Energies of the Labyrinth

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The word labyrinth comes from the Greek labyrinthos and describes any maze-like structure with a single path through it. It’s different from an actual maze, which may have multiple paths intricately linked. Etymologically the word is linked to the Minoan labrys or ‘double axe’, which is the symbol of the Minoan mother goddess of Crete. The actual word is Lydian in origin and most likely came to Crete from Anatolia (Asia Minor) through trade. Labyrinths and labyrinthine symbols have been dated to the Neolithic Age in regions as diverse as modern-day Turkey, Ireland, Greece, and India among others.

Labyrinths or mazes may have served to help the ones who walked them to find their spiritual path by purposefully removing them from their common understanding of linear time and direction between two points. As one traveled through the labyrinth, one would become increasingly lost in reference to the world outside and, in doing so, might unexpectedly discover one’s true path in life.

On New Year’s Day, I was reading my Twitter feed and came across this image of a seaside labyrinth. The comment was, “My #oneword for 2021 is downwind. After walking the labyrinth today with turns both against & with strong wind, I realized how limitless 2021 can be with the help of those who push me forward and not the wind pushing against me. This year, I’ll ride the momentum downwind.”

Twitter photo—My #oneword for 2021 is downwind

The theme of the labyrinth leading to one’s destiny is intricately linked to the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. The Minotaur lived at the heart of the labyrinth on the island of Crete, whose king required the people of Athens to send a tribute of fourteen youths annually. Once they entered the Minotaur ‘s labyrinth, they never returned. Theseus defeats the beast and saves his people, but loses his father to suicide because he fails to remember to change the color of his sails on his return trip as a sign of his victory. There’s even more dysfunctional family relationships, but that’s a story for another day. Suffice it to say, the ancient gods were wont to interfere with the lives of arrogant humans who failed to defer to the gods and instead acted as if they were masters of their own destiny.

Theseus and the Minotaur: Attributed to the Tleson Painter, ca 550 B.C., Attic Black Figure Kylix, Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo

Greek tragedy deals with the sweeping themes of love, loss, pride, the abuse of power and the fraught relationships between humanity and the gods. Typically the main protagonist of a tragedy committed some terrible crime without realizing how foolish and arrogant she or he had been. After slowly realizing the error, the world crumbles around the hero. The tragic hero must be essentially admirable and good. The fall of a scoundrel or villain evokes applause rather than pity. Audiences cheer when the bad guy goes down. We feel compassion for someone we admire when that character is in a difficult situation. The nobler and more admirable the person is, the greater our anxiety or grief at his or her downfall.

This idea survives to this day in the proverb, “The bigger they come, the harder they fall.” In the 5th C BCE, in the founding work of history known as the Histories of Herodotus, we find the statement: “It is the gods’ custom to bring low all things of surpassing greatness.” An earlier expression, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall,” is found in the Proverbs (16:18). These date from 700 BCE to the fourth century BCE (1:1-9:18).

In a true tragedy, the hero’s demise must come as a result of some personal error or decision. The tragic or fatal error, or fatal flaw of the protagonist that eventually leads to the final catastrophe is known as hamartia, or missing the mark. It’s a metaphor from archery, and literally refers to a shot that misses the bullseye. There’s no such thing as an innocent victim in a tragedy, nor can a genuinely tragic downfall ever be purely a matter of blind accident or bad luck. The tragic hero must always bear at least some responsibility for his or her own doom. In Greek tragedy, the gods may interfere, but they don’t determine our destiny. Likewise, human events and actors may put detours across our path, but though the gods may intervene on our behalf, we can still snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in a true Greek tragedy.

Theseus killing the Minotaur of the Cretan labyrinth. Ariadne, possibly, looks on from the right. Attic black figure vase, Late 6th, early 5th century BCE. (Archaeological Museum, Milan).

The labyrinth is a symbol for change, for it’s the place of transformation. In the myth, Theseus must enter a maze no one knows how to navigate, slay a flesh eating monster, and return to the world above. Theseus accomplishes this, but still retains his youthful flaws until he is changed by his father’s death and he’s forced to grow up and assume adult responsibility. His experience in the labyrinth offered him an opportunity to change and grow but, like many people, Theseus resisted until change was forced upon him.

