Follow in ancient footsteps for labyrinthine tranquility

by georgehep

I am walking round in circles. The circles in question form an eleven ring medieval labyrinth in the grounds of Shepherds Dene. For the past two weeks I have slipped out of the office each day to unwind in the labyrinth and see what I discover.

You may be confusing a labyrinth with a maze so let me clarify. A maze is a puzzle which involves frequent decisions about whether to turn left or right to find the correct path to the middle. Typically, the path in a maze will be marked by high privet hedges that prevent you seeing over. I remember the fun of walking the maze at Hampton Court Palace as a child and also of trying the new fangled corn mazes in farmers’  fields in the summer.

A labyrinth has only one path with no junctions or intercessions until you reach the middle, where you turn round and return by the same way. Labyrinths are usually marked by low dividing ridges, stones or patterns on the ground so the path is open for all to see. A labyrinth seems tame sport in comparison to a maze.

The difference is that you lose yourself in a maze and you find yourself in a labyrinth. And labyrinths are popping up everywhere – in schools, hospitals and community parks as well as in churches and retreat houses.

I am still recovering from Labrinthfest, our annual weekend for labyrinth enthusiasts two weeks ago, when a group of people gathered from all over the country to walk the labyrinth, singly, together, at night and in the rain. We learned about the history of labyrinths and reflected on our experiences with a gifted  labyrinth teacher, The Revd Di Williams.  

The labyrinth at Shepherds Dene was built by a group of volunteers eleven years ago in a neglected area of the grounds   and is regularly walked by our guests and neighbours. Our labyrinth is an exact copy of the famous labyrinth on the floor of  Chartres Cathedral which was built in about  1220. The new gothic architecture gave the space to create labyrinths which were fashionable at the time though few survive today.

There is evidence of labyrinths on different continents going back 4000 years in the original ‘ancient’ design; of labyrinth mosaics in Roman villas and then of the more sophisticated – and arguably more satisfying – medieval labyrinths that are most common  today. In this country, there are over 100 labyrinths including historic ones in at Saffron Walden and Winchester and an exciting new one at Walltown, in the shadow of Hadrian s Wall. Enthusiasts tick them off rather like mountaineers bag Munros.

If there is not a labyrinth near you, ( and consult to check first), it is very easy to build your own.  Once you know the parameters, it just a matter of joining up the dots. We have had labyrinths made of pine cones and daffodils on the lawn at Shepherds Dene. One sunny morning, we found that an especially talented guest had marked out a labyrinth in the early morning frost. Kim, the gardener, disapproved so please don’t try this at home.

The labyrinth appears to be an archetypal form whose origins are shrouded in mystery but  which appears in widely different cultures. Fishermen in Finland used to make a labyrinth of stones on the beach and jump straight from the labyrinth into their boat and sail away as a good luck charm.

So why build a folk charm in a Christian retreat house and encourage guests to dally with it? Well, all I can say is that you have to try it for yourself. Certainly Christians, Buddhists and people of no particular faith find walking the labyrinth a calming and peaceful experience that helps them reflect and gives them insights about themselves. As Di Williams would put it, “the labyrinth is a well spring for the soul”.

But you know me. I like things to be clear and matter of fact. Despite having hosted two labyrinth weekends and sat in on other talks and workshops at Shepherds Dene, I have yet to be given the definitive guide on how to walk the labyrinth in order to achieve the maximum benefit in the most efficient way. “The walk is the walk” as they say.

So what do I discover in the labyrinth?  There is a feeling of containment whilst being enclosed in the labyrinth. There is both amusement and frustration as the path takes me almost to the centre and then back to the edge again. There is enjoyment of striding out over the long curved paths around the outside followed by the concentration of treading carefully around the tight twists and turns nearer the centre.

There is something extremely relaxing about the momentum of a walk where you do not need to worry about your direction or destination.  There is invariably surprise and delight at arriving at the centre without realizing it. And  there is a time of serenity at the middle of the labyrinth when you stand still.

Some people walk with a purpose; to ponder a particular issue or to hold a loved one in mind. Others symbolically leave their troubles in the labyrinth and walk away from them. Many experience a sense of letting go in the labyrinth and a few tell me of their insights. You cannot force such moments, according to Di; you just put one foot in front of another and see what happens.

The growing popularity of labyrinths  is because they help relieve stress and calm people down.  Their use with troubled children and prisoners is well documented. And now Mark Wallinger is installing  labyrinth wall tiles in every station on the London Underground as part of the 150th anniversary celebrations because “the seeming chaos of the rush hour is really just the mass of individuals following the thread of their lives home”.

But excuse me, it is time for my daily walk. “ Stand at the cross roads and look and ask for ancient paths where the good way lies” the prophet Jeremiah proclaims,” walk in it and find rest for your souls”. You are welcome to call in at Shepherds Dene and try for yourself.

George Hepburn is Warden of Shepherds Dene