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The Labyrinth: A Medieval Tool for the Postmodern Age
An Interview with the Reverend Dr. Lauren Artress
Founder of Veriditas ~ The Voice of the Labyrinth Movement

Over the past several years Lauren has introduced the Labyrinth to thousands
of men and women across the world, and observed their experiences with its power.

KF: Kristen Fairchild
Lauren: Lauren Artress

KF: When I was reading your book Walking a Sacred Path, I was reminded of one of my favorite quotes that spoke completely to your ideas about the labyrinth, which is a quote by Albert Camus, who says, "Life's work is nothing but the slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence one's heart first opened." The labyrinth is one of those "great and simple images." Why do you think the labyrinth resonates with people so much?

Lauren: That's a wonderful, wonderful quote. It resonates because it is an archetype, meaning a master pattern, and it's such an inclusive image because the circle is an archetype for wholeness or unity. So when people walk into the labyrinth, they begin to see their whole life. They begin to see their spiritual life and it becomes the journey, the journey of life, the path through life. Following this one path, you don't know where it leads you, and yet you hope it takes you to center. And then, when you become focused on the path, all of life becomes metaphor. You see, this is one of the things that we don't understand. Metaphor is an extraordinarily important dynamic in the human language as well as the human soul because the soul thinks in images and thinks in metaphors. The Christian religion, when you really allow it to be in its fullness, is a metaphoric religion.

KF: Do you think the labyrinth is an image that we have soul memory of?

Lauren: For some people, that does seem to be happening on the labyrinth. People will walk into it and they feel like they have come home. And that's the only way they can express it--they've come home. Other people get the sense that they're in a long, long line of people having walked the labyrinth. Some people have what I call "ancient memories." They feel like they're one of those pilgrims walking in the early times. It feels like it's from another time; it doesn't feel like it's in this life. So, I know that's tricky territory in one way, and yet it's a reality that most cultures in our world recognize. So, even though we stand in the Christian tradition, I think we have to also be open to this whole concept that consciousness exists on many levels. And that is what happens on the labyrinth. You touch in deeply to the many, many levels of consciousness.

KF: Getting back to the labyrinth as art, it does tap into our imagination. How does it do that?

Lauren: Well, it is actually a wonderful, imaginative tool. It is Aristotle who said, "The soul thinks in images." To allow images to come forward is a way of communicating with the deeper parts of ourselves. When you walk the labyrinth, when you allow things to clear away. Often, people walk in and have a releasing process to go through first, releasing anger, resentment, tears, all of that. When that clears through, then all of the sudden images will begin to come when you're walking the labyrinth--memories, dream fragments. So the imagination then informs the person of what needs to be worked through and released, or gives information to the person about what their next step is in life. The beauty of the labyrinth is you find your own natural pace. You see, that's the key for our culture nowadays. You walk in and your body determines the pace. As you find your pace, you join the natural flow in your own being and in your own soul. When you join the natural flow in yourself, you can join the cosmic dance with others.

KF: That's the importance of physicalizing the meditation that you talk about; the importance of keeping in motion during this type of meditation.

Lauren: It's important to find your own pace. People do stop on the labyrinth. People also crawl, people skip, people dance. I try to use the word "walk" generically.

KF: And walking meditation is something that's throughout many different traditions. Buddhism comes to mind.

Lauren: Yes, Buddhists have a walking meditation. At the United Nations 50th anniversary gathering at Grace Cathedral, I met a group of Shiite Muslims. They have a walking meditation. People walk at the Kaaba in Mecca. They walk around, circumambulate the sacred stone in the Kaaba seven times. That sense of walking and using the body. See, I think what's happened is we've become so focused on sitting meditation and prayer. The walking meditation, or the body prayer, is such a wonderful way to quiet the mind because when your body is moving, you're discharging all of that extra psychic energy that, when you're sitting, gets backed up.

KF: And it's also the ritualistic aspect of walking the labyrinth that integrates the belief system into your body.

Lauren: I think that's true, and ritual is far from being recognized for what it truly is. You know, when you look it up in the dictionary, it says, "Ritual is a series of meaningless, repeated behaviors." Come on! That's the psychoanalytic view of ritual. Ritual is food for the spiritually hungry. Ritual feeds the soul. That's the profound beauty when you see people walking the labyrinth. People are all walking the path. You don't know where you are on the path, so you can't judge: "Is this person coming or going?" or "are they at the center?" or "where am I?" Walking the labyrinth cuts through all that judgment. This is a horizontal path, not a vertical path.

KF: Which brings me to the communal aspect of the labyrinth experience. You write, "The labyrinth is unusual because it is an archetype with which we can have a direct experience in the outer world." Why is it so important in this age to have a communal experience such as this? To bring it out of a solitary experience of God into a communal experience? Is that something that we lack nowadays?

