March 17, 2014

Walking the Labyrinth at Duke Chapel?

Tomorrow the majestic chapel at Duke University is hosting a labyrinth, an annual Lenten tradition for the sanctuary, which belongs to the United Methodist related university but not the more closely church affiliated Duke Divinity School, which has its own chapel since the main chapel opened to same sex unions.

The labyrinth famously figures in the ancient mythology of Crete as a subterranean maze in which roamed the half bull, half human Minotaur. Presumably there is no Minotaur at Duke.

Instead, as the Duke website explains: “Participants follow a single winding path inward to the center of the labyrinth. Pausing for meditation and prayer in the center of the labyrinth, visitors then follow the same circuitous path outward. The serpentine path and communal practice can be understood as a metaphor for life’s journey.”

Here’s the chapel’s further explanation:

“Walking the labyrinth is a wonderful way to set aside some time for quiet retreat, unwind and listen for our deepest wisdom,” said the Rev. Jeanette Stokes of the center [Resource Center for Women and Ministry in the South]. “While physically engaged in following the curving path, the mind can be free to rest or focus on a particular thought or issue, and the heart can be free to listen for the leading of God. The labyrinth is a wonderful container for our hopes, questions and concerns. As we walk, new insights often arise.”

The website calls walking the 40-foot circle with a winding path an “ancient spiritual practice of meditation and self-centering found in religious traditions from around the world.” This claim is at least laudably vague. More commonly labyrinth church enthusiasts claim it’s an ancient Christian practice or at least dates to the Middle Ages.

Except there’s no evidence Christians walked labyrinths before 1990, starting primarily at San Francisco’s ultra liberal Grace Episcopal Cathedral, whose canon, Lauren Artress, also a psychotherapist, popularized labyrinths with her 1990s book: Walking a Sacred Path: Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Practice. The book speculates but admits there’s no evidence that medieval Christians as a spiritual practice walked labyrinths embedded on the floors of some medieval cathedrals, as at Chartres.

In 1996 Artress, who espouses a sort of New Age mysticism, launched her World-Wide Labyrinth Project to “pepper the planet with labyrinths,” which has been hugely successful, although I think the movement peaked some years ago. On her website she credits as architects of the modern labyrinth movement three practitioners of geomancy, a sort of Western form of Feng Shui that, ironically, the medieval church condemned as pagan.

One whom Artress cites is Richard Feather Anderson, whose website
boasts has “synthesized Feng Shui, western geomancy, environmental psychology and architecture into an updated modern approach to harmonious placement.” He designed the labyrinth at her Grace Episcopal Cathedral, studied “Black Sect Tibetan Tantric Buddhist Feng Shui,” has “investigated Earth energies and altered states of consciousness at sacred sites,” and taught “architecture, ecology, yoga and Earth-based spirituality for over thirty years.”

Anderson explains that “geomancy explores the realm where human consciousness meets and dialogues with the Spirit of the Earth. It empowers the harmonious interaction between person and place, and can enhance spiritual growth.”

The other two labyrinth architects whom Artress cites, Alex Champion and Sig Lonegren, echo similar themes. Lonegren is an active dowser (divination in search of ground water and buried objects) and also offers Tarot readings.

Obviously most labyrinth walkers aren’t enthusiasts for the occult, New Age mysticism, or earth worship. God hears faithful prayers wherever uttered. If Christians want to perambulate across a canvass labyrinth while praying and meditating, maybe the Holy Spirit will respond. But walking labyrinths is not a longstanding Christian practice, unless 1990s San Francisco counts as ancient.

19 Responses to Walking the Labyrinth at Duke Chapel?

  1. Robert says:

    We have one at Asbury Seminary. I’m not sure if anyone uses it, but I’m not very fond of it.

  2. Holgrave says:

    Um, Chartres Cathedral?

    • Chase says:

      Exactly. Labyrinths were built into the floors of numerous Christian churches nearly a thousand years ago. Try again.

    • Glenn Sunshine says:

      Chartres and other medieval cathedrals have labyrinths. The question is whether anyone walked them as a spiritual practice. I haven’t seen any evidence they did, and in the case of Chartres, if you were to lay the western wall down, the labyrinth would occupy the same space as the rose window according to Malcolm Miller, the leading expert on Chartres Cathedral. He doesn’t think the labyrinth had any devotional or spiritual significance.

  3. Jill says:

    What about the maze/prayer labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral? I’ve enjoyed walking prayer paths in many forms over the years – one in particular at a friend’s funeral, which she requested in her end-of-life plans. It was such a special way to move through the grief with others who missed her. Not all prayer paths are “new-agey” and I’m all for more prayer, no matter how we do it! Maybe we could walk a path together some time, Mark. Would love to see you again.

  4. Donnie says:

    We are told to “flee all appearance of evil” Given its occult roots, I would stay far away from labyrinth walking and churches who host them.

  5. Holly says:

    The labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral was the model for the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral, and most of the other labyrinths we see in local churches today. My understanding that a labyrinth walk was understood to be an alternative (and sometimes more practical) way to make a Christian pilgrimage.

