Skip to main content
Turning on the Labyrinth of Chartres
Jul 1, 2013
Last year in March, I was able to accomplish a wish that I had been holding for a long time: I walked the labyrinth of the Cathedral of Chartres in France.

It was not my first walk on a labyrinth. That one had been on one of its many children, for Chartres is the mother labyrinth that has inspired many replications, simple and elaborate, throughout the world. I first discovered one of those junior labyrinths in Seattle, Washington, installed in the pocket garden outside a church. I chanced upon it one afternoon. Intrigued, I walked it in the drizzling Seattle rain, rushing through it without much thought. I was more focused on understanding the process more than trying to feel it, for I had confused it with a maze. I was convinced I was being set up for an exercise of memory and cleverness and was afraid I would fail if I did not pay attention to each turn. Yet I was wrong, for this was a labyrinth, not a maze. There is one way in and one way out. There are no hidden corners, trick turns or dead ends. The path is achievable by all. No one gets lost.

The next day, for some inexplicable reason, I felt a strong pull to go back to the labyrinth and walk it again, more purposefully this time, to try to understand what the experience entailed and why this church had put it there as a spiritual tool. I returned to the labyrinth and began my walk, slowly this time, released from the fear that I would get lost. When I was half-way through it, I was suddenly surprised by a spontaneous outflow of tears. Where had that come from, I wondered, now realizing that the labyrinth had spiritual powers that I had only intuitively sensed before.

And so I vowed then to go to Chartres and walk the original labyrinth, the most famous in the world, which had inspired this one. I wanted to walk in the same steps as had thousands of other pilgrims since it was built around the year 1200. Although I had lived in France for many years, I had never walked the labyrinth. My visits to Chartres, a UNESCO World Heritage site, were carried out to study the components of this outstanding example of French High Gothic architecture, such as its odd pair of differently-sized steeples and the elaborate triple portals. I would stand in awe under the fluttering angel wings of the exterior flying buttresses. But above all, I would go to marvel in the magic of its stained-glass windows, the most celebrated in the world, for their technique, encyclopedic imagery of Biblical stories and breathtaking beauty. To stand under the magnificent rose window of the west wall, with its shimmering tones of deep blue, is worth a pilgrimage all on its own. I had never even noticed the labyrinth on my previous visits there, because it is generally obscured from view. Chartres is a working church and a famous pilgrimage site (it houses the cloak supposedly worn by Mary when she gave birth to Jesus), and due to the needs of worshippers of this busy place of reverence, the labyrinth, located in the main nave of the cathedral, is usually covered with chairs, and is only open for walking on Fridays during Lent.

But this time, I came as a pilgrim on that cold March day, taking the train from the Paris-Montparnasse station, a mode of transport far removed from the footsteps of the thousands of pilgrims of the Middle Ages, who came to Chartres as a substitute for an actual pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the Holy Land. Since such a pilgrimage to the “Kingdom of Heaven”, as was considered Jerusalem at that time, was not possible for most, a visit to the nearest cathedral stood in for it. Pilgrims for over eight hundred years have travelled here to become closer to God.

The mother labyrinth of Chartres is all the more intriguing in that it is one of the few Gothic labyrinths to remain to this day. No one knows exactly when the labyrinth was constructed, but it must have been after the construction work of the cathedral was completed and the scaffolding removed, sometime between 1200 and 1240. At this time, a large labyrinth 40 feet across was set in tan and grey stones in the central nave. Labyrinths were placed in other French Gothic cathedrals as well, such as at Amiens, Sens, Arras and Auxerre, but they have all been suppressed, except the one at Chartres. It too, has suffered over the ages; for all that remains of the central brass plaque are the worn stubs of the rivets that held it in place.

I entered the cathedral and saw it in front of me, uncovered and inviting. Due to its setting in the shadow of the light cast by those rainbow great windows, no labyrinth in the world can inspire like the one at Chartres. The labyrinth is composed of a series of 11 concentric rings that fold over each other and lead to the six-petalled center node, or as it is poetically called in French, the rosette; they then wend their way back to the original starting point. This single path meanders in 28 loops, moving from side to side as you head towards the rosette and back out again. A short straight path leads to the rosette itself. The length of the path is only about 860 feet, a mere one third of a mile, and can take from about 20 minutes to two hours to complete. The labyrinth is framed by a glowing halo of ornamentation around the outer circle, comprised of pointed cusps enclosed in foliate borders.

How one walks the labyrinth and what one receives differs with each person, and for each person, with each walk. It is a highly personal experience. Children can walk it and find it playful; adults can find it straightforward or a life-changing spiritual tool. All it takes is an open mind and an open heart, and a slow pace to allow the emotion of the experience to build in you as you walk the path with your whole being. As you are in a space of devotion, silence is respected. No one talks while walking the labyrinth, to better hear your own voice. You receive from it what is there for you to receive. The path goes two ways, and you cross those going in as you go out.

