Sunday, September 14, 2008

Labyrinths


According to an article in my Sunday paper labyrinths are finding "new converts in the modern world." In "A Spiritual Path," Post-Crescent author Cheryl Anderson begins by recounting how a certain Anglican priest began creating these things by mowing intricate paths in her backyard, and then later at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Menasha, WI. This is just the latest version of what has descended from one of the most famous 'Christian' labyrinths located at the Chartres Cathedral of Notre Dame, France.

"A labyrinth is a form of a maze," Anderson writes, "but unlike a maze there's only one path leading to the center with no dead ends or false turns. It is a meditative tool used to quiet the mind. Labyrinths serve as a metaphor for the person's inward spiritual journey." Labyrinths fell out of exsistence over time, and were only 'rediscovered' in the '80's and '90's.

I have never 'walked" a labyrinth, so I have no real experience with them. The idea of focused walking in a quiet atmosphere to aid in prayer and meditation would seem to have benefits for those who struggle with distractions. Mideaval believers used the labyrinth as a substitute for pilgrimage to the Holy Land,and as Anderson notes, "to gain spiritual merit." For that reason I can imagine that the practice would have been suspect among the early reformers who were cautious of anything that took away from grace and faith alone in Christ. However, I am not sure that Luther or the others had an familiarity with this practice by the 15th or 16th century.

Overall walking labyrinths seems innocent enough. My only concern would be if someone substituted this for true devotional prayer centered in the Word, feeling that they could "find God" by merely walking the path. As this Anglican priest admitted of her time in labyrinths: "I've had experiences where I've felt like I was in the pressence of the holy one, in the hands of God." Such an experience I have usually reserved for describing my time in the sanctuary during the Divine Service centerered on Word and Sacrament.

For now walking around my country church for exercise and meditation seems to work fine for me. I guess I'm not really into trends. Any way, I hate to mow. I'd just as soon keep all the grass at one length.

Note added on 9-15-08: For additional information discovered after this article was originally written, please make sure to read the "comments" section. Links provided here will help those interested to learn more about the concerns some Christians are expressing concerning the current use of "prayer labyrinths."

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

A Number of years ago cornfields in Indiana were mazes and Labyrinths. I had a confirmation retreat on prayer. Turning our fellowship hall into a labyrinth. I had group prayer and then I had individual time with praying stations. In the evaluations the alone time walking and praying was seen as a big deal. Another year we had prayer time in the spring and simply had individual walking outside and kneelers in the church. The walks and kneeling alone were again seen as a big deal. What was common in both scenarios was the praying aloud while alone. I have come to see the praying alone aloud as a good discipline.

Rev. Adrian Piazza
Noblesville, IN

Don Engebretson said...

It seems that your experience with labyrinths was positive. Do you see the primary benefit as encouraging quiet contemplative prayer? Any draw backs to its use, as far as you can see?

Bob Hunter said...

There are a lot of objections to labyrinths. See http://www.lighthousetrailsresearch.com/labyrinth.htm and also some of the links that are provided to other websites discussing the subject.

Don Engebretson said...

Thank you for the link Bob. I should have realized there was more here than I was originally seeing.

After doing a bit more research online, I realize that labyrinths pose a complication for Christians, at least those who are concerned about the encroaching inroads of paganism and occult into the Christian church. Although seemingly 'neutral,' they are nevertheless also being used and infused with mystical meaning by many non-Christian groups.

An interesting link worth checking out is: http://www.soundwitness.org/evangel/the_labyrinth_journey.htm. The author here notes that “Today, labyrinth walks and 'prayer journeys' are being promoted by Rosicrucian groups, at New Age festivals and celebrations,and throughout the neo-pagan world. Not surprisingly, one of America’s largest witch, shaman, and neo-pagan assemblies, the 2005 Pagan Spirit Gathering at Wisteria, OH, held a night-time Summer Solstice Labyrinth ritual, which was described as a 'transformative, walking meditation through an all night labyrinth formed by 1000 lighted candles.'”

This is disconcerting, to say the least.

There is no getting around the fact that labyrinths have a distinctive pagan origin, and are being used today in ways that are clearly outside of orthodox Christian belief. Although not properly documented, this Wikipedia article is also informative: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prayer_Labyrinth

Out of curiosity I did a Google search of which churches utilize prayer labyrinths, and it was interesting to see that the most frequent 'hits' (at least up to the first 50 or 60) involved mainly liberal mainline denominations, including the non-Christian Universalist Unitarians. Episcopalians, United Methodists, UCC, and ELCA Lutherans were among the most frequent.

The LCMS actually addresses the question of "Prayer Labyrinths" at: http://www.lcms.org/pages/internal.asp?NavID=6641

At the end of their answer they note:
"Today labyrinths are very common in New Age and pagan contexts... In such contexts the labyrinth serves as a vehicle for personal reflection and enlightenment without any reference to the Christian understanding of God and His revelatory activity through the Scriptures.   It would be my view that Christians should be urged to exercise careful discernment in this area. They ought to be especially concerned, in my view, about any practice that becomes a substitute for reflection on God's Word, prayer to Him for comfort and direction, and for guidance in the midst of life's problems and challenges. We are given the promise that spiritual enlightenment comes solely from the Holy Spirit Who is active whenever we make use of the Word and the sacraments. The Holy Spirit draws us to Christ Who is our Hope and Peace, and Who gives us identity, purpose, and meaning in life. Christians, of course, need not reject external aids (e.g., art, crosses, prayer guides, etc.) as in themselves objectionable, but they will want to avoid allowing such external reminders to become a spiritual crutch or substitute for the real thing: God's precious means of grace."

Adrian said...

After I did the first, I saw many of the non-confessional church's doing them as well. I also found, as you did, a significant number of pagans using them. Rather than make the Labyrinth the "thing" and perhaps confusing confirmands, I instead encouraged them to pray aloud alone. I also encourage them to pray the Psalms aloud rather than read them silently.

Rev. Adrian Piazza
Noblesville, IN