|By: Carl Teichrib; ©2005|
|We live in a day and age where many “new things” are sweeping through the Christian church. However, in our exploration towards alternative forms of spiritual expression it is imperative that doctrinal discernment and discretionary principles come into play. This is especially true as society rapidly embraces a plethora of alternative spiritual practices, beliefs, and paths.|
I was struck by the simplicity of the above statement: that labyrinths are “clearly a symbol of the Christian way.” An interesting position, especially given the fact that the authors of this particular quote admit, “we cannot be exactly sure what the labyrinths were used for....”
We live in a day and age where many “new things” are sweeping through the Christian church. Some of these alternative directions are simply a reflection of changes in style and format, particularly in the area of music, worship drama, and corporate church structure. And each of these areas of change can open up a world of debate and inter-church dialogue, which is not wrong in and of itself. After all, “iron sharpens iron.”
However, in our exploration towards alternative forms of spiritual expression— particularly as we try to build relevancy in a post-modern culture—it is imperative that doctrinal discernment and discretionary principles come into play. This is especially true as society rapidly embraces a plethora of alternative spiritual practices, beliefs, and paths. Sadly, we as Christians often flounder in doing our homework, and in that vein we may inadvertently open our congregations to highly questionable choices and spiritual experiences.
Paradoxically, while the evangelical Christian community talks about “spiritual warfare” and “putting on the full amour of God,” many of these same churches can be found embracing that which they claim to counter. In seeking relevancy, we have become dangerously “experiential” in nature, and old forms of mysticism are becoming centre-pieces in “experiences of faith.”
The labyrinth prayer-walk, which follows a single winding path to a central location, is a case in point. Primarily jump-started by a UK-based Christian movement in alternative spiritual expressions and by an influential San Francisco cathedral, denominations around the world are embracing labyrinths as a viable part of the “spiritual journey.” But are labyrinths part of the Christian encounter, as suggested by the third introductory quote above?
My first experience with a labyrinth happened years before the idea become faddish in Christian circles. I was doing research work on occult philosophy at the Theosophical headquarters in Wheaton, IL, and after spending a better part of the day reviewing esoteric literature (Theosophy is a blend of mystical traditions, ancient mystery religions, and eastern philosophies), I went for a walk across the grounds to get some fresh air. There, toward the back of the property was a labyrinth that had been set up as a place for spiritual release and expression.
As a Christian researcher and author on globalization, including the religious trends accompanying our changing international situation, I wasn’t surprised by the fact that a labyrinth was set up at this intensely occult location. It made perfect sense.
Understand, Christians looking for ways of bringing in new relevancy within church worship did not “rediscover” the labyrinth as a spiritual tool. As we shall see, it’s been part of the esoteric world for a very long time. Which is why, today, labyrinth walks and “prayer journeys” are being promoted by Rosicrucian groups, at New Age festivals and celebrations, and throughout the neo-pagan world. Not surprisingly, one of America’s largest witch, shaman, and neo-pagan assemblies, the 2005 Pagan Spirit Gathering at Wisteria, OH, held a night-time Summer Solstice Labyrinth ritual, which was described as a “transformative, walking meditation through an all night labyrinth formed by 1000 lighted candles.”
Counter to the statement “we cannot be exactly sure what the labyrinths were used for” is a wealth of literature, some easy to obtain, others that should be kept hidden on dusty shelves. This material paints a fascinating picture on the uses and purposes of the labyrinth as a conduit for the mystical. But before we venture down this path, it’s important that we journey into the recesses of ancient mythological history.
The primary historical focal point for the lore of the labyrinth goes back to Cretan and Greek tales of Queen Pasiphaë, her perverse sexual desire for a specific sacrificial bull, an abominable act of bestiality, and the birth of a strange hybrid offspring—the dreaded Minotaur, which lived in a labyrinth built to cage him.
