Or to put it another way, God walked a mile not only in our shoes, but also in our feet—in our ankles, shinbones, kneecaps, and hip joints. At the core of the Christian faith is the Word that became skin and bones and blood.
Prayer is a celebration of the incarnation. Because humans do not pray in the abstract—in the absence of a body or context—prayer becomes an embodied activity in which Christians pray in the flesh to Christ in the flesh. For this reason, prayer can take many physical forms. Protestants bow their heads for prayer. The Orthodox and Catholics bow their bodies for prayer. In Ghana, Africa, the Asante tribe kicks their prayers to God. “Yey boe m pie ey,” as they say—“let us kick prayer.”John Russell, the Philip Jenkins Lectures, Beeson Divinity School, Birmingham, Alabama, March 11, 2008.
Prayer might be kicked, but it can also be walked. Labyrinth walking, also known as “prayer in motion,” is a physical discipline that reflects the spiritual yearning to get at the heart of God. Unlike a maze, which is a puzzle riddled with dead ends and turnarounds, a labyrinth is a continuous path leading into and away from the center. Though it is unfamiliar to many Protestants living in a linear, Western world, labyrinth walking is a whole body experience that has much to teach us about centering ourselves on Christ.
Where did labyrinths originate? One answer to this question is simply God. From spider webs to thumbprints and seashells, labyrinths are common occurrences throughout God’s creation. Sand spirals, hurricanes, tornadoes, and vortexes of every kind reflect the spiraling pattern of the labyrinth.
Human-made labyrinths transcend cultures and belong to virtually every major civilization in history. Archeologists believe the oldest labyrinths originated in Egypt around 4,500 BC.Donna Schaper and Carole Ann Camp, Labyrinths From the Outside In: Walking to Spiritual Insight (Woodstock, VT: Skylight Paths, 2000), 2. The Greek writer Herodotus described a colossal temple in Hawara, Egypt, containing a labyrinth of meandering halls that surpassed even the great pyramids.Herodotus, The Histories, Book II, 148. Lost for two millennia, this temple complex is currently being excavated by the Mataha Expedition Team of Ghent University. Visit the Mataha Expedition of Hawara, Egypt, at www.labyrinthofegypt.com. Pliny the Elder also weighed in, identifying four great labyrinth styles in the ancient world: Egyptian, Cretan, Lemnian, and Italian.See Pliny, Naturalis Historia, Book XXXVI.
Other examples are plentiful. In Peru, the Nazcan civilization (500 BC) etched spider labyrinths into their flat desert landscape. The songlines, or “dreaming tracks,” of the Australian Aborigines follow a labyrinth pattern, as do East Indian yantras and Tibetan mandalas. Swedish fishermen believed labyrinths entrapped bad weather, a concept also represented in the dream catchers of Native American Ojibwe peoples. The ancient Greeks played games similar to tic-tac-toe on labyrinths. The Hopi Indians of North America sketched seven-path labyrinths to represent Mother Earth. And in Seville, Spain, the infamous running of the bulls zigzags through a labyrinth of streets before opening into the center of a bullfighting arena.
The oldest known Christian labyrinth is found on the pavement of the Basilica of Reparatus in Orleansville, Algeria, constructed around AD 325. While other churches boasted of similar architectural designs, it was not until the Middle Ages that Christians began walking labyrinths for penance and pardon from purgatory.
Since pilgrimages to Jerusalem were expensive and often unrealistic, labyrinth walking became a makeshift substitution. For those too ill to travel to the Holy Land, or those whose sins were too venial to mandate the journey, labyrinth walking became a poor man’s pilgrimage, easily trekked by ordinary peasants in local cathedrals. It is not surprising that the thirteenth-century labyrinth on the floor of Chartres Cathedral in France was often called Chemin de Jerusalem, or “Jerusalem Road.”
Today, labyrinth walking is coming into vogue in Western society. Often used as therapeutic instruments for children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, finger labyrinths have been shown to calm the mind and stimulate focus.For more information about the therapeutic benefits of Finger Labyrinth Designs, visit: www.relax4life.com. Hospitals have also discovered the healing benefits of labyrinth walking. Equipped with circular marble designs integrated into floors, recovery centers encourage patients to walk labyrinths for healing, stress relief, and prayer.
For Protestant Christians living under a grace-based righteousness, labyrinth walking is currently being rediscovered as a spiritual discipline. Labyrinth walking does not assist in our justification, that is, the upward dimension of the Christian life in which God declares sinners righteous on behalf of the work of Christ. Instead, this discipline is a tool that nurtures our sanctification, that is, the inward dimension of the Christian life in which sinners become more like Christ through spiritual disciplines that draw us into his presence. We do not walk labyrinths to earn salvation, but rather to experience the God of our salvation in a physical and spiritual way.
03. Walking a Labyrinth
Walking a labyrinth requires access to a labyrinth. For those who live thousands of miles from the famous Gothic cathedrals of Europe, Donna Schaper and Carole Anne Camp have compiled a helpful list of labyrinths within the United States.See Schaper and Camp, Appendix B. But for those whose finances are as beleaguered as the economy, a less expensive option is also available: Make a labyrinth of your own.