I stared at the labyrinth for a long time before I entered it. I looked at the cross on the main altar and thought how the four quadrants of the labyrinth recalled the four arms of the cross. I thought of the rosette. Mary, Mother Rose of our existence, Woman among all Women. I will be clothed in your blue robes, Mary, as I turn on the labyrinth; your shining face will illuminate my path.

Before entering the labyrinth I was a bit apprehensive about what would happen to me when I wound my way through the serpentine path on this meditative prayer done with my feet. I told myself to take slow and deliberate steps, and just put one foot in front of the other. All I needed to do was to go into the center and then back out again. This was no race. There would be no tricks, no teasing decisions to be made, and no one would judge my performance. I just needed to surrender myself to the path, and accept the insights it would give me.

But just what insights would be given to me? Would I be overcome by angst like I was in Seattle or would a difficult question come to my mind? What grief would I let go? What help, if any, would I receive for my troubles I cannot resolve on my own? Would I find release from the problems of my life and turn its stress into the peaceful silence within myself I seek so deeply? Would I be able to carry out the work my soul is searching for? I stayed there for a long while, and prayed for the strength to get me through this mini-marathon of spiritual discovery.

I took my first step, the first of many as I wandered through each of the four quadrants several times before reaching the rosette. I entered, my head and ears full of the noise of the daily details of life. With each step I began to quiet down and release some of that clutter. I stopped thinking about the rambunctious teenagers on the train ride out, how I would ever find the time to finish that job for work I needed to complete by next week, and the worries about my sick friend. I started to empty my mind and let go of burdens and stress. The shimmering blue windows smiled down at me; the warm cloak of Mary’s blue began to envelop me.

I paused to balance my weight as I made a turn. Sometimes I stopped completely in my tracks for a while. I continued on my way, putting one foot in front of the other, turning 180 degrees each time I entered a new circuit, like a switchback on a mountain. With each switchback flip, I wondered if my brain energy was changing from the left intuitive and creative side to the more rational right side. I reflected on how the labyrinth itself even looks like an anatomical depiction of the brain with its many folds. A great expectancy was created as to when I would ever reach the center and what would happen once I reached it. Would the center leave a divine imprint onto my soul?

I continued towards the rosette, wondering if I would ever reach it. This path seemed so long! A myriad of questions, thoughts and concerns began to flood those two quadrants of my brain. Sometimes I passed others going the other way. Sometimes I came up to someone stuck dead in his tracks, unable to move. What is he feeling at this moment, I asked myself, which has stopped him so? Was it the same emotion that made those tears flow in Seattle? Sometimes someone passed me, like a car on the highway, but I did not consider it rude. His experience is pushing him to go faster. Sometimes I walked slowly; sometimes I sped through a turn. Yet throughout, I was aware of my breathing and the increasing silence in my ears. Somewhere along the path, I began to hear whisperings. I walked with my head bowed; was it to better concentrate on the position of my feet or because I felt I was praying with them?

And so it was for all of us in the labyrinth that chilly March day, as it has been every day for over 800 years. I did not feel alone but a part of a long heritage of pilgrims, all of us feeling the same emotions as we continued to turn to reach the center. You feel the beating heart of the pavement of this cathedral, the beating heart of Christ’s love, and the beating heart of your own existence. You hear your breath become an illuminated prayer to life.

When you at last reach the rosette, a sense of accomplishment fills you, and you want to stay there and absorb it and think about what led you there. You pause there to reflect even more, and listen to the whisper of a deeper revelation you had never felt before. But why doesn’t the labyrinth end here, you ask yourself? Why do you have to walk again through those turns? Of course you do, for your life is never complete, just as the turns continue. As you walk out, you have time to reflect on how you will take that beating heart of love back out and keep it beating in the face of your daily life. You want to share that peace of the rosette with the daily world around once you return to it. When you finish your final steps, you realize there are questions you will never be able to answer, no matter how many times you walk the labyrinth. The power of the labyrinth has taught you to walk humbly with your Lord, as it says in the Old Testament book of Micah.

I left the rosette, and walked back out. I was done. I took a deep breath. As I stepped out of the labyrinth, I lifted my eyes to the kaleidoscopic windows above the west transept door. I turned my head to the left to gaze at the stunning rose window over the south doors. The light streaming through them seemed brighter, or was it because my heart was not as dark as when I entered the labyrinth? I had been warmed by the light of the blue window. I had worn the blue cloak of Mary. You stop again and say a prayer of thanksgiving this time, for the love you felt when you were on the path, for the love waiting for you when you return home, and the love you will be able to give to your life from the strength you received on the walk. You feel balanced and a little more in contact with your own divinity. The Kingdom of God is within you.

