Labyrinth: Walking as a Meditative Journey
Contrary to popular belief, walking through a maze is more than just getting lost.
The labyrinth is a powerful symbol. To some extent, it’s inextricably linked to at least one meaning that seems perennially negative: that of being lost. Imagining a maze conjures thoughts of a trap meant to confuse, ensnare and to eventually prevent our escape from the entire morbid predicament.
This, though, is a rather modern interpretation. At the very least, it’s not valid for all types of mazes. According to Jennifer Billock, in the journal of the Smithsonian Institute, at one time labyrinths’ main purpose was to encourage a walking meditation and one that lacks all the elements with which mazes are normally attributed: endless corridors, incorrect routes and passages expressly intended to disorient.
This period in the history of labyrinths includes especially the Middle Ages, when one monk, Otfried of Weissenburg, designed an 11-level maze (adding four levels to the classic model of seven), and which began as a drawing that adorned the final page of his Evangelienbuch. With time and admiration, this drawing became the iconic model for the labyrinthine paths of dozens of churches built between the 12th and 13th centuries in Europe, perhaps the most famous being that of the Chartres Cathedral in France.
But how could one even imagine that the labyrinth is at once a pagan symbol, and thus not also a damnable symbol? When you consider that walking a maze might also be seen as a pilgrimage, a deeply symbolic act especially in the Middle Ages, then you begin to see some trace of how Christianity merged with the other religions long established in Europe. In these religions, to walk a labyrinthine route was the occasion of mystical or magical experiences, revelations and discoveries. This was largely because the labyrinth walker, within the solitude of the paths, lead the walker into a confrontation with his or her own self. It’s that inner world which, in another context, was so well described by the Mexican poet, Jose Gorostiza:
We cross, in our imagination, toward dank dungeons, and airy elevated galleries that we don’t have in our own castles.
As great mystics and thinkers of all times have repeated, both lost and found are necessary movements in the labyrinthine pendulum of life.
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