Each year, King Minos, the husband of Pasiphaë, demanded that seven boys and seven girls be given as a sacrificial tribute to be devoured by the Minotaur. One year, a hero named Theseus accompanied the children. Taking a ball of twine, he unraveled the string as he went through the labyrinth, giving him a trail leading back out. Once inside the labyrinth, Theseus followed the maze to it’s center, where he battled with the Minotaur and eventually beat the creature to death.
The labyrinth containing this Minotaur was not the typical single-path labyrinth of today, but rather a complex maze containing halls and chambers. However, esoteric philosophers have long understood that the Minotaur maze directly corresponds to the ancient (and now modern) spiritually-connected labyrinth walk; the long soul journey with its many twists and turns, the ultimate arrival at the central convergence point, the struggle with the inner monster—and the final victory over the forces of darkness and ignorance (which can only happen when one is illumined at the center), and the repeated journey back to wholeness and the light of day. This esoteric significance of the Cretan story has never been lost on the initiates of the Mystery Schools.
Don’t forget, this Grecian/Cretan story was immersed in the pagan religious context of the day, that’s the metaphysical origin of the labyrinth as we can trace it. Hence the story of Pasiphaë, with its labyrinth journey and inner battle, is of interest first and foremost to the world of occult lore: for the simple reason that this is the intended context.
In following the path of knowledge concerning the spiritual uses of the labyrinth, one doesn’t have to go to the Pagan Spirit Gathering or delve deeply into occult literature (however, we will examine esoteric writings in order to build upon this article). Plenty of information abounds in various reference works. Take, for instance, The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols.
In discussing the labyrinth as a religious tool, the Penguin Dictionary associates the maze (read labyrinth) with the Buddhist Mandala—an aid in the spiritual initiatory journey. Consider the various other metaphysical interpretations of the labyrinth [note: square bracketed comments indicate an explanation provided by this author]:
Jack Tresidder’s Dictionary of Symbols explains,
Other reference works on symbols—and a labyrinth is both a spiritual tool and a religious symbol—give similar definitions [as an example, see The Herder Dictionary of Symbols]. While the meanings are varied, they do pulse with a similar theme, even when associated with the early Roman Catholic cathedrals. And this theme is repeated and more deeply probed by esoteric philosophers and New Agers; it’s the path of mysticism, esotericism, and occultism.
If the labyrinth is a path leading to one specific point, what does the wayfarer expect to find when he or she arrives?
On the mystical journey to spiritual fulfillment, the middle eye of the labyrinth becomes a place of divine illumination. Even Kimberly Lowelle, the President of The Labyrinth Society—a network of labyrinth scholars and enthusiasts—recognizes this basic function.
The promotional website for the Breemie Labyrinth in the UK gives an almost identical explanation, “The labyrinth is an archetypal spiritual tool, found across many times and cultures. While a maze is a left-brain, rational puzzle, the labyrinth involves the right side of the brain, and helps us access our intuition, providing a portal to the Divine.”
Kathy Doore, an author on sacred spaces, freely describes the spiritual implications of the labyrinth,
Divine illumination is the end-goal of esoteric philosophy; it’s the central arena of occultism.
Manly P. Hall, one of the 20th century’s greatest esoteric philosophers and an eminent Masonic historian, tells us that the labyrinth was symbolic of man’s search for truth. Other occult scholars tell us that the labyrinth symbolized to the people “the difficulty of finding the Path to God.” All of this points to the same thing—the mystical realization of our own divinity.
As Hall states in one of his earlier books, “Man is a god in the making, and as in the mystic myths of Egypt, on the potter’s wheel he is being molded. When his light shines out to lift and preserve all things, he receives the triple crown of godhood....” Rosicrucian authority Christian Bernard explains this mystical goal as the building and unfolding of the inner Temple,
Laying it out very plainly, Annie Besant—an early Theosophical leader—simply said, “Man is not to be compelled; he is to be free. He is not a slave, but a God in the making.”
Part and parcel of labyrinth symbology is initiation, the mystical process of inner transformation. Robert Macoy’s Dictionary of Freemasonry, like so much of the esoteric literature, connects the meaning of the labyrinth with this concept. Defining the labyrinth, Macoy wrote, “In the ancient mysteries the passages through which the initiate made his mystical pilgrimage.”
