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.