I recently read a fascinating editorial by Elizabeth Farrelly in the Sydney Morning Herald entitled Leave behind the retail maze, zen is just a single path away. In it she manages to combine the usual post-holiday lament about Christmas shopping madness with an excursion into meditation, and the role of labyrinths in the search for inner peace. She begins with “Christmas is a kind of test . . . just surviving it bestows a sense of achievement.” She then wanders through the pain of “fighting and struggling for more choice in our lives” and finally arrives at the relaxing properties of labyrinths, comparing them to mazes. “A maze is a series of decision points, any one of which could result in terminal confusion . . . A labyrinth, having only one path, requires no decisions, so its complications become instead a sort of dance, engendering a curious feeling of trust.” I think Ferrelly is on to something, comparing modern life and the struggle with complexity to a maze — and the way toward peace as a labyrinth of constraint yet freedom.
How does a labyrinth work?
Laryrinths are ancient, first appearing almost 5,000 years ago in the Bronze Age in ancient Peru, Crete, Troy and Jericho and elsewhere. In the 12th to 14th centuries in Christian Europe they became associated with religious practice. They became mediative tools. Ferrelly describes how they work. “A walk has three stages: the walk-in (purgation or release), the still centre (illumination or receiving) and the walk out (union or returning).” She described her own labyrinth walk as a ‘card-carrying skeptic” as “experiencing a delicious, timeless trance and a lingering wellbeing.” Are you skeptical? Have you ever walked a labyrinth? I have, once in a garden. I experienced a similar delight as Ferrelly did, from giving myself over to finding the way to the center, then back out again. Maybe it’s just that I enjoy solving problems, or maybe there is a deeper significance. But the maze versus labyrinth metaphor is a powerful one about life and prayer.
Choosing to leave the maze of everyday life by entering the labyrinth of prayer
Why do we need to pray? Or better yet, do we need to find a way out of the maze of everyday life? I think that most of us can relate to Ferrelly’s description of information and choice overload becoming oppressive, especially at Christmas. We also sense that that the “rat-race” isn’t healthy. We look for ways to “wind down” or “go off-line.” But many people are reluctant to commit themselves to daily prayer. Either we’re too busy fighting our way through the maze or we fail to make time for prayer because we, like Ferrelly, are skeptical that praying regularly has any value. In any case, most us don’t know how to pray so we never actually give the “labyrinth of prayer” a chance. But, what if praying is as simple as following the path to the center of a labyrinth, enjoying some time at the center, then finding our way back out, feeling refreshed? As Christians, we believe that God is at the center of everything. What if this simple practice can lead us into a heightened experience of God, and bring “delicious, lingering well-being” into our life?
This question about praying as laryrinth can lead to a choice, or it can remain only speculation. Like any labyrinth, we have to take the first step into the puzzle. I’m an amateur at prayer but, encouraged by grace, I am going to enter the labyrinth, and encounter whatever waits for me at the center.
© 2011, James Harlow Brown. All rights reserved.