THE LABYRINTH: A WALK BY FAITH?

Concerns About the Christian Use of Labyrinths

By Marcia Montenegro

Written August, 2006 First published in Midwest Christian Outreach Journal, Fall, 2006. This online version has been slightly altered for this site.

"For we walk by faith, not by sight." 2 Cor. 5:7

A labyrinth is a flat circle or square consisting of a path that winds round to the center. In Greek mythology the Labyrinth was the name for the maze-like enclosure for the half-man, half-bull Minotaur (Jean Chevalier, Alain Gheerbrant, A Dictionary of Symbols; trans. John Buchanan-Brown [Paris: Robert Laffont S. A., Jupiter, 1982; NY: Penguin Putnam, 1996], 642). The history of the labyrinth is murky; there are Christian uses of it as early as 324 AD found in a basilica in North Africa (Jeff Saward, "Labyrinths In Ireland," http://www.labyrinthos.net/irelandlabs.html). However, the purpose of these early labyrinths is unclear, and it appears they were chiefly decorative or symbolic. Smaller labyrinth designs have been found carved on rocks or stones, and these are thought to have been symbolic, possibly for luck or protection (Saward, "The First Labyrinths," http://www.labyrinthos.net/firstlabs.htm ; Abegael Saward, "The Rocky Valley Labyrinths," http://www.labyrinthos.net/rockyvalley.htm ). This is why the labyrinths in cathedrals came to be called Solomon's Maze. To the alchemists, entering and emerging from the maze possibly signified death and resurrection through their secretive magical practices (Chevalier, 643).

The better-known larger labyrinth is the 13th century labyrinth in the Cathedral at Chartres, which originated in the Middle Ages, and served as a substitute for going on pilgrimage to Jerusalem when the Crusades prevented this journey (Chevalier, 642). After the Crusades, the labyrinth remained largely unused until the 1990's. So where does this recent trend of labyrinths come from, and why are people walking them?

Coming full Circle: The Return of the Labyrinth

Lauren Artress, Canon for Special Ministries at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, is widely credited with initiating the labyrinth movement in the United States in the 1990s. After visiting the 13th-century labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral in France, she brought the idea back to her church, Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, and in 1996 founded Veriditas, a nonprofit organization dedicated to introducing people to labyrinths (See http://www.veriditas.org/).

In an interview, Artress openly admits influence on her thinking from Neopagan journalist Margot Adler (author of Drawing Down the Moon) and New Ager Jean Houston (she worked with Houston in the latter's "Mystery School" in 1985). She worked with the Chartres Cathedral in formulating a program, "Let Us Walk With Mary," designed to aid participants to "open to the Sacred Feminine" ("Interview with Reverend Laura Artress," the online source for this quote is gone but see similar statements by Artress at
http://www.sacred-land-photography.com/FaithFormLabyrinth.html). Artress states:

"My work is focused on evolving human consciousness through large group spiritual activity . . . The backbone is the integration of psyche and spirit through walking "the path" in one's own natural rhythm. The winding labyrinth path then becomes a metaphor for the individual journey and the collective's process" (From "Interview").

The description on the Grace Cathedral website illustrates the concept of the labyrinth that is promoted today: "The Labyrinth is an archetype, a divine imprint, found in all religious traditions in various forms around the world. By walking a replica of the Chartres labyrinth, laid in the floor of Chartres Cathedral in France around 1220, we are rediscovering a long-forgotten mystical tradition that is insisting to be reborn" (http://www.veriditas.org/).

Artress also reveals her incorporation of Jungian theories when she says, "The work of symbolic fields has a Jungian base, since I am working with archetypes, symbol, shadow and encounters with collective unconscious. Transpersonal theory and methods of change is also woven into my lectures and the designing of each event" (From "Interview"). She is also the author of Walking a Sacred Path: Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Tool.

In the 1990's, the labyrinth has come to be used as a spiritual and psychological tool, and has been promoted as a way to approach God, to feel close to God, and even to journey into the self. It is used by both Christians and non-Christians alike, especially those into New Age beliefs.

What Are Some of the Concerns Regarding the Labyrinth?

The concerns fall into three categories:

  1. The labyrinth has no biblical prototype or pattern as a way to approach God.
  2. The labyrinth as used today is often advocated as a way to have a spiritual experience with God. However, we are to "walk by faith, not by sight" (2 Cor. 5.7), - and not by seeking experiences.
  3. God is not obligated to provide spiritual experiences simply because we initiate or expect them. We are reconciled with God through faith in Christ, and through our daily walk in Bible reading, prayer, and worship, our relationship with Him grows.

Concern One

The labyrinth has no biblical prototype or pattern as a way to approach God.