The medieval labyrinth is a unicursal labyrinth, with a single, circuitous but clearly delineated path. It’s an image encompassing both shared and individual experience, for we don’t walk the path alone, but we share it with fellow travelers. The unicursal labyrinth is distinguished from a multicursal labyrinth (or maze) by having only a single (though winding) path to its center. While a maze may have little or no symmetry and may not even have a center, a medieval labyrinth usually has both. The great medieval labyrinth on the floor of France’s Chartres Cathedral is one of the most famous unicursal labyrinths.

Chartres Cathedral Labyrinth from Above

Carl Jung, the famous Swiss psychologist, saw the similarity between medieval, Christ-centered mandalas in manuscripts and rose windows, the mandalas of his patients, and the mandalas he created. Jung believed his own mandalas “helped him maintain his psychic equilibrium” and believed “everything points toward the center,”so that he found “stability” and “inner peace” even during the war era.

Jung: Mandela

Medieval labyrinths, and all their variations, including the classical design of which the medieval style is an outgrowth, now appear across the United States in settings ranging from churches and parks to hospitals and museums; they may be painted, tiled, paved, woven into a carpet, constructed of canvas, or cut into a lawn. They’re usually designed to be walked on. Over the last quarter century, the medieval labyrinth has entered public consciousness as a “blueprint for transformation” rather than “an oddity,” as it was at one time. I can remember at least one of my fellow clergy asking if “this wasn’t so kind of new age hooey I was getting into.” Moreover, labyrinths aren’t limited to meditative and ritual use; they also appear in secular and recreational settings and are often noteworthy for their ornamental or artistic value.

Lavender Garden Labyrinth

While each one of us walks the same path, no one has the same experience on the labyrinth. We’re all on the same journey, but we’re traveling on a different part of the path. We entered at a different time, or we came to the labyrinthine journey at a different period of our spiritual journey. Some of us will move slowly, while others will hustle along the way. If we came with troubles and worries, we may have been looking for THE ANSWER. The labyrinth isn’t a one armed bandit. We don’t put our money in, pull the handle, and get a payout. The walking is instead an opportunity for reflection, a time to give our selves to the service of God, and set aside our pride.

We enter into the community of faith on the path

I’ve walked on the labyrinth on different occasions and had different experiences, since I’ve been “residing in different inns along my spiritual journey” during the years as I make my rounds about the sun while I live on this planet earth. I’ve been to the holy land twice, and been to Greece and Turkey to walk in the footsteps of Paul to see the churches he planted across the Mediterranean. I spent a summer in Italy during art school, while living in a small town and taking field trips to see the historic sites nearby. I took an interterm during graduate school to visit London and visit all the museums I could devour in that short time, along with some excursions to the seaside. Still, I’ve yet to see Stonehenge, and I’ve not seen Paris.

The question is, do we walk the labyrinth as a tourist going to a destination, expecting to stamp our passports, bring back photos, and buy souvenirs, or do we go expecting to meet Christ along the way? On the tour groups, folks sort themselves fairly soon into subgroups. The ones who want to go quickly to the site, give it a once over, take a few photos, and hit the souvenir shops before they have a coffee or a drink, will find each other and share their daily haul as they relax and wait for the stragglers to roll in. The stragglers come in two groups: the ones who took their time, and the ones who took the wrong turn and got lost. Thankfully, I didn’t get lost as I often do here at home! My notorious ability to take the wrong turn and my poor map reading skills are legend. The virtue of group travel is we leave no one behind.

While each person enters the labyrinth alone, others may also be on the path also. When we meet another, we perform a silent dance of giving way, first one to another, then the other to the one. Two can’t be in the same lane at the same time, but we can “dosie do” to let one another pass on by. This is life in community, where we share the spaces and the journey. When we walk the path of the Labyrinth, we enter a space/time/continuum. This is where up/down, left/right, and forward/backward all exist in one time dimension. Time passes differently inside the Labyrinth, for the twisting path appears to take us first directly toward the center, but just as we approach it, we are forced to follow the path directly away from the center instead. Then we wander around the outer edges of the labyrinth until suddenly, we arrive at the center. If we think we’ll never reach the promised land, we’ll find ourselves suddenly cast upon its shores as a Jonah spewed from the belly of a big fish. What seems like three days of darkness in a labyrinth may only be thirty minutes. Clock time gives way to God time on the journey.

