“We need to go on a journey sometimes—whether it’s walking a candlelight labyrinth in a Gothic cathedral or running the trail behind our apartment. The goal is to come home new.”
“Whenever in reflective or receptive contemplation we touch, even remotely, the core of all things … there is an activity that is meaningful in itself taking place.” —Josef Pieper
Many cultures—ancient Greeks, Hindus, and Hopis among them—have created labyrinths—elaborate one-line walking paths—and used them as an aid to prayer and an encounter with the divine.
In Christianity, the first labyrinth was constructed on the stone floor of the Chartres cathedral in Paris, France, around 1200 AD. In the Middle Ages, many Christians looked forward for their entire adult lives to going on pilgrimage, often by foot, to the Holy Land. These people dreamed of going to holy sites in order to encounter the holy. They wanted to touch the places where Jesus had lived and died. In their time, as in our own, there were wars being fought in the region and it often wasn’t safe to go on pilgrimage.
Instead, they could make a symbolic journey to the Holy Land by walking the twists and turns of the labyrinth on the floor of a cathedral. Some would walk on their knees as many pilgrims do as a way of repenting for sins. Others would walk barefoot, feeling the ground beneath their toes, praying as they went. Or asking for wisdom.
I spent a lot of time as child in a church that had a labyrinth on its grounds, but I didn’t know what it was for until I was grown. Labyrinths can be found all over the U.S., mostly at churches and retreat centers, but you could even make one in your yard with rocks or sticks. A labyrinth is a path, usually circular, with many twists and turns. You walk it slowly and with intention, eventually reaching the path’s center. You pause and pray; then you loop back, retracing your steps, returning to where you started—changed.
When I lead college students on labyrinth walks, many like to take off their shoes. Some walk the labyrinth with a question in mind, like, “Should I go to graduate school next year?” or a prayer to recite, like the Jesus prayer. Others prefer silence. Some use a single word like “home.”
Like all pilgrims, these students must allow themselves to “waste time” and go on a journey. Walking a labyrinth is purposeful, but, to outsiders, it might look silly. You have to give yourself over to the path and its whims.
This is not an errand of utility. It’s about taking the next step and the step after that, prayerfully and with an open heart. It’s about surrendering control and being led. At the center of the labyrinth, they pause and pray with what they have received so far on their journey, and then they circle back, retracing their steps slowly and deliberately. Some students like to walk a labyrinth at hinge moments, like sunrise or sunset.
Honestly, the loops of a labyrinth make me dizzy, so I’ve modified the practice to make it work for me. Instead of walking a labyrinth, I run the same trail almost every day. It’s a loop, out and back. Just as with a labyrinth, I start at the same place, run to a center point, and then return the way I came. Some of my best discernment and prayer happens on this running path.
We need to go on a journey sometimes—whether it’s walking a candlelight labyrinth in a Gothic cathedral or running the trail behind our apartment. The goal is to come home new.
Want more? Read Eve Hogan's series on walking the labyrinth.