  • The labyrinth is based on man's design. Since it is marketed principally as a spiritual tool, we should ask, "what is a spiritual tool and is such a thing biblical?" The labyrinth is usually promoted as a way to feel spiritual or become close to God, but the Bible does not teach the use of man-originated tools for such purposes. In the Hebrew scriptures, any physical structure that was used in a spiritual manner, such as the design of the Tabernacle in the wilderness (Ex. 35-40) or the Temple and its fixtures built by Solomon (2 Chron. 3-7), was based on instructions given directly by God, who gave specific directives on how to build and furnish it. These edifices originated with God, were built to signify His presence among the Israelites, and used to worship and glorify God (Ex. 40: 34-38; 2 Chron. 7.1-3, 12), not to evoke experiences for man's satisfaction. Water baptism and communion, both participatory physical events for the Christian, were initiated and commanded by the Lord, not as vehicles to satisfy the participant, but to represent the sacrifice and redemption of Christ.
  • The biblical pattern for approaching God in the New Testament is through belief in Christ as the Savior who atoned for sins, and bodily rose the third day. We have access to God through Christ (Eph. 2: 6-7, 17-18; Heb. 10:19-22).
  • The labyrinth is publicized as a spiritual tool, not just for Christians, but also for anyone who is seeking a spiritual experience, or even just as a tool for self-reflection.
  • The labyrinth gives many the misleading impression that one can be close to God without Christ.

Concern Two

The Labyrinth is advocated as a way to be close to God; however, we are to "walk by faith, not by sight," and not by seeking experiences.

  • We are told, "Without faith, it is impossible to please God..." (Hebrews 11.6) and faith is defined as "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Hebrews 11.1). "Hoped for" here does not mean wishing for or hoping for something in the sense of only perhaps getting it. Biblical hope is knowing God's words and promises will be fulfilled. We do not need to "feel close" to God to know He is with us; we are not instructed to walk by sight or feelings, but by faith.
  • Seeking to evoke an experience can often bring one on. This may create an appetite for more experiences because people can feel good doing it. Then it induces not only a desire for more experiences, but also a sense that one must experience or feel something in order to believe that one is genuinely in relationship with God.
  • Seeking an experience is self-oriented, not God-oriented. Since we can pray and think about God anywhere, walking a labyrinth automatically sets up an expectation that something special should happen. And disappointment results if there is no feeling or experience.
  • Experiences and feelings can be deceptive. Even if walking a labyrinth gives a powerful experience, it does not mean it is from God, or that the person actually is closer to God. Experiences and feelings are not the measure of truth. It can lead a non-Christian into believing they have encountered God when they haven't. In fact, there is nothing about walking a labyrinth that prevents one from having a counterfeit spiritual experience, even for a Christian. Feeling "close" to God is not the way to gauge our relationship with Him. Rather, our relationship with God is reflected in the fruits of that relationship (Gal. 3.22-23) and other behaviors. Not all spiritual experiences are from God. Labyrinths have been used at youth group rallies and retreats, thus possibly leading teens to believe that feelings and experiences indicate contact with God.
  • Seeking experiences feeds the sensual self, not the spiritual self. We should take note of the fact that one of the charges against false teachers is their appeal to sensuality (2 Peter 2:18). Since Satan can present things in the guise of spirituality and goodness (2 Corinthians 11:13-15), we need to watch appeals that claim spirituality but cater to bodily or emotional feelings. There is nothing wrong with wanting to feel God's presence, but that should flow from a Christian's daily walk with the Lord, reading His word, prayer, and worship. It should be initiated by God, not us.

Concern Three

God is not obligated to provide an experience or feeling at our command or demand.

  • The labyrinth raises an expectation and assumes that we should have a spiritual experience as a result of walking the labyrinth. Pagan religions use rituals, incantations, and techniques to evoke their gods. Christianity is the opposite: God has reached down to us and given us the means for reaching Him ? faith in Jesus Christ. It is God who laid out the pattern for communication and relationship with Him; we do not generate the pattern.
  • Our desire for intimacy with God is sufficiently met through faith in Christ and our relationship with Christ is the biblical blueprint for our interaction with God. Intimacy with God grows over time, and is not an instant drive-in take-out experience we obtain through a technique.

The Black Hole

Because of practices invading both the culture and the church that promote experience over doctrine and feeling over faith, Christians might get the idea that they are missing out on something and need "deeper" experiences with God. Although we have a Savior who died for us and we have the scriptures, which are "profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3.16, 17), it is being suggested or implied that that this is not enough.

Could it be that Christians are not immersing themselves in the study and learning of God's word, and therefore are trying to fill that void with ways to have spiritual experiences? We should remember the power of God's word, and that it is our spiritual nourishment. "For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart" (Hebrews 4:12).

Successful marketing techniques induce in consumers the yearning for something they may not really need, and then offer a product to fulfill that desire. Similarly, promoting the thought that we must have experiences to feel close to God creates an impatience and dissatisfaction with the challenge of walking by faith, and implies that we are not getting truly deep or intimate experiences with God. But experiences are fleeting; they come and go. They are a black hole that is never filled, leading to repeated attempts trying to fill the hole. Offering the labyrinth as a spiritual tool can create such a black hole, because each experience is never enough ? there must always be more.

The labyrinth itself is merely a design. Merely walking a labyrinth is not the issue; the problem lies in attempting to evoke a spiritual experience or believing that walking a labyrinth -- or some other method -- might bring one closer to God.

Seeking to conjure up experiences can become a substitute for the authentic deep relationship with God that flows from studying His word, and from the day-to-day dependence on Christ through faith, not feeling. Faith does not rely on feelings for the true peace or satisfaction we have in Christ, because true peace is not based on feeling, but rather on knowing the historical Christ who died and bodily resurrected ? this is how we know the true peace and the constancy that is Christ Himself.

"...When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?" Lk 18.8

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