    Here is a link with some more information.

    I see nothing wrong with it, and have no problem with it’s use. In fact, the Florida Annual Conference owns a portable labyrinth (on canvas) that can be borrowed by local churches. When I have walked the labyrinth, I have found it to be a pleasant and relaxing experience.

  6. Holly says:

    According to this article

    labyrinths originated in the “Roman period”, and there are MANY labyrinths in churches throughout Europe. You really should learn more about them, Mark, before you write such a silly, critical post.

  7. Ed Hird says:

    Thank you for your helpful reflections on the labyrinth, Mark. It saddens me to hear that Asbury would get involved with this new age fad. I commend to you my Labyrinth critique article.

    The Rev. Dr. Ed Hird

  8. Steve says:

    Yes, Holgrave, I’m sure Mark Tooley has heard about the Labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral. The question is whether walking the Labyrinth is an “ancient Christian practice.” The answer is nobody knows.

  9. Ken Cohen says:

    Anything labeled a “spiritual practice” is already suspect of trendy “new age” religion. But, on the other hand, if labyrinths are found in ancient cathedrals, one might assume that they were not merely decorative. Still, it’s interesting that no corroborative literature survives to sustain the assumption that they were used as part of a meditative practice.

    But prayer is a good thing and recovering old practices is fascinating.

    As Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook said “renew the old and sanctify the new.” It’s all good. Go for it.

  10. Male and Female He Created Them says:

    Quite the contrast to going into one’s closet and shutting the door to pray. I don’t think Jesus walked the labyrinth in the garden…

  11. Fr. Robert L. Becerra, Ph.D. says:

    It is my understanding that there is a labyrinth on the floor in nave of Chartre Cathedral as one passes the vestibule into the interior of the Cathedral. Though I have never personally been there at Chartre Cathedral, I have seen pictures which allege to have been taken there. We need to remember that the Church throughout all history took indigenous, pagan traditions and “Baptized them” for use in the Church. One only need look at the date of Christmas to see its adoption and “appropriation” to the ends of the Christian mystery. If a labyrinth can help someone delve deeper into the Mystery of Christ, then so be it! In turn, it is used to prosper Gnostic ideation in the Church, then “anathema sit!”

  12. Nicolai says:

    I suppose the question of validity and orthodoxy are kinda moot. At the very least, any sort of contemplative practice, such as cultivating the interior self through centering prayer, meditation, et cetra, may lead to a experience of the Divine.

    In an increasingly distracted and chaotic world, I think any way to disconnect and quiet ourselves can only improve our spiritual lives: i.e. our relationship with God.

  13. Justaservant says:

    There is nothing so good in this world that the enemy cannot corrupt it; nothing so bad that God cannot redeem it. Speculation about historical matters and practices that will forever remain beyond our ken is irreconcilable and ultimately pointless. But insofar as faithful Christians make use of this neutral tool as an instrument of spiritual discipline, then may God be glorified by their devotion. 1 Corinthians 8.

  14. Brett says:

    Is this a serious article? Do you know anything about Duke or Duke Divinity School? You suggest that the Divinity school and Duke Chapel are separate factions, against one another, when they actually function very much in concert with one another. The construction of Goodson Chapel had nothing to do with same sex marriage and to suggest as such is without any knowledge of the inner workings at Duke Div. The Div school sought to create a communal sacred space for its students to come together to engage with one another and God. It would be incredibly hard to use Duke Chapel in this manner nor is it available as that sort of space.

    Also, as far as I know, there have been no marital ceremonies in Goodson Chapel as it was not built to suffice as housing a church body.

    Your claims seems a little off base as a whole. There are many traditions that Christians have reclaimed as “of God” throughout the millennia and if as you claim, prayer labyrinths are designed for new age worship, then why would it be evil for Christians to claim that also as of God. Does all of creation not point towards God? I think there are certainly ways to use such contemplative practices in unhealthy ways, as well as practices even outlined in the bible. We can create idols out if anything, even scripture. Does God not continue to speak to us in new ways or is God now static?

    Please take some time next time to do some better research, particularly when writing about a context that you obviously are unaware, but also contemplate how we might explore new and different ways to meet God.

  15. firealarm says:

    Duke Divinity has had a chapel since 1930. It’s existence preceded Duke University’s chapel. Goodson Chapel was built in 2005 as a part of larger building project with no connection to same-sex marriages.

  16. Mary says:

    The first Christian labyrinth was built in the 4th century.

    The Chartes Cathedral dates back to the 13th century.

  17. allison s w says:

    Quoted from

    “Undoubtedly the best known labyrinth of its type, the beautifully preserved pavement labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral, France, was constructed during the second decade of the 13th century. The labyrinth is 12.9 metres (42.3 ft.) in diameter and fills the width of the nave. While much has been written about the purpose of this labyrinth, little contemporary documentation survives, although it is known that labyrinths in the French cathedrals were the scene of Easter dances carried out by the clergy. It is also popularly assumed that they symbolise the long tortuous path that pilgrims would have followed to visit this, and other shrines and cathedrals, during the medieval period.”

    do your research.

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