Depending on your geographical location, labyrinths are easy to construct from nature. In sand or snow, a spiraling ring of footprints will suffice. Twigs, stones, or pine straw laid in circular patterns works well in forests and mountain environments. Suburban labyrinths can be built in backyards with brick and stone. Within a house, a circular rug or floor pattern can be used. And for those who are constantly on the road, professionally sewn canvas labyrinths, ideal for travel, are available for hotel rooms.For more information on portable labyrinths, visit the Labyrinth Company website: www. labyrinthcompany.com.
Now that you have a labyrinth, the next step is to walk it. One of the many benefits of labyrinth walking is that it ushers us into the liturgy of the Christian life. Even a dyed-in-the-wool Baptist like myself recognizes the tremendous significance that liturgy plays in our lives. Our days are punctuated with liturgical markers: breakfast, exercise, traffic, work, lunch, dinner, and bedtime. We are creatures of habit, marked by rhythm and routine.
Labyrinth walking is a conscious embrace of rhythm. Like the inhaling and exhaling of a breath, it is a journey inward and outward. Helen Curry speaks to this rhythm as “walking, breathing, being—things that we never think about in the day-to-day whirl of life—become conscious and deliberate.”Helen Curry, The Way of the Labyrinth: A Powerful Meditation for Everyday Life (New York: Penguin Compass, 2000), 6. Some people recite the Jesus Prayer with each step. As the foot leaves the ground—“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God. . . . When the foot reaches the ground—“. . . have mercy on me, a sinner.” In this way, the physical fuses to the spiritual, resulting in a harmony of body and breath.
Because of the cyclical nature of this discipline, some listen to nonlinear, circular worship music like Taizé chant to maintain a slow, contemplative tempo.Taizé chant may be sampled at their website at www.taize.fr/en. Instead of “microwave music”—songs that start and stop in 60 seconds—Taizé chant fosters a “crock-pot Christianity” in which the permeating presence of God simmers in us and through us. It is a reminder that God doesn’t want just part of us; he wants all of us.
In her book Walking a Sacred Path, Lauren Artress suggests three stages for labyrinth walking: purgation, illumination, and communion.Lauren Artress, Walking a Sacred Path (New York: Riverhead Books, 1995), 29–30. While this threefold paradigm has its origins in Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite in AD 500, Artress has modernized and appropriated it specifically for the discipline of labyrinth walking.The original paradigm by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite included “the purgative way,” “the illuminative way,” and the “unitive way” (see Francisco Suárez, De Religione, Tr. VIII, lib. I, c, xiii). In her appropriation of this threefold paradigm, Lauren Artress changes “union” to “communion.”
Purgation is the stage of surrender, a divine detox. It happens when we surrender to God what we have hoarded for ourselves—worry, anxiety, frustration, fear, doubt, despair, etc. During this phase, it is sometimes necessary to ask God to purge us, stealing from us all that we cannot surrender. As you enter the labyrinth, take your time. In our productive, accomplishment-driven society, we are not accustomed to lingering. Like a midnight run to WalMart, you might feel the pressure to get in and out as quickly as possible. But resist rushing. Labyrinth walking is about purpose, not pace.
Step by step, purge up all the distractions—conflicts with colleagues, arguments with a spouse or teenager, money woes, fixations on entertainment, and so forth. Be specific. At each turn of the path, lay down individual sins or burdens before God. Some people bring stones along, laying them down one by one as they go. C. S. Lewis said, “We must lay before God what is in us, not what ought to be in us.”C. S. Lewis, quoted in Walter Hooper, C. S. Lewis: A Complete Guide to His Life and Works (New York: HarperOne, 1998), 382. Reflect on the comfortable words of John that if we confess our sins to God, “he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9, NIVAll Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™).
In the medieval era, cathedrals were often built in the shape of Latin crosses. In the cases of Chartres, Amiens, and Rheims Cathedrals, labyrinths were positioned in the church directly where Christ’s knees would have hung on the cross. It was an architectural way of highlighting a spiritual virtue—humility. It is not surprising that many monks entered labyrinths on their knees, confessing their sins in centripetal motion to Christ.
As you weave toward the center of the labyrinth, center your thoughts on a Bible verse, a promise in the Scripture, or an attribute of God. Let each step of the journey be a miniature meditation. Ask God to expand your understanding of it, to increase your awareness of its depth. James wrote, “You do not have, because you do not ask God” (James 4:2, NIV). But for those who do ask, the promise rings true: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7, NIV).
After purging, praying, meditating, and asking, you will at last arrive at the center. Henri Nouwen said that prayer is “standing in the presence of God with the mind in the heart.”Henry Nouwen, The Way of the Heart (San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers, 1991), 59. But you can also sit. It is not uncommon to remain in the center of the labyrinth for over an hour. Yes, there might be people walking behind you, but do not scurry to leave. This is a sacred spot, not because God’s presence is denser, but rather because this location symbolizes a moment that is informed, reformed, and transformed by Christ.
