(St Augustine of Hippo)
With its roots deep in prehistory, the Labyrinth has long been a powerful aid to prayer, mindfulness and discernment - in the Christian tradition as well as many others. It is a universal symbol, found all over the world. Its shape echoes spirals in nature: galaxies, hurricanes, spiders’ webs, ammonites, ferns. And in our bodies: the surface of the brain, our inner ear, intestines, umbilical cord and womb. Perhaps that is why we feel 'at home' with the Labyrinth.
Labyrinths, ancient and modern, are found in Christian churches in many places. The classical labyrinth shape has a cross at its centre, and has a deep connection with the theology of the Incarnation - God becoming human in Jesus Christ to share intimately in our life with all its joys and sorrows. The labyrinth's one path, leading in and out, is a symbol of the dynamic of God's coming to meet us in Mary's womb and drawing us into God. As St Irenaeus put it in the second century AD: 'Our Lord Jesus Christ, of his boundless love, became what we are that he might make us what he himself is.' To walk the labyrinth is an incarnational prayer, involving not just our hearts and minds but our muscles, tendons and bones. It is a way of praying that no angel could pray.
I often find myself explaining that a labyrinth is not a maze: a maze is a puzzle, full of tricks and false turnings where we can easily get lost, while a labyrinth has only one path which always in to the centre and out again, however much it twists and turns. But this is a modern distinction. In earlier times the words 'maze' and 'labyrinth' were interchangeable. No one knows exactly what 'labyrinth' means - it came into Greek from a more ancient language. A 'maze', however, is obviously 'amazing' - a good word for the experience of prayerful labyrinth-walking, which can be a taste of what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called radical amazement: what we feel when we sense a touch of the Divine. So a labyrinth can be A Gracing Maze. It doesn't demand that we come with gifts of cleverness and cunning. It offers a place for us to receive gifts, graces, if we walk with open hands and heart.
Fen CourtThe Fen Court labyrinth was created in 2008 to a design based on that of a labyrinth in the Isles of Scilly. The land of Fen Court is part of the churchyard of St Gabriel Fenchurch, a church destroyed in the Great Fire Of London in 1666 and never rebuilt. Gabriel gives us another link with the Incarnation: he was the angel who brought the news to Mary that she would be the mother of Jesus (Luke 1:26-38). The labyrinth has five circuits, symbolising our five senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell. We can engage all our senses when we pray, coming before God in all our human wholeness. The number five also represents the human being, composed of the four elements (earth, air, fire and water) and spirit.
Fen Court offers the paradox of a consecrated sacred space being also a public thoroughfare and noisy meeting place. It reminds us of the need to find God in all things and all places,
including city streets and workplaces, not just where we might expect or prefer to find God. I
would like to hope too that by prayerfully walking the labyrinth in such a public place we can offer an act of witness to the people who work there.
©Antonia Lynn 2012