After I walked the labyrinth, I thought of the other prayer journeys done on labyrinths by various seekers of truth and the appealing unity of this spiritual interface across all history and many faiths. I recalled that the very first labyrinth had been designed by the architect Daedalus over 4000 years ago in ancient Crete. Images of the sand paintings of the Navahos, the “Mother Earth” labyrinth of the Hopi Indians, Buddhist mandalas, and the Nazca lines in Peru flashed before my eyes. I thought of the Shakers of my native midwest America, named for their ritual dance and desire to lead a pure life:

‘Tis the gift to be simple, tis the gift to be free

‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be

To turn, turn, will be our delight

‘Til by turning, turning, we come ‘round right…

I pondered the spiritual journey of the three Abrahamic faiths, and of Islam especially, and how they have developed over the years from Abraham to Moses to Jesus to Paul to the Prophet Muhammad. It is a journey of faith on a long path, much like the winding path of the labyrinth is a metaphor for the spiritual journey all of us experience in one way or another, even the most dedicated of atheists.

I noted that my own body is a labyrinth, with blood flowing into the rosette of my heart and flowing out again purified with oxygen. I recalled the miracle of our natural world, where everything in the universe is revolving; electrons and neutrons and protons all forming the tiniest ant to the largest galaxy. Everything is in motion in the natural world; everything walks its own labyrinth.

Yet of all these traditions and thoughts, the one that came most strongly to me after my walk on the Chartres labyrinth is the Sufi path. I thought of the Sufis and their sema dance, and it made me realize that you don’t really walk a labyrinth, you turn on it.

Sufi whirling is a form of active meditation practiced by the dervishes of the Mevlevi Order of Konya, Turkey. This dance is performed in a ceremony with the aim to reach perfection by abandoning one’s egos and personal desires, focusing on God and spinning in repetitive circles to the music of the ney flute. Jalâluddîn Rumi, the great poet that inspired the movement, often used music and dance in his spiritual practices, and it was his son who established the Mevlevi Order.

Rumi mentioned Jesus in many of his verses, which makes him more accessible to me and makes me think that he would have understood what it was like to turn on the labyrinth of Chartres and hear those whispers:

The Jesus of your spirit is inside you now.

Ask that one for help, but don't ask for body-things...

Don't ask Moses for provisions

that you can get from Pharaoh.

Don't worry so much about livelihood.

Your livelihood will turn out as it should.

Be constantly occupied instead

with listening to God.

Rumi, Mathnawi II:450-454

The Sufis believe that there is a path, or a way to experience faith, which is called the “tarikat.” Tarikat is the conscious choice a person makes to come to seek knowledge of God. Someone who walks the path of tarikat is a Sufi. The Mevlevi order of Sufism delineates a precise symbol of this path, which takes the form of the ritual turning dance of the sema. Rumi’s message is always about the love of God and the surrender to God. It is the same idea that happens with the labyrinth – you begin your walk and surrender yourself to the emotion that will come to you along the walk.

When you walk the path, you turn like a Sufi. You are taken to your center, often to a hidden and mysterious portion of your personality that you did not suspect. You can intensely concentrate or just let the steps take you to their own gift of intuition from the mundane to the divine. You feel connected to a long tradition and to the vast mystery of creation and a renewed connection to yourself, God and the world around you. You feel a greater sense of Oneness, and that you are not alone, either with your God or those people you crossed while turning on the labyrinth. I can now better sense the sema and the tarikat of the Sufis after having turned on the Chartres labyrinth.

Sema is beyond reason; it is the symbol of a spiritual journey to our innermost center where we are closest to God. It is the flame of divine love. It is a turn back, a turn forward, all for a return to love. Into the labyrinth, into the rosette and out again, all for a return to love. One hand open to heaven, one hand open to earth, the dervish spins to the left, in the direction of the heart. The first turn on the Chartres labyrinth is to the left, and the leading foot is always the left one.

Many Sufi mystics perceive that everything and everyone of us are profoundly connected to the Divine as one people, one ecology, one intelligence, one blood, one universe, one being, one humanism, one truth, one love. There is one path; perhaps with 180 degree switchback turns, but we all joined on this path. I think of the thousands of people who have come to Chartres and walked this labyrinth, and what pushed them to make this pilgrimage. I see that they are seeking the same path as a Sufi; to be joined together on those turns, in our lives, and with the Divine. We seek to break the tyranny of the ego, the tyranny of our neurosis and materialistic world. We seek to find a way to live a life of selflessness and filled with love.

One of the most well-known of the Rumi poems states:

Out beyond ideas of right doing and wrong doing,

There is a field, I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,

The words “you” and “I” do not exist.

I entered that field of grass when I reached the rosette of the labyrinth of Chartres.

Since that first labyrinth walk in Seattle and my encounter with the labyrinth of Chartres, I continue to turn the labyrinth in my mind whenever I can. It is an ongoing spiritual practice, just like prayer. I have a mouse pad at my computer at work with a photo of the Chartres cathedral labyrinth. I trace the pattern with my finger when I am in need to quiet my mind or find comfort. I close my eyes and imagine I feel the cold stones of the cathedral floor under my feet and the warm cloak of Mary around my shoulders. I hear the ney and see the whirling white robes of the Semazen. I feel connected to others and inspired to Oneness with them.

Come, walk with me and turn on the path of the labyrinth of our lives. Let us meet all together in that rosette field of peace.

Katharine Branning is the author of Yes, I Would Love another Glass of Tea. She is also the Vice-President, Library, FIAF, New York.