The center of the labyrinth is where the doing of prayer becomes the being of prayer. It is where Martha morphs into Mary, and we sit at the feet of Jesus in utter awe of who he is (see Luke 10:38–42).
The word “illumination” comes from the Latin lumen, meaning “light.” Unlike Eastern concepts of Bodhi, or Enlightenment that seek to transcend the “fleshiness” of life (birth, suffering, hunger, and death), Christian illumination speaks to the desire to know Christ in the flesh, to walk beside him in his death, and to seek the fellowship of “the sharing of his sufferings” (Philippians 3:10, NRSVUEScripture quotations marked (NRSVUE) are taken from the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition, copyright © 1989, 2021 The National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. ). And in the same way that Christ illuminated the minds of the two men on the road to Emmaus, we, too, trek with Christ toward enlightenment. For it is there that the dark and secret places are ushered into the healing and restorative light of God.
While the center is important, it is the journey that teaches us how to arrive. You may be able to reach the center a dozen times while walking toward it, so to speak. As you begin your quest out of the labyrinth, tune your heart to worship. This is the exhaling part of the breath, the climax of praise. The Psalmist declares, “Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise” (Psalm 100:4, NIV). But be careful not to confuse praise with thanks. When we thank God, the emphasis is still on us. But when we praise God, the emphasis returns to God.From a lecture by Allan P. Ross, professor of divinity at Beeson Divinity School, Birmingham, Alabama, in Hebrew exegesis.
In 1514, Nicolaus Copernicus proposed a theory that would forever change the way astronomers perceived our solar system. Instead of the medieval, geocentric interpretation, Copernicus offered a new theory, a heliocentric theory. It was a revolutionary idea: that the earth revolved around the sun. It was a dangerous concept that contradicted a thousand years of teaching.
In his book Deliver Us From Me-Ville, David Zimmerman explains how younger generations have developed a heightened sense of “Me.”David A. Zimmerman, Deliver Us From Me-Ville, new edition (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2008). He notes that we are a generation prone to pride, or the deadly sin of “superbia,” as he calls it. Labyrinth walking animates the Copernican revolution that occurs within the heart of every Christian, the great transition from me to Him. No longer are we at the center of the universe. Through God’s grace, we can now revolve around something bigger than ourselves—something holier and heavier. When Christ is at the center of our lives, only then can our lives be truly centered.
As you leave the labyrinth, ask God to prepare you to reengage the world. Jesus never retreated into the wilderness merely for retreat’s sake. Christ refused to live as a holy hermit. Like Jesus, we, too, must retreat with the purpose to advance. Communion is the centrifugal phase when God commissions, equips, and sends us into society to preach and live out the gospel. New Testament benedictions are often helpful to recite as you exit the labyrinth:
To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy—to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen (Jude 24–25, NIV).
07. A Fleshly Discipline
While the theological problems of the Dark Age are behind us, the theological problems of the Digital Age have only just begun. Labyrinth walking, among other spiritual disciplines, keeps us from falling into one of the greatest temptations of our time—Gnosticism. Gnosticism was a religious and philosophical movement that combined astrology, Judaism, and Christianity. A prominent teaching in Gnosticism was the dualism of body and spirit. Believing that the spirit was inherently good and the body was inherently evil, Gnostics became hostile to all things physical, often retreating from society to live as ascetics in the wilderness.
With the advance of social networking tools like Facebook, Twitter, and Second Life, we have acquired the ability to separate flesh from spirit. We can digitally represent ourselves without having actually to be ourselves in the flesh. While Jesus’ command to “go into all the world” (Mark 16:15) does not exclude digital worlds, we must always remember that Jesus came to earth as a person, not a pixel. He was not a ghost or avatar, as doubting Thomas assumed (see John 20:27). The Word became real flesh and real blood. You could touch him. You could watch God eat a fish sandwich. And the Word that became flesh remained flesh. Even now, Christ bears the scars of love on his body.
Labyrinth walking keeps us in the flesh. It is a discipline for the sole and the soul, a fusion of physical to spiritual. In an age of avatars, it resists a catatonic Christianity that exchanges physical reality for virtual reality. But ultimately, it speaks to what it truly means to be human.
Life is a labyrinth. Torn between an entrance and an exit, humans live in perpetual tension—pushed by the past, pulled by the future, yet plastered to the present. Peter says that we are aliens and pilgrims in this world, traveling through one while belonging to another (1 Peter 2:11). And along the way, we can be confident that the Christ who went before us on the journey is traveling behind us and beside us as he draws us to himself.
Christian George is completing a PhD in theology at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. He is the author of five books, including Sacred Travels; Sex, Sushi, & Salvation; and Godology. Christian preaches, teaches, and travels throughout the United Kingdom, Europe, and North America. His sermons, articles, and book excerpts have been featured in Christianity Today, Modern Reformation, and Preaching. You can visit him online at www.restlesspilgrim.com.
Some of this material has been adapted from Christian George, Godology: Because Knowing God Changes Everything (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 2009), chapter 10. Used with permission.