As stated above, initiation is the process of inner transformation. To that end, esoteric societies and occult orders employ initiation as a vital component to spiritual advancement. Indeed, initiation is the pathway, the journey, to mystical completeness. This is the occult metaphor of the labyrinth, a metaphor that is played out in a host of mystical similes. Consider the following archetypes. Keep in mind, each example is replete with historical and religious connections to the Mystery Religions, of which the labyrinth is but a part.
When the Masonic candidate undergoes his initiation, he is led on an invisible path from station to station throughout the Lodge room. Each point and part of this journey is given an exoteric explanation—that is, the real meanings are cloaked in allegory and symbolism. After completing the journey around the Lodge, he is led to the centre of the room where he kneels before an altar. The Worshipful Master asks what the candidate most desires, and the initiate responds with “Light.” Know this, the light requested is not incandescent light or some other physical light energy, but spiritual illumination.
Initiations rites such as the Ceremony of the Grade of Philosophus have the candidate embark on a spiritual journey, following an invisible yet tangible path throughout the Lodge room. This journey, like that of Freemasonry, is intended to elevate the candidate’s level of transformative enlightenment.
In AMORC’s Temple ritual, Second Portal, the student partakes in an allegorical journey searching for light and knowledge. While engaged in the ritual, the student follows a path to each point on the compass, and returns to a central triangle. Again, like the two other illustrations above, this act is part of the mystical journey towards “light” and cosmic unity.
As a co-Masonic body, the OES engages in a series of ritualistic initiations. Unlike Freemasonry, the OES ritual work is performed on a giant floor-rug pentagram. This pentagram, with an altar placed in its centre, is called a Labyrinth. Each of the various initiation rites—journeys on the path to greater understanding—takes place in and around this Labyrinth. Beulah Malone, Past Grand Matron and Secretary of the OES explains,
And herein lies the deeper spiritual meaning of the labyrinth-walk that has become so fashionable today. It’s the symbolic journey of illumination, completely spiritual in nature, and dependent on our works—the “journey,” or the “testing [of] one’s power and strength.”
The path to the centre of the labyrinth is as the invisible but tangible path leading to the esoteric altar—it’s an initiation into the mystical.
Hundreds of Christians have taken part in labyrinth prayer walks, and many churches across North America and Europe are embracing this tool as a means to expand their spiritual experience. The Rev. Jill Geoffrion, a “certified labyrinth facilitator” and author of such books as Christian Prayer and Labyrinths and Praying the Labyrinth, writes,
I must admit her pronouncement sounds appealing. But this particular statement by Geoffrion doesn’t paint the whole picture.
On her labyrinth prayer website, Geoffrion offers suggested prayers for different labyrinth events. In dedicating a new labyrinth, she suggests that those in attendance form a circle on the pattern and extend “the energy that is in our hearts and minds through their hands towards the labyrinth.” Following this exercise is a meditative time where each person physically lays hands on the labyrinth and calls forth “the image of a loved one walking this labyrinth and receiving what is needed.” After more “imaging,” she recommends this responsive prayer,
Geoffrion suggests other reflective meditations for the labyrinth, including short prayers from the “Christian Tradition,” “Egyptian Tradition,” “Hindu Tradition,” and “Sufi Tradition.”
For Christians holding to the exclusive message of Jesus Christ in John 14:6, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me,” a serious rift is now encountered. It’s the dilemma that exists between what Geoffrion’s first quote described verses the religious pluralism that the labyrinth appears to propagate. And because of the nature and metaphysical history of the labyrinth, this spiritual pluralism is inescapable. However, this ever-widening religious inclusiveness—which is the expression of the esoteric idea of the Fatherhood of God—shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, in the labyrinth experience every path is relevant, every road is right, every religion is valid.
