The Spirituality Center at Saint Benedict’s monastery in St. Joseph, Minnesota, has a labyrinth, which I am preparing to walk soon for personal and professional reasons. I suppose I could just drive over there tomorrow and walk it, but that’s not how I take journeys. I read up on the places I’m going because it prepares me to experience them more openly, which is to say, more deeply. One of the books I’m reading now is Gailand MacQueen’s The Spirituality of Mazes and Labyrinths (2005).
Are you a labyrinth or maze kind of person?
- are traditionalists;
- seek simplicity;
- want to bloom where they’re planted;
- value community over individualism;
- follow an intuitive (soulful) course;
- appreciate unity;
- create meaning from sacred experiences.
- are modernists;
- seek complexity;
- want to choose their own adventures;
- value individualism over community;
- follow a rational (scientific) course;
- appreciate diversity;
- create meaning from secular experiences.
The differences between labyrinths and mazes
- more than 3500 years old;
- simple—you can’t get lost;
- a journey of trust in the path you’re on;
- a tool for understanding the essence of community—no matter how near or far we appear to be from the destination (the center), we’re all on the same path;
- sacred spaces.
- only 600 years old–a modern invention of landscape architects;
- complex and confusing;
- a series of decisions leading to success or failure;
- a competitive and multi-pathed puzzle to be solved by each individual alone;
- a form of secular entertainment.
And yet, both labyrinths and mazes can be spiritual experiences.
Why we should walk both mazes and labyrinths
Gailand Macqueen argues that in this age, the third millennium, we would be wise to be open:
- to all the wisdom of the ancient and modern worlds;
- to our experiences as perceived and processed by both the right and left hemisphere of the brain;
- to emotions and rationality;
- to soulful and scientific explanations.
Reading about mazes and labyrinths is mind work, but the full human experience integrates both mind and body. Mr. Macqueen suggests that in order to fully understand labyrinths and mazes we shouldn’t merely read and think about them. We should involve our bodies—we should get into mazes and labyrinths and walk them.
Labyrinths, Mr. Macqueen informs us, “have been used outside of formal religion as a ritual object to express spiritual values for at least 3500 years in countries all over the world, including China, India, the Holy Land, Ireland, Southern Europe, Scandanavia, pre-Columbian North America, and England…[the labyrinth] is a nearly universal form and comes as close as we can to an archetype…a symbol that appeals to us at an unconscious level…somehow ingrained in us, part of our very nature.”
He goes on the explain that the labyrinth can help us navigate through and find meaning in transitions which we share with our ancient ancestors—birth, coming of age, marriage, sickness, death, and initiation into communities—as well as “new transitions such as divorce and job loss.”
Mazes, he tells us, are “a pastime, unconnected with anything important such as religious ritual…They are intended to provide entertainment, a challenge, a mental workout.”
The secular nature of mazes, their insistence on constant personal choice and decision-making, the sense of being in competition with the maze designer—trying to solve the puzzle, and the competitive nature of mazes, makes the maze not an archetype, but a symbol of the modern age.
We live in a world which values the secular and even tries to erase the sacred. Our society presents us with myriad daily choices and decisions, tests in a way, which will determine our failure or success. No wonder our era is so marked by anxiety!
The maze designer is like all of the political parties, institutions, and mass-marketed products that promise us a good life. Which one is right? “Whether we are fooled,” writes Mr. MacQueen, “depends on our choices. Our memory, reason, and astuteness all come into play in our attempt not to be fooled…Solving a maze is an individual accomplishment.”
“Choose right and succeed,” the prevailing mindset of the 21st Century tells us.
“It’s all about me!” the maze affirms.
But living exclusively for individual accomplishment leads to cynicism, isolation, and bitter unhappiness.
So let’s go back to the labyrinth?
No, says, Mr. MacQueen. We can never undo what has been done. It would “be unwise to ignore the message that mazes give us. No one is untouched by the spirit of the modern world.”
The labyrinth and the maze are two “differing spiritual symbols…appropriate to [our various] life experiences.”
I’m just beginning to explore labyrinths and mazes, and, as I said at the beginning of this article, I am soon going to walk a labyrinth near my home (I’m definitely more a labyrinth-y person). I am preparing for a personal, spiritual transition. My journey will also be research for a book I’m working on. Both will be guided by Garland Macqueen’s fascinating, well written, chock-full-of-insights, book. I recommend it!
Are you more a labyrinth or maze kind of person? Have you walked, or do you intend to walk one? Please tell me where to find your favorite labyrinths and / or mazes!
Photo on Visual Hunt