Energies of the Labyrinth

Thus we enter into the timeless paths of all the pilgrims walking before us, those who never made their way to the holy land, but found the holy in the land in which they lived. The labyrinth has a way of uniting all the time of the past, the future, and the now into one dimension. In this way, when we walk the labyrinth, we enter into the kairos time of God, as opposed to the chronos time of humanity. No longer are “on the clock,” but we walk in the appointed and opportune time for us to experience the holy.

If we’re surprised, and emotionally disconcerted as we walk these twisting paths, it’s because we discovered we had no control over how soon we could get to our destination. We can stay in the center and be humbled by this awareness, but often we act like tourists instead. We get our passports stamped after an appropriate rest, and head back home. As heroes who’ve been to the center, we journey back to the outer world as changed people, ready to bring new truths and understanding back to the world. If we are like the Greek heroes of old, however, our tragic flaw will be living for ourselves only and forgetting to do good to all.

The energies of the labyrinth aren’t self-contained to the paths or to those who walk it. It is a holy space, so like the energies of space time, in which space and time are relative, observations depend on the viewer’s speed. If we rush through the labyrinth, we don’t have the same opportunity to meet Christ on the road to Damascus, as Paul did, and have an opportunity to change our lives. We need to drag our feet a bit, as the grieving disciples did on the road to Emmaus, so we might have the privilege of recognizing Christ in the central act of blessing the bread when they invited him to stay with them at the end of the journey.

The hurried life isn’t for the contemplative person, so even those whose lives are given over to getting many things done can benefit from a quiet time now and then. Otherwise, we can become the heroic Theseus who depends upon his own power, rather than giving credit to the powers of the gods, for all his great deeds. This is why his arrogance and pride is his undoing, even though he had a transformative experience in the labyrinth. Not until much later did he process this experience and grow from it.

When I began my painting, I started out with the actual forms, in homage to the many walks I’d participated in over the years. Soon I thought of burying the image, and uncovering parts of it, as if it were an archeological dig in process, but I only buried the outer edges. Then the idea of energies of the innumerable pilgrim walks percolated up into my consciousness and I began to paint the intersecting colored arcs. While I lost the paths, I was painting my emotional experience of the walking. I’ve been on quite a journey this past year, even though I’ve gone nowhere, due to the covid pandemic. Confined to home, I’ve longed to journey elsewhere, but the labyrinth is a journey anyone can take safely without fear of a monster who devours human tributes. I’m looking forward to the new year and new works, and perhaps some actual journeys. God bless everyone. Thanks for reading this.

Joy and Peace,

Cornelia

Labyrinth – Ancient History Encyclopedia by Joshua J. Mark
https://www.ancient.eu/Labyrinth/

Elements of greek tragedy and the tragic hero
https://www.slideshare.net/cafeharmon/elements-of-greek-tragedy-and-the-tragic-hero

Mary Hackworth—“The One and the Many: The Significance of the Labyrinth in Contemporary America,” Journal of Jungian Scholarly Studies Vol. 9, No. 3, 2014
https://jungianjournal.ca/index.php/jjss/article/download/44/37/74

The Labyrinth Society: The Labyrinth Society: Directions to Make a Labyrinth
https://labyrinthsociety.org/make-a-labyrinth

How to Make a Canvas Labyrinth for $200
https://pinkpaganpriestess.wordpress.com/2012/11/30/how-to-make-a-canvas-labyrinth-for-200/

Histories of Herodotus
https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2707/2707-h/2707-h.htm

What is Space Time?
https://www.livescience.com/space-time.html

Under Construction 

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I walk on Thursday evenings in the historic downtown district of Hot Springs, Arkansas. Most of our buildings are from our salad days of the Victorian period and early 20th century. We are building new construction, such as this new Regions Bank Tower, which will replace the one directly behind my back. I often leave my car under this overpass while I huff and hustle my way up to the cold spring at the entry to the mountain route to the observation tower. From there I walk past historic hotels, small and large, until I get to the site of the old Majestic Hotel, which burned to the ground in 2014. If I turn around for the start again, I can put in nearly 2 miles on a good evening. Even if I’m the last to finish, I’m still faster than the ones who never started. 