Lauren: Very much so. We've gotten so much into our individualistic experience--me and my material things, me and my jazzy car--and we don't actually know how to create community. There are certain cultures and ethnic groups in our country that do know how to do this, but a lot of us don't know how to do this, especially in main line Christianity.

KF: Matthew Fox talks about the idea that Americans have taken the glorious idea of the individual and carried it to the extreme of individualism, which is a very different idea.

Lauren: Yes, and made an "ism" out of it. See, then we're alone and we're isolated, and when we need help, we don't know how to ask for help. So this whole sense of walking the labyrinth together automatically, and on a non-verbal level and on a very powerful visual level, gives you that sense that we are all walking the path together, and we are all in this thing called life together. And I really think--we're not going to know till about ten years down the road--with the large groups of people walking the labyrinth now, that there is actually an invisible connection that is created among people.

KF: You talk a lot about the non-verbal aspect of the labyrinth. You describe the experience medieval people had walking the labyrinth, and you note that their pre-literate state left their senses more open to experiencing the fullness of the walk on the labyrinth. Are you saying that our modern, literate sensibility has driven us into a more cerebral experience, a day-to-day approach that ultimately prevents us from experiencing the full potential of life?

Lauren: I think so. We really live in different pockets in our mind, and our intellect has been so encouraged really at the cost of our deep, intuitive natures. Keith Christelow defines the labyrinth as a model of spiritual cosmology that is quite unrecognizable to the modern mentality since we embraced Descartes' world view and the split of the mind, body, and spirit. Now, in our ordinary consciousness, we are split in our mind, body, and spirit, but you don't know that until you walk into the labyrinth and feel this split between mind, body, and spirit. You can have a heart-to-heart talk with yourself on the labyrinth. You can have a heart-to-heart talk with your body about illness or why things aren't going well.

KF: And that experience is tough to articulate. That gets into the non-verbal aspect.

Lauren: That's right. During labyrinth workshops, I encourage people to journal because it anchors the experience. Usually when insights come through in the labyrinth--and this is a whole area that needs research and is quite phenomenal--people have a deep sense of integration. It's like a click in a kaleidoscope. All of the sudden a pattern emerges and they get it. Or people hear some assurance of some clear message in the auditory channel. Other people get an image and they see clearly an image that pulls it all together. So the source of how to tap into the deep knowledge that happens in the labyrinth happens because somehow the great, brilliant masters of spirit that designed this eleventh circuit medieval labyrinth knew how to integrate the world of the mind, body, and spirit.

KF: I had a friend who walked the labyrinth who got very angry at the experience because he felt there's only one path and he didn't have a choice. Are there some people who don't resonate with the labyrinth?

Lauren: Recently, a woman said to me, "This isn't a great symbol from our spiritual past because there's only one path." I think one of the things people don't realize is there are many, many choices in the labyrinth, and there's one key choice, which is whether to walk it or not.

KF: You talk a lot about the feminine aspect of the labyrinth. Women really do respond to the labyrinth.

Lauren: We live in such a left brain world, an analytic world, a language world, and an intellect world, and here's this whole other world that we must integrate in order to meet the challenges of the next century. All of the sudden, we are realizing that we have twenty years to really learn how to live together on this planet, in light of our diminishing environmental resources. One of the things that happens when you walk into the labyrinth is you shift your consciousness from the linear to the non-linear. You make a shift so that the ego, the ego part of us that we need--the manager of our personality that tells us how to get up in the morning and tells us how to get dressed and all that--that part can take a vacation and move back and be recessive and let other parts emerge--the deep, intuitive, non-linear, pattern part of ourselves. Now, in our culture, that part has been called the "feminine." The more accurate term is the "receptive" principle.

KF: Like an empty vessel ready to receive?

Lauren: Yes. Allowing the mystery to live in you instead of you making the mystery. So as you move in and take each step, you allow yourself to be filled up. And that's the quality that we really need. We really need that, and the Church needs that as well. We talk about the "Mother Church," but the Church really needs this quality. And I'm finding that as long as you don't talk about the sacred feminine, it's great. People don't mind experiencing it! You just don't talk about it, you're okay! (Laughs.) Added to that--the receptive principle in the labyrinth--the center has such beautiful, feminine symbology: the flower, the petals, the rosette. The petals are symbolic of the lily and the rose, all of that is symbolic of the Virgin Mary, or you could think of it as the Eastern Orthodox do: the Mother of God.

KF: Who did the ultimate receiving: the virgin birth?

Lauren: Yes, the ultimate receiving and the ultimate giving. And that openness and being the empty vessel filled by the divine becomes a very powerful metaphor in the labyrinth.

KF: You make the distinction between a maze and a labyrinth.

Lauren: A maze is an entirely different experience. It has dead-ends and cul-de-sacs, and sometimes actually has walls to the field of the maze. Sometimes it has hedges or literal wooden walls, so the sight is hindered. So a maze is a game to be solved. It keeps you thinking: "Oh, I hope I've made the right turn and don't get lost," and it produces anxiety. The labyrinth is different because it takes you into an entirely different part of your being than that problem solving, I-hope-I-make-it feeling. The only criterion when you walk the labyrinth is to "experience your experience." The Buddhists call it the "eternal now."