Granted, Geoffrion is but one spokesperson representing the Christian labyrinth prayer encounter. Grace Cathedral, however, carries a little more clout. In fact, Grace, San Francisco’s prominent Episcopal Church, has been North America’s “pathfinder” congregation in the labyrinth movement, hosting prayer walks on their two labyrinths for years. Moreover, Grace’s outdoor labyrinth is open 24 hours, and the church now has an involved global networking organization dedicated to advancing the labyrinth experience. Hence, Grace has been viewed by many Christian labyrinth advocates as the driving influence for this new spiritual expression in North America.
There’s no doubt that one reason for Grace Cathedral’s success is their connection to Chartres Cathedral in France. As an ancient medieval church, Chartres hosts an original pattern that is today’s recognized prototype for the Christian prayer walk. Grace meticulously copied Chartres, has marketed it very well, and is now a major spokes-church for the Chartres experience. Consider Grace’s website titled Walking the Labyrinth: Reflections from Chartres,
Grace is open about the deeper meanings of the labyrinth. On the front piece to their labyrinth website, Grace states
And Grace also points out that the labyrinth is a shared esoteric tradition,
The labyrinth exercise, Grace further explains, should be viewed in three parts,
As an institution, Grace is no ordinary church. Not only has it been extremely influential in propagating the labyrinth prayer walk, it has been a hotbed for global interfaith work.
In the 1990’s William Swing was Bishop of Grace. During the 1995 United Nations 50th Anniversary, Swing proclaimed that Grace would work towards the building of a global interfaith network. After an intense amount of travel and lobbying, Swing succeeded in forming the United Religions Initiative—one of the world’s leading UN affiliated inter-religious partnerships. Today, the URI is an active player in advancing global religious unity.
Why does this matter? Remember all the connections between various esoteric philosophies with the labyrinth concept? A parallel runs between both themes; Unity. As a spiritual interface, and as Grace Cathedral reminded us, the mystical labyrinth belongs to “all religions traditions.”
Remember the Eastern Star’s labyrinth? Unity, the Fatherhood of God, and the Brotherhood of Man was the proclaimed magnetism of their Star. Likewise, this triplicate ideology is Freemasonry’s boast, a major claim that the Masonic candidate is to understand via the paths of initiation.
Manly P. Hall, speaking of the Masonic interfaith ideal of the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man, penned these words,
This is the starting point of the occult concept of “the divine.” It tells us that every path on the journey is unique, yet each is true. In order for the mystic to move onward and upward, to return from the center of the labyrinth, he must accept his inner divinity. As Hall says, “...the way of salvation has been hidden within us.”
Reiki Master Kate McManus, in her article Walking the Fire Labyrinth, tells of her friend’s spiritual journey:
Years ago Paul Clasper drew this religious inclusiveness into a completed package,
In an earlier quote by the Rev. Jill Geoffrion, she proclaimed that “God is blessing the use of the labyrinth; many are being drawn closer to Jesus, experiencing healing and gaining spiritual clarity as they pray on its path.”
On the surface this sounds great. But is God really blessing this “new thing”? Moreover, can God bless something that has its origins in esoteric doctrine and ancient pagan mythologies? Adding to its historical pagan significance is the fact that the labyrinth has never lost its occult meaning. As mentioned earlier in the article, labyrinths are still being used, and will continue to be used, as an instrument of pagan spirituality.
If God is going to bless labyrinth prayer journeys, how is He going to deal with Deuteronomy 12:1-14, 18:9-13 and Exodus 34:10-17? In each of these Scripture passages God explicitly tells His people to refrain from anything used in pagan practices. Moreover, the entire book of Jeremiah is a warning against involvement in alternative religious practices.
If God is going to bless labyrinth prayer journeys, how is He going to excuse the interfaith aspect that is common throughout the movement? John 14:6 clearly states that the only path to the Father is through Jesus Christ, and by no other way.
Yes, the majority of Christians would affirm that their prayer walk is completely focused on Jesus Christ. That may be true, but it doesn’t excuse the fact that the labyrinth is, by its theological nature, an inter-religious and deeply mystical device. If God is going to bless the labyrinth experience, how is He going to deal with 2 Corinthians 6:14-16?