Our creative and spiritual lives are like my walking discipline in my downtown, which is both dying and being renewed. I notice some shops have closed, but new ones have taken their place. These aren’t all tourist shops, but some are tradesmen serving the needs of downtown dwellers. Each of us needs to take care of our long term needs, not just our whim wants. 

For our spirit, paying attention to our relationship with God through silence, contemplative study of scripture, and service with the poor will help ground our identity in God rather than in our own self. In our creative work, keeping the disciplines of our trade can be important. By this I mean, remembering to draw, to use color, value, to work a series, or to explore a subject fully. If we write, we pay attention to the skills of this craft, or if we are musicians, we never neglect our scales or any other skill sharpener in our toolbox. 

Sometimes we get to the place in our lives when everything burns down to the ground. Like the storied Majestic Hotel, once a home to professional baseball players during spring training and mobsters down for the gambling, our life as it is won’t stand up to the elements or to the vissitudes of fate. A stray cigarette or a frayed wire takes the whole building down, along with all its memories and its derbis inside. 

Sometimes we too have to start from scratch by making a fresh start. Yes, saving a historic treasure would be nice, but sometimes not very cost effective because the structure isn’t sound. Then it’s best to turn our back on that old life, grieve for it, and find a new hope and a new vision for the future. “If only we had done something with it 30 years ago!” Yet the will wasn’t there, was it? We can’t turn back the hands of time. 

In 1992, I answered God’s call to ministry. I spent twenty-two years away from my original calling, art. When my health took me out of parish ministry, I took up painting again in 2009. Five years in my studio relearning color, value, shape, composition, and emotion has felt like burning down a great old edifice and building a new one in its place. To date I’ve stayed close to the subject, except for the color. Lately I’ve felt constrained by those boundaries, and I’ve moved to s freer brushstroke. Will it stick? I’m enjoying it, but I feel emotionally exhausted afterward. I’m tearing down a boundary and am about to climb over a barricade. I’m excited about this adventure, even if it tastes of danger. 

WALKING INTO LIFE

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I went walking Thursday night with the Spa City Pacers in our downtown area. The humidity was high and the evening breezes of a few weeks ago were’t stirring any longer. My ice melted in my carry cup before we left the old train depot.

I’ve signed up for the HOT SPRINGS 5K FUN WALK. It’s held in conjunction with the SPA 5K/10K RUN, both of which are timed qualifying events for larger races. As a walker with some health challenges, I sometimes think I need an Instant Gratification Fun Run–I sign up, show up and get my tshirt .

Then again, how would I become healthier or stronger? If I don’t challenge my body bit by bit, I won’t take it to a new level. I’m realistic enough to accept that my progress won’t be quick or great. If I’m able to walk a hill today when last year I had difficulty making a level mile, I can say I’ve improved. The more years I can stay in my own home, the better off I will be. For any of us as we grow older, the challenges of using our body “as we used to” begin to come closer together. Just changing a light bulb is a challenge if your balance isn’t just right. Use it or lose it is a slogan the silver haired need to repeat often!

It doesn’t matter what level you are at now. This is your baseline. You aren’t running the race against anyone else or against a certain standard. All you need to do is to persevere and not be discouraged. Some days the heat and humidity sap my strength. I do less but I do something. I’ve had three emotionally trying weeks. Early this morning I had a visual seizure while I was still in bed. I went back to sleep for four more hours. Even this can’t stop me from making my appointed workout, but I did make it lighter.

There are folks at my local YMCA that are in far worse shape than me. They are my heroes: they give their all with great passion even though some have twisted bodies, disabled bodies, artificial limbs, disease or venerable years. We also have some pretty bodies who also work out there, but most of us are just ordinary people who want to make the most extraordinary use of this vessel the good Lord has given us so that we can do all the good we are able, as long as we can, to all we can, by any means we can.

When I go back Tuesday night, I’ll walk with a renewed delight that I’m out in the midst of a beautiful city, that I have companion walkers who desire a healthier life just as I do, and we can share that camaraderie of meeting the challenge of one more day on the journey. I can see the reflection of the old buildings in the new mirrored glass building. I can see the same sky in the mirror and above me. I can breathe in the molecules of air the ancient citizens who walked these steps once breathed, as well as the molecules breathed by the quicker runners and faster walkers who breezed through here this evening.

