(Please note, this piece of writing is a learning exercise for me, which I am choosing to share for interest and to record my spiritual journey during this life. This piece is not meant as criticism or judgement of anyone, except myself alone. If you recognise yourself, or anyone else, in my relating of my encounters whilst walking the labyrinth, this is unintentional. However, if you do recognise yourself, I honour and thank you for having been used to teach me about things about myself which needed to be brought to my attention.)
The labyrinth is an ancient Pagan symbol, appearing on rock carvings, pottery, paintings and other artefacts. Unlike mazes, the labyrinth offers one route to the middle, one path, that leads ever inwards to a single central place, yet which takes the walker on a meandering indirect journey that constantly doubles back on itself. Analogies have been drawn between this route and the path of the spiritual journey for, just as one seems to be nearing the centre, the goal, one turns a corner and realises that one is almost back at the beginning.
The labyrinth has taken many forms over the millennia. The classical labyrinth has seven circuits and dates from the Bronze Age, about 2000 BCE. It may allude to the labyrinth in which Theseus slew the minotaur in Crete. At Kilmartin Glen on the west coast of Scotland similar motifs occur on rock outcrops (below) in the form of concentric circles, some of which have a radial line drawn through them. In Rocky Valley, between Tintagel and Boscastle in Cornwall, a pair of labyrinths (above) are carved onto a rock wall. Rock art is difficult to date other than stylistically and it is generally assumed that these are Bronze Age symbols, dating from about 3000 years ago, and possibly alluding to the sun.
In England, turf labyrinths or miz-mazes are sometimes known as The Walls of Troy; there is a lovely example on St Catherine’s Hill just outside Winchester (walkable) and this one (below) just outside Salisbury in Wiltshire (fenced off, access not allowed). These are the types of mazes which Shakespeare’s Puck refers to in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” – they are associated with spirits and faeries.
Medieval labyrinths reached their climax in the thirteenth century at Chartres Cathedral with eleven perfect circuits. These labyrinths were designed to be walked in contemplation, even as a penitential act, or one of substitute pilgrimage.
On 6th-7th April 2012 (Good Friday and Easter Saturday), an Easter Labyrinth was constructed in St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall. The paths were laid out using electric tea-lights (less of a fire risk) and scallop shells, to a seven circuit classical pattern. There was an open invitation to anyone who wished to walk the labyrinth, and I heard about it via Interfaith. Participants were invited to bring something small to add to the lights and shells.
Although this was being held in a Christian space, this was not a specifically Christian event, but rather a spiritual event. I knew some of the women who had been instrumental in developing and implementing the project through Interfaith, and it was something which I felt very safe and uncompromised about participating in, even as an open Pagan. Plus, although I have walked several turf miz-mazes, I had never walked a labyrinth in a church, St Magnus Cathedral has a lovely atmosphere, and I wanted to walk this labyrinth for myself, as a meditation and spiritual exercise. And, in addition, the anarchist in me relished the prospect of enacting (what I perceived as) a Pagan act, in a Christian place.
I walked the labyrinth on the Friday afternoon, arranging at the same time to meet with some friends in Kirkwall for coffee after. When I first walked into the cathedral I was immediately struck by the beauty of the flickering lights. I was told that a child had already announced that “the fairies have been here” and that was certainly the effect. I was greeted and the project was explained to me and I was given a leaflet. Before long, several of my friends from Interfaith and elsewhere came up to say “hello” and we started to chat, we were all struck by the beauty of the flickering lights.
There was a lovely peace about but I purposely tore myself away, stating that it was time for me to start to walk, for I had noticed that I was unlikely to have the labyrinth to myself but that there were only a few people walking it at that point. So, my act of walking was a deliberate one in that I stated to those I was with that I was leaving to make the journey; it was an act of separation from them.
It seems strange now, to describe, that I was entering a space which had been artificially marked out on the ground. There was nothing at all to stop me just wandering about, other than perhaps a requirement to lift my feet a little higher than normal so as not to scatter the candles and shells, so my entering and walking the labyrinth was an act of submission to an artificial construct; an invitation to do as instructed and see what arose as a result.
As I stepped into the labyrinth, I noticed tears well up in my eyes. I blinked them rapidly away – this is a response which often assails me and which I find (found – read on!) irritating and weak. I ignored this upsurge of emotion and walked onwards and inwards. It wasn’t long before I caught up with the person who had entered before me. They were walking at their own pace which was slower than mine. I was, at first, frustrated by this because they were too slow for me – I wanted the labyrinth to myself! I decided to observe and note my thoughts and feelings as I walked the labyrinth, acknowledging all their awful truth as a mirror to my ego, and accepting that my walk of this microcosm would reveal my attitudes to walking life.
So, I walked the labyrinth much slower than I would have chosen to do, if it had been mine (all mine, my precious!) to walk alone. This is “good for me” I observe, for in life too, others dictate my pace; it is beneficial for me to be forced to slow and contemplate. The outer circuits are wide to begin, they narrow as we move inwards, and it seems busier towards the middle too – perhaps, like now, in life I am not the only one on a privileged inward journey, on a spiritual pilgrimage?!