KF: Learning to be fully present?

Lauren: Yes, being fully present. And it's not like an empty mind meditation where you're not supposed to have any thoughts. What the labyrinth does is change what the Buddhists call the "monkey mind"--the chattering--into deep, reflective thought about where we are on the path in life. In centering prayer they teach, "don't attach to the thoughts at all." Well, I agree with that and I don't agree with that. It depends on what thought you have. If, all of the sudden, you get in touch with someone who hurt you deeply five years ago, I think that's important to look at. And actually, that is what happens on the labyrinth. Anything that is in your way of connecting to the divine comes up for you to deal with. Using that example, you might look at what that hurt was, and what needs to be healed, and what do you need to reach forgiveness, and have you talked to that person and told them what you need. You know, there's a lot of spiritual work. This is not an airy-fairy tool. If a person can't come into the moment, usually it's because they have expectations.

KF: They think they must reach the center of the labyrinth at a certain time?

Lauren: Yes. The center becomes too much of a goal, or they expect to have some epiphany at the center. As soon as you have an expectation, you are prescribing your experience and then you're not in the "eternal now." You're not experiencing your experience. You're experiencing your expectation of what you hope your experience will be.

KF: You say that you don't need a discipline to walk the labyrinth but that you come out with one.

Lauren: The beauty of the labyrinth is that it is non-threatening. Anyone can walk it, including people in a wheelchair. There are very few people in this country and in the West, for that matter, that feel confident in their prayer life. Most people feel, "I don't know how to do this, no one's ever taught me. Even if someone has taught me, I still don't get any results." There's a lot of insecurity about what it means to have a meditation or a prayer discipline. So the labyrinth is really a wonderful tool for anyone. Someone can be highly trained in meditation and get a benefit from it. And people who don't have any spiritual practice whatsoever, and haven't even darkened the door of a church, can walk into the labyrinth. You don't need a discipline, but as you continue to walk it over time, it helps you develop a discipline of focus. Just simply being able to walk the labyrinth and being mindful of what you need. Like, "today's kind of chaotic, I think I'll walk the labyrinth." Or: "I've heard of a dear friend who's sick, and I really want to pray for that person."

KF: Choosing to go walk the labyrinth is part of the discipline.

Lauren: Yes, and then it becomes a path of prayer. You ask for what you need. And if people can just take that much responsibility for their prayer life, and simply know that they have to think about what they need.

KF: Why is it that we don't know how to ask God for what we need? Why do we think that God should know already?

Lauren: It's also: why is God going to rescue me? Does God rescue or not? If he does, great. And if he doesn't, then I'm really in trouble, and I don't want to find that out either. In the old traditional understanding of God, God is "He"--the God in the sky, the transcendent God who is out there, who keeps all the rules. What people need to discover is the other side of God. That is the God who's within, and many people experience that as the sacred feminine. A God that is not harsh but merciful. A God that is ever-flowing, giving, and wants our gifts to flower on this planet. People need help seeing this sense of God. The debate over a "he" or "she" God, and the Church associating God only with "The Father," has been very destructive, and that's what has made people very insecure about reaching this part of their being and having a vivid prayer life. There is a spiritual revolution going on in this country around these very issues, and the labyrinth, in a way, is a church without walls, or it can be because so many people are looking and are very sincere in their seeking. … My concern is that the Church as a whole doesn't know this is happening. But I think Grace Cathedral is making a huge statement and a huge commitment to an incredibly new, transformative ministry here, through having two permanent labyrinths, and having a community that's open, and a congregation that's vital. And for us to really transform ourselves for the next century, we have to understand God in an entirely different way--with gentleness, forgiveness, and openness, and believing that we can be healed and we can be changed. And we say this in our traditional Churches, that no matter what has been done, it can be forgiven. But how do you get to that forgiveness? How do you get to that experience? And that question of how is a spiritual process that I think we can discover as we walk the labyrinth.

Adapted from online text.

Listen to audio clips from this interview
audio clip 1
audio clip 2
audio clip 3

Related Links

Veriditas. The voice of the labyrinth movement.

Pathfinders. The labyrinth, a medieval French mediation tool, has become the center of an international spiritual movement. Multimedia Feature.

It's Not a Maze, It's a Labyrinth. The Rev. Dr. Lauren Artress, Executive Director of Veriditas, the World-Wide Labyrinth Project, explains the special history and purpose of both seven-circuit and eleven-circuit labyrinths. Excerpt.

Walking the Labyrinth: Reflections on Chartres. The Rev. Dr. Lauren Artress, director of Veriditas: The Worldwide Labyrinth Project, joins psychotherapist Dr. Frances Vaughn and The Very Rev. Alan Jones to discuss the labyrinth's meaning and history. Forum.

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