can walk my spiritual contemplation, given permission by mauve painted circles. I smile at God’s sense of humor, and I am reminded to find sacred presence in any place.

Not that God is especially present in any place, but we make one day sacred so we learn that every day is sacred; we make one place sacred so that every place is sacred. As I walk, expecting to find the Beloved, indeed God is present. I have found that each time I walk the labyrinth, whether the centuries-old cathedral stones, the painted lines on the car park at the Brisbane Powerhouse, or the simple grass circles at Tudeley in Kent, as I open myself in expectation to God, so God is present.

I am reminded of Ladinsky’s version of the poem by the Persian mystic Hafiz:


Where is the door to God?
In the sound of a barking dog,
In the ring of a hammer,
In a drop of rain,
In the face of
Everyone I see.2


Walking the labyrinth reminds me that God loves to be present to those who seek God. And God is present in the most ordinary, mundane events of life.

In the last few years, labyrinths have become increasingly popular. There are well over a thousand labyrinths in the United States and hundreds around Canada. It is not only Christians who are choosing the labyrinth as a symbolic spiritual journey. “The labyrinth is an archetype of wholeness that helps us rediscover the depth of our soul… it has something to do with pilgrimage or journey to the center, perhaps to the center of oneself, perhaps to God the center of all things, perhaps to the core of one’s past, even, perhaps, a journey back to the womb, and beyond.”3 Said the poet and second secretary-general of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld, “The longest journey is the journey inwards.”4

The labyrinth is a reminder to all seekers that the pilgrimage is about the inner journey. Obviously a simple physical walk does not transform me. But as I walk, I am reminded that the journey is the challenging inner one. I walk my prayer, knowing that the most important outcome is the change to be wrought in me. And the symbolism of the labyrinth through the centuries clearly recognizes this.

A Prayer of Simplicity

One of the implications of the labyrinth came home to me as I walked the small square labyrinth in the Ely Cathedral in England. This particular labyrinth seemed to be ignored by the adults, but children ran around it as they would in a playground. I recall there had been historical labyrinths in French cathedrals that had apparently been taken up because the priests got annoyed by the children playing on them. They saw the labyrinth as a playful distraction and wanted to be rid of it. I am reminded that Jesus said, “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”5

The labyrinth reminds us of the simplicity of God’s expectations of us. Come as a child. Come and walk the journey. Just walk the journey. Run if you want to. Play if you want to. But stay with it. One theory is that hopscotch games were fashioned after labyrinths and cathedrals. Certainly the traditional hopscotch is in the shape of a cathedral with transepts forming the cross shape. And one form of the game has circles leading to the center. Apparently in France children still might write “heaven” at the far end of the hopscotch game where we used to write “home.” Be that as it may, the labyrinth is a reminder that God does not call me to complicated feats of spiritual greatness, but simply to walk the journey into his presence, to find God in the everyday places of my ordinary life, where children run and play and, more often than adults, see the face of Christ. Again, the labyrinth and the children running it remind me that I am to trust: to walk the journey, trusting there is a way through, I will come to the center, and I will find the kingdom of heaven.

We might wonder—why not just pray? What is the significance of a prayer that is walked? In the last few years, psychologists have been rediscovering the importance of the body and the interconnections between body and mind. Traditionally the church taught us that body was less than spirit and that our bodies were to be “brought into submission.” For many of us this meant we did not look after our bodies properly, or we viewed our bodies as somehow evil. But more recently there has been recognition that our bodies are precious, sensitive indicators of physical and psychological health, and given by God for our enjoyment. Surely this was part of the message of the Incarnation: that God was pleased to be embodied, to come and dwell with us in physical form. So we are discovering that tuning in to our physical bodies helps us to be sensitive to the spirit, to God’s spirit.

There is something about walking that helps us to calm our minds, helps us to open ourselves in a different way. Augustine believed “Solvitur ambulando” (Everything can be solved by walking).6 When we invite God’s presence into our physical world, our senses, our sexuality, we open ourselves to God in a new way. Or rather an old way—more like the way of the child who has not yet learned to separate soul and body and spirit.

This is not a new idea. In the thirteenth century, Meister Eckhart encouraged his readers to consider the body as more in the soul than the soul in the body.7 Walking a prayer somehow allows us to be more present to God, to come as a whole person, and to be accepted as a whole being. Benedictine spirituality, with its emphasis on ora et labora (prayer and work), has always known the value of bringing harmony and balance to our lives by including physical work as a natural part of the day.8 Physical action helps us to stay in silence and to bring us back to God’s presence.

Although I have most often walked the labyrinth in solitude as a contemplative prayer, I have also walked it with others. I was present at the recent opening of the labyrinth in Christ Church in Vancouver. As more and more of us walked the slow circles, I experienced an exultant sense of our union in the spirit. In Chartres there was a particular sense of unity with the (literally) millions of pilgrims who have walked through the centuries. And as a friend and I walked the simple grass paths of All Saints Church, Tudeley, and again with another friend the concrete labyrinth outside Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, there was a profound experience of silent companionship as our paths crossed and recrossed. Because the path of the labyrinth doubles back, the pilgrim meets another and then turns away, only to return eventually. Again, the symbolism strikes me. The spiritual journey is one on which we leave each other, return, and then leave again. We are in companionship and yet alone, respecting the path of the other, trusting the safekeeping of the Creator. As I companion someone else on his or her journey, I trust that the pilgrimage is deepening their spirituality, transforming the person’s heart, and that indeed Psalm 84:5 is becoming true: “How blessed is the man whose strength is in Thee; in whose heart are the highways to Zion!” (NASB)

  1. William. H. Matthews, Mazes and Labyrinths: Their History and Development. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger, 2003, 96-97.
  2. Daniel Ladinsky, The Gift: Poems by Hafiz. New York: Penguin Compass, 1999, 222.
  3. Lauren Artress, Walking a Sacred Path. New York: Riverhead, 1996, 90.
  4. Dag Hammarskjold, Markings. Translated by L. Sjoberg & W. H. Auden. New York: Knopf, 1985, 48.
  5. Matthew 18:3.
  6. This phrase is generally attributed to Augustine but not always. For an exploration of the idea, see Oliver Sacks, A Leg to Stand On. New York: Touchstone, 1984, 110.
  7. Reiner Schurmann (Trans.), Wandering Joy: Meister Eckhart’s Mystical Philosophy. Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne, 2001, 49.
  8. Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Way of Knowing: Reclaiming an Ancient Tradition to Awaken the Heart, New York: John Wiley, 2003, 102.
Irene Alexander lives in Brisbane, Australia, where she coordinates courses in counseling and social sciences at Christian Heritage College. Her joy is to see others embark on the long, slow journey and engage with their own wounding and responsiveness, thus discovering the grace and trustworthiness of our Creator Redeemer.

Photo Credit: C.garciadelucas / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)
Listen to all parts in this Conversations 5.2: Gifts from the Monastery: Silence and Solitude series