Would George Washington or Robert E. Lee have walked the labyrinth? This potentially New Age tool is now available at Christ Episcopal Church in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, which both generals once soberly attended.
Almost maze like, a labyrinth is a circle with a winding path within it, leading to its center. Liberal churches frequently host a labyrinth, typically a large canvass sheet thrown on the social hall floor, so that spiritual seekers can meditatively walk it on a path of self-exploration.
Christ Church Old Town now regularly hosts a labyrinth on Saturday mornings, with passers-by invited by a large sign fronting George Washington Parkway. The 230-year-old sanctuary majestically bestrides a leafy block in the center of what used to be a seaport town, but which is now a posh and historic bedroom community for Washington commuters. The churchyard includes the graves of Confederate soldiers, and a few Revolutionary War ones. Recent head stones mark the graves of Kennedy-Johnson era U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Fowler and his wife, signifying that Christ Church remains socially and politically prestigious.
Inside the sanctuary, George Washington’s original pew box remains. Across the aisle is Robert E. Lee’s pew. He was baptized as an adult in the church, which is a few blocks from his boyhood home. Both soldiers were admired for their piety but, as Virginia gentlemen, reticent to share details of their faith. Picturing either one popping by the social hall on Saturday morning to slowly walk around a canvass labyrinth is hard.
On a recent Saturday morning, the labyrinth at Christ Church is empty, though three women in upper middle age circle round it, reading the explanatory literature. “I don’t do visualization,” one comments to the others, as she evidently pondered what is expected of labyrinth walkers.
Often touted as an “ancient” Christian rite that allowed Medieval pilgrims symbolically to sojourn to the Holy Land without having actually to go, the modern labyrinth movement actually seems to have started mostly in 1990s era San Francisco. Its chief popularizer was Episcopal priest and psychotherapist Lauren Artress of Grace Cathedral, who wrote Walking a Sacred Path: Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Practice in 1995. She recalled walking her first labyrinth at a 1991 “Mystery School” seminar with psychologist and mystic/channeler Jean Houston, who later famously assisted then First Lady Hillary Clinton in trying to summon the spirit of Eleanor Roosevelt.
Artress was particularly captivated by the labyrinth in the floor of Chartres Cathedral in France. She described her epiphany when she surreptitiously cleared chairs off the floor design and began to walk it in a meditative state. The popularity of Artress’s movement later motivated other labyrinth seekers routinely to perform their own ritual in the cathedral. Initially, cathedral officials erected a sign warning that the labyrinth “cannot be a magical place where man pulls hidden forces from the Earth. That would be (were one to do so) a perversion of the builders/creators. For in doing so, one would substitute man in place of God.” But confronted by increasing numbers of American tourists, the poor priests struggling to upkeep an 800-year-old cathedral, eventually embraced the fad, though they do not claim labyrinth walking is “ancient.”
The labyrinth as a design is ancient, often associated in Greek mythology with the legendary palace at Knossos of King Minos of Crete, where the Minotaur, who was half beast and half man, roamed. In the ancient Roman-Greco world, labyrinth mosaics, with the legendary bull-man at its center, often appeared on villa floors. The originally pagan symbol eventually surfaced in the architecture of Medieval Christianity. But even Artress has admitted there are “no known records of anyone walking the labyrinth” in Medieval churches and “no Christian writers or artists who directly refer to the labyrinth as a spiritual tool” in early or medieval history. She has speculated that labyrinths possibly were a “sacred tool that no one was allowed to talk about.”
Artress herself is no fan of orthodox Christianity, pantheistically honoring “the Source,” “the Sacred,” and “the God within,” which has been “destroyed through centuries of patriarchal domination, through fears of creativity and of the traits associated with the feminine.” Artress prefers this “Source” to the more traditionally transcendent God “out there” who “keeps track of whether we follow the rules.”
Not surprisingly, critics complain that labyrinths are more a New Age tool than a Christian rite. The explanatory sheets at the Christ Church Old Town labyrinth do little to allay that criticism. One fact sheet promises that “psycho-spiritual healing does happen on the labyrinth” and admonishes that “those practicing ‘new age’ spirituality are usually very sincere spiritual seekers. Try not to be judgmental.” The labyrinth “symbolizes the journey to the center of self,” is “not doctrinal or dogmatic,” and the “only dogma you will meet in the labyrinth is your own.”
New Age or not, labyrinths mostly just seem a little silly, at least for adults, who are expected slowly to perambulate across a canvass matt with a straight face. An instruction sheet at Christ Church suggests: “Walk alone and with a crowd. Notice the sky. Listen to the sounds. Most of all pay attention to your experience.”
The stately symbols of more traditional faith that litter the churchyard and animate the sanctuary of Christ Church seem to offer more mature spiritual uplift than the canvass labyrinth that occasionally appears on the social hall floor.
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