Gailand MacQueen on the spirituality of mazes and labyrinths

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?

Labyrinth People:

  • 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.

Maze People:

  • 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

Labyrinths are:

  • 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.

Mazes are:

  • 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

19 thoughts on “Gailand MacQueen on the spirituality of mazes and labyrinths”

  1. I am definitely more a labyrinth kind of person. I’ve been in a corn maze and got bored with it, but have never walked a labyrinth. I’d like to some day.

  2. I appreciate the detailed comparison/contrast here. Now I know why I prefer labyrinths to mazes. A church here in Jacksonville invites me every year to walk their labyrinth during Lent. I’ve done it once long ago. You have inspired me to participate once again.

    1. I’m pleased to be an inspiration, Marian, as you have so often been for me. Yes, I would have guessed you as a labyrinth person! I’ll be curious to know how your walk in Lent goes. I think I’ll be posting more between now and my walk, about my process of preparation. I’m planning on walking it on the day of the vernal equinox. –a lenten/Easter kind of journey.

  3. There is a very famous maze at Hampton Court Palace, thought to have been made for William lll in the 1670’s. Hampton Court is famous for being one of Henry Vlll’s palaces.
    There is a trick to working out a maze, which I won’t divulge here because once you know it, it makes them not complex at all – and quite honestly, a bit of a disappointment!

  4. Hi Tracy! Somehow I didn’t know that you were back to blogging again, how fun 🙂 You have a wonderful way with words which make your posts a joy to read. I was just tickled to read about the Spirituality Center at St. Ben’s. Even after spending four years on campus, somehow I never discovered the labyrinth. I look forward to hearing more about your visit. I do miss campus so much. There is a just a lovely peace and calm about the quaint setting. Sending love from Michigan to Minnesota! <3

    1. There is a lovely peace and calm there! Probably something you could use a little of now and then, this amazing, all-consuming first year of your little one’s life.
      Like so many things at St. Ben’s, the labyrinth is understated, a little gem tucked away from the crowd to be discovered when you need it. If you ever make it back to campus, don’t forget to let me know. I’ll meet you there! Sending love from Minnesota to Michigan!

  5. Excellent! We need more advocate/guides to the increasing synchronicity of mind and heart in sacred beingness! Brava!
    I myself have walked a number of labrynths, and even though I’ve lived all my life surrounded by marked spiritual phenomena, I’ve been amazed at the cleanness and power of their transformational energy. I know you’ll have an awesome time in and after your walk, and my blessings go strongly with you!
    Reblogging to Success Inspirers World 🙂

    1. Thank you, Sarah. It’s already shaping up to be an incredibly transformational journey, (but then, I’m not really at the beginning of it — only at the beginning of a new leg (where does THAT phrase come from, I wonder?) What I mean to say, is that the transformations are becoming apparent, conscious. A long-awaited reward (?) for (I was going to say “work” but that’s inaccurate). A natural result of holding the course?

  6. FYI World Labyrinth Day is coming on May 5 –
    Thank you for introducing me to this book which I will check out. Initially reading this post, and the distinctions made between people who are drawn to labyrinths and people who are drawn to mazes, I was a bit resistant to what seemed to me like a false dichotomy. However I am glad I read the whole post, and your discussion of Macqueen’s unified view – that we learn from the wisdom of the old and modern world, and that there is no going back to a supposed golden age – is very resonant.
    I still have a slight suspicion of some falseness to the dichotomy…but I guess I should read Macqueen and see where it takes me!
    I am fortunate to live near a labyrinth: – and here are some rather random writings on labyrinths I have come up with over the years:
    and my own very amateur labyrinth building effort:

    1. Hi, Seamus, Thanks for the info about World Labyrinth Day! I didn’t know there was such a day.
      I think you make a good point about there “some falseness to the dichotomy.” There is always some level of falseness to any either/or divisions of complex humans into tidy, mutually-exclusive categories. I think I was aiming at a sense of natural preference and sense of comfort/ease. I think it’s likely that most people will feel more naturally drawn to the enjoy the experience of either a labyrinth or a maze. And that might change, depending on the life situation and needs of that person.
      My life philosophy has long been reach toward a balance; not either/or, but and/both.
      Thanks for weighing in.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *