Most evangelical Christians probably would not recognise themselves in the previous discussion of mysticism (ET July to August), but there are subtle influences at work drawing believers in this direction even without their knowledge. While firmly denying any part in classical mysticism many are actually participating in time-honoured mystical practices.
Many are doing this unintentionally — as new opportunities arise that seem to defy recognised categories. Some are innocently adopting ancient mystical practices because they are being endorsed by trusted Christian leaders or even the medical community.
The danger is that involvement in some of these things, no matter how pure the motive, can easily lead the participant away from a biblical faith and into the quagmire of subjectivism, mysticism, or even the occult. In this article I want to identify and explain just one experience that paves the way to mysticism for the unwary.
The use of ‘labyrinths’ has had a recent resurgence in evangelical circles without sounding many alarms. The Labyrinth Society is only six years old but boasts 800 members and wide-ranging influence.
A labyrinth is sort of a maze, laid out with bushes or other vegetation, or created using stones, tiles, wool or even canvas. Labyrinth lovers recoil from the word maze, however, pointing out that ‘Labyrinths are not mazes, although in the English language the words labyrinth and maze are frequently confused’.
They continue: ‘Mazes contain cul-de-sacs and dead ends. They have more than one entrance and more than one exit and are designed to make us lose our way; they’re a game. Labyrinths have the exact opposite purpose: they are designed to help us find our way. They have only one path — from the outer edge into the centre and back out again’.1 Labyrinths sometimes have handles, such as ‘Pneuma Labyrinths’ or simply ‘prayer walks’.
Man in the maze
Labyrinths are by no means distinctively Christian. Rev. Dr Lauren Artress is President and Founder of Veriditas™, the voice of the Labyrinth Movement. He tells us that ‘Labyrinth is an ancient pattern found in many cultures around the world. Labyrinth designs were found on pottery, tablets and tiles that date as far back as 4,000 years.
‘Many patterns are based on spirals from nature. In Native American culture it is called the Medicine Wheel and Man in the Maze. The Celts described it as the Never Ending Circle. It is also called the Kabala in mystical Judaism. One feature they all share is that they have one path which winds in a circuitous way to the centre’.2
While the history of labyrinths is sketchy, they seem to have entered Christianity during the Middle Ages. Many during that time wanted to make pilgrimage to the Holy City of Jerusalem at some point in their lives, but the Crusades made such visits increasingly difficult, if not impossible.
Labyrinths were constructed in and around many Catholic cathedrals as a substitute — allowing Christians to fulfil their ‘obligations’ symbolically (some seemed to believe that these pilgrimages were necessary for salvation).
The labyrinth of Cartres
One of the best-known labyrinths was constructed of tile and laid in the floor of Cartres Cathedral in France in the early thirteenth century. But ‘walking the labyrinth’ fell out of favour during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as the Catholic Church moved away from mysticism and more into rationalism.
Until very recently the labyrinth at Cartres was covered with chairs, having not been used for its original purpose for centuries. But in 1992 Rev. Artress, after a visit to Cartres, brought a replica of the eleven-circuit labyrinth back to Grace Cathedral, an Episcopal church in San Francisco.
Since then over a million people are reported to have walked that labyrinth alone, and the labyrinth movement has been given new life. As some walk a labyrinth they claim a feeling of coming home. Others say they recall ‘ancient memories’ — tapping into a level of consciousness not experienced before.
The purpose of labyrinths
Labyrinths are found in all religious traditions throughout the world. To the leaders of the movement they represent the rediscovery of a long-forgotten mystical tradition. Dr Artress says, ‘The labyrinth has only one path so there are no tricks to it and no dead ends. The path winds throughout and becomes a mirror for where we are in our lives. It touches our sorrows and releases our joys. Walk it with an open mind and an open heart’.3
Artress then describes the ‘three stages’ of the walk and the best method for experiencing it.
The first stage is ‘purgation’ (releasing) — a ‘letting go’ of the details of your life. This is the act of shedding thoughts and distractions, a time to open the heart and quieten the mind.
The second stage is ‘illumination’ (receiving) — when you reach the centre, stay there as long as you like. It is a place of meditation and prayer. Receive what is there for you to receive.
The third stage is ‘union’ (returning). As you leave (following the same path as you used to come in) you enter the third stage, which is joining God — your ‘Higher Power’ or the healing forces at work in the world. Each time you walk the labyrinth you become more empowered to find and do ‘the work you feel your soul reaching for’.
Guidelines for the walk
Dr Artress recommends that as you walk you should ‘quiet your mind and become aware of your breath. Allow yourself to find the pace your body wants to go. The path is two ways. Those going in will meet those coming out. You may pass people or let others step around you. Do what feels natural’.4
Those familiar with classical mysticism of any stripe, or who have read my previous articles on the subject, will immediately recognise that labyrinths are merely a tool to move the worshipper into a mystical union with God — as you understand him (I use the mystics’ own terminology).
We are told that ‘as a device, the labyrinth has been compared to, in terms of function, rosaries, Stations of the Cross, and the
tao-te-ching, or the Chinese Book of the Way’.5 Yet even with its obvious connections with various world religions and Medieval Roman Catholicism, some have tried to conjure up biblical support from Jeremiah 6:16: ‘Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls’.6
All this would be of little consequence if the labyrinth revival were confined to a few European cathedrals and a liberal church in San Francisco. The fact is, however, that interest in labyrinths has caught fire both inside and outside the evangelical community.
The Lighthouse Trails (a Christian watchdog organisation which does research on such subjects) reports that a Google search (if you don’t know what that is, ask your children) on labyrinths revealed 116,000 hits in March 2004. But less than a year later the same internet search brings up 290,000 hits.
But more alarming is that labyrinths are rapidly becoming a recognised form of worship in many evangelical organisations and churches. They are being promoted by Youth for Christ, Youth Specialties, Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, The Emergent Church Convention, NavPress, Rick Warren (by recommending NavPress’ pro-contemplative magazine
Discipleship Journaland speaking at Youth Specialties conferences), Zondervan Publishing, National Pastors Convention, LeadershipMagazine, Group Publishing and a host of others.
At the 2004 National Pastors’ Convention, held in San Diego, the daily morning schedule included the following: ‘Opportunities to walk the labyrinth (from 7.00am-10:30pm); Contemplative morning prayer exercise (8:30am-9:15am); [and] Sustainable life forum: Stretching and Yoga (8:30am-9:15am)’.
Speakers at this convention included Rick Warren, Howard Hendricks, Dan Kimball and Brian McLaren (the latter two are Emergent Church leaders and the topic of an upcoming article).
Sadly, I have heard of conservative Bible colleges offering labyrinth walks to their students, and can only hope that their leaders are ignorant of the true purpose behind the labyrinth — which is why we publish these articles.
5. Steven Spearie, ‘A Spiritual Journey on Canvas,’
The State Journal-Register,16 January 2005, p.19.
The Berean Call, July 2004, p.6.