I may not be in the same group, but I am on the same streets and I am alive.

THE HOLY NODE AND THE FOUND BUTTERFLY

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I’m not a fast walker, for my first goal in walking isn’t to break any record for my usual 1.5 mile jaunt around Mercy Hospital here in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Neither do I stroll, for Bon Jovi and the Boss sing a strong striding cadence in my ear. I can manage the hills better in one direction than another, for at least one is nearly 45 degrees. I go up this hill once a week. It never gets less steep. The rest of the week I go down that hill. At my age, there’s no sense taking any more years off my life than necessary!

My goals as I walk are to be more conscious of my body, to care for it better, to build my body for endurance and health, to be outside in the sunlight (natural vitamin D), and to develop a better attitude (exercise releases endorphins that lift one’s mood). Walking also seems to clear my mind of worry and anxiety about others.

In that large hospital, I know that healing is going on. While some may be “losing the battle” against whatever dread disease has attacked them, they have “won the war” and received their final healing from God. We think our life is over when we close our eyes and breathe no more, but our life is just beginning in a newer and more wonderful way!

As I make my rounds about the hospital grounds, the wind blows through my hair, the sun falls on my face, and I see the sun shaped shadows of the pines and the pear trees. Even the ornamental lake reflects the colors of the sky and clouds. Heaven and earth are more connected here even though my path is just beside the eternally busy bypass of Highway 270.

There are nodes in space and time at which the intersection of heaven and earth seem to open up to one another. The Celtic tradition calls these “thin places.” All across the world we can find sites that were considered holy by one successive people & faith after another. When you walk into such a place, you can feel the years of prayers within the space.

This route I take, while short, has become a holy node for me. It was the reason for two found object works: The No Room Inn and The Healing Christ. I also did a landscape of that decorative pond. Now I am painting the various butterflies I have collected on my journeys. These are symbols of the new life to come because they wrap themselves in a cocoon (grave cloths). I think of them as an icon of the new life we live when we see the light of what is possible in Jesus Christ himself:

“I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness.” — John 12:46

A BUTTERFLY IN THE HAND OF GOD

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My usual walking route takes me from the local YMCA around the Mercy Hospital and Physicians Buildings until I make the mile and a half loop back to the gym. I take this walk on the days it’s not too hot or humid to be exercising outside, for I like the transition of the landscape against the sky, the changing shapes of the buildings as I walk past, and the patterns that the occasional breeze makes in the tall grasses of the ditches beside the access road that is my outdoor track.

This summer has been a blessing, for our usual 100 degree days didn’t appear. While we did have “heat factor 100 degree and then some” days, our early mornings were still bearable in the outdoors. It was on such a walk as this that I found this beautiful butterfly. Usually they are fluttering about with vigor on whatever imperceptible currents of overheated air that we call late summer in Arkansas, but this one was lying on the asphalt, no longer going about its appointed rounds. It had joined the cast off cigarette packages, the empty 5Hour Energy bottle, the smashed turtle and the carcass of the bird that marked the stages of my journey.

Gently I took it from the ground. This could not be its final resting place, for something so beautiful needed to be remembered and to be celebrated. I carried it with me as I thought of our great cities and their historic beauty. We tend to tear down our old architecture and put up new in its place with great abandon, yet we pay dearly to go to Europe and Asia to see ancient cities. I live in a 1960’s era high rise condominium on a lake that is near a bridge where bats live. Because some of these endangered species have made a nuisance by nesting in a few of the condos’ decorative cinderblock patios, our board proposed covering all these balconies with painted sheet metal. We live in the oldest and tallest solely residential building in Arkansas. We are a cultural and architectural icon. We wouldn’t want to look like a ten story trailer park!

Do we hold our traditional skills in honor any more? Are we willing to invest the time, effort, and sweat to fully develop our craft? Will we live below our means so that we can enrich the world with the products of our imagination and our spirit? Will we mentor anyone to follow in our footsteps, or will we be the last ones of our kind? Do we honor the living treasures or do we fawn over only the latest hot shot?

In this life, we may have many walks, along many paths. We can choose our direction, our companions, and our departure dates. We may think that we are self sufficient, but we are just butterflies in a moment of time, for in God’s “hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being” (Job 12:10).