I complete the first circuit and am nearly at the beginning and the end at the same time, both are in sight. My frustration arises again at having to move at the pace of the person “in front”, and I notice that I am fine about others passing me as they complete their outward journey, but I am reluctant to “overtake”. “Overtaking” seems to be “against the rules”, but what rules? I am not aware of any rules, other than courtesy, why have I invented rules? Then I become worried about restricting the speed of the person behind me! So I am focused now on the person in front’s speed and the person’s behind speed – I am getting “road rage” in a walking labyrinth!
When I am “forced” to stop – because the person in front has stopped and my “rules” dictate that I must not overtake them, nor must I walk into them but must keep a discrete distance – then at those times I notice that I always look inwards towards the middle, to my left. Every time. In and to the left, always looking for my goal, my target.
At about what I perceive to be halfway through, I stop at a turn and notice that both paths lead forward. The left leads forward. The right one leads in the same direction, forward from where I stand. But the left will take me to the centre, the right will take me out. Both lead ahead. If I hadn’t noted where I had come from, and if I couldn’t see over the walls, both paths – ahead and back – look identical. If I take the “wrong” one, I will inadvertently go back to the beginning. And now I want to hurry this up and get out and write up all the wonderful things I am learning about my psyche! No, stay here, stay now, keep going, keep open, keep learning.
Now and at every subsequent point that passes the middle, by the entrance, in the sweep of the arc, I pause and look in to the centre, nearly there – why do I so want to rush this? I become conscious of how many people I know, people who are my friends, either also walking the labyrinth, or sitting contemplating having walked the labyrinth, or being part of the team that facilitate the exercise, but they don’t notice or acknowledge me, they are on their own path, their own journey, but they are here, and I am reminded of just how many good friends I have in Orkney, and how many people I know as acquaintances who I would be pleased to know better. At this point, I feel a deep sense of belonging here. And then I remember that I am meant to be meeting friends for coffee at an agreed time and I worry whether I will be able to finish walking the labyrinth in time. Hurry, rush, worry, rush, hurry.
And now I am nearly at the middle and I have to pause, to allow the person in front of me, who is still dictating my pace (unbeknownst to them!), to turn around and come out. Oh, it would not do for us both to be in the middle together and in each other’s space, no, that would be rude of me, far better for me to seethe in private, totally unaware that my emotions are leaking subconsciously, making everyone around me uncomfortable, and generally creating “an atmosphere”. And yet that is how I operate in life too. It must be possible, in future, for me to be polite and assertive, without being rebelliously compliant?
And now I am in the middle! I have arrived. What an anti-climax! There is nothing here, I feel no different, I had better get out and allow someone else the opportunity to be here – much better than hogging the middle selfishly ...
The labyrinth has been like peeling layers of an onion. Just like this act of walking, sometimes I have felt like I have got nowhere in life, I keep having to start again and again, over and over, constantly reinventing myself and learning a new “occupation”, only to turn a corner and be even further away from my goal. On the few occasions in life when I have got exactly what I want, it is a disappointment for me, and not what I thought I wanted after all.
I leave the middle and can walk at my own pace for a while as the person in front is a way ahead of me now. At one point on the outward journey – the same point where on the inward journey I felt I could take either of two paths, one forward, one back – I realise that I cannot remember whether I am coming or going. I have stepped aside so many times to let others pass me coming out whilst they go in, that I have lost track of whether I am coming or going. On the last outer sweep, I am stuck again at the speed of the person in front, but I cannot bring myself to overtake. I look for an opportunity, and the path widens on the outer circuits so it is possible, but I just cannot bring myself to be that obviously and openly pushy – better for me to appear to be the epitome of tolerance whilst inwardly boiling with impatience!
Then I am out and the walk is over and I have learnt so much and I sit and I write and I write and I write and I write.
And then I go and meet my friends for coffee and other friends join us and, once again, I feel so much love from the people I know now in Orkney. Interesting, clever, spiritual people, from whom I feel love and respect and connectedness. And I reflect again on how this exercise has reminded me of how many relationships I have here and now. And what a Blessing that is.
My husband tells me that he was astounded by how much power there was in walking the labyrinth for him. He says he feels as re-empowered as if he has just undertaken a shamanic journey. I am resentful and jealous of this. I did not feel empowered; rather I was obsessively observant of my ego’s whinging. A couple of days’ later, one of my friends tells me that, on entering the labyrinth, she had welled up with tears. Like me, she had suppressed her tears. I understood then, that my tears are not a weakness, not something I should be irritated at, but rather they are the way in which I feel the power of a place. I now reinterpret, welcome and honour, this emotional response when it happens.
When I get home, I open my leaflet and I read the back page, the page I had not yet read. It has some simple advice (not rules!) for walking the labyrinth. One of the recommendations is: “If you need to overtake, do so.”