Visiting Chartres Cathedral was one of the highlights of our French pilgrimage last month. I expected our visit to be grand and momentous. I even expected it to be spectacular, and it was.
What I didn’t expect was to be surprised by the encounter.
One of the first things I noticed when we walked inside this majestic grand dame of Cathedrals is that its legendary labyrinth was uncovered, and people were quietly making their way. I was instinctively drawn in, called to silently follow the path that pilgrims have walked in this holy place for almost 1,000 years.
I love being surprised by God’s graces…
I wrote about walking a labyrinth as a beautiful tool for prayer--a unique personal prayer experience--in our book, “The Journey” published by Loyola Press:
“Labyrinths have long been used as meditation and prayer tools. A labyrinth is not a maze or a puzzle to be solved. It does not require logical, sequential, analytical activity aimed at finding a correct path. A labyrinth is unicursal, has only one path. The way in is also the way out. There is no right or wrong way to walk a labyrinth. You can walk as fast or as slow as you want. You can stop along the way or dance your way through the path. Once at the center, you can stay as short or as long as you want before following the same path to walk out… At its most basic level, the labyrinth is an ancient metaphor representing a journey towards our personal, deepest center, and then back out into the world––hopefully, with a broadened understanding of the journey and/or of the self.
During the Middles Ages, labyrinth designs in various forms were often found in Gothic cathedrals. The most famous of these remaining labyrinths is found on the nave of Chartres Cathedral, about 60 miles southwest of Paris. Built around 1200, the Chartres labyrinth is laid on the floor in a style sometimes referred to as a pavement maze, with four meandering quadrants that lead to the center. At the center of the labyrinth there is a rosette design, a Medieval symbol of enlightenment…
[W]alking a labyrinth serves as a centering tool for me. It reminds me that when I am tired of walking this life journey and I feel like the way is too long, there is only ONE path that I must follow, the path to the One who is my center. It suggests to me that if life feels like too much work, I may be acting like my pilgrimage is a maze or a puzzle to be solved. My call is… to simply stay on the path. I breathe in the Spirit as I walk and allow the way of the labyrinth to take me home to Him who is my Life and my Love. The only choice that I must make is whether or not to walk. This, too, is a metaphor for Christ’s call to discipleship. Will I begin or continue the journey? Will I choose to stay on the path? Will I let Him lead me home?“
The nave of the Chartres cathedral is normally lined with chairs that cover most of the labyrinth, making it unaccesible. Yet in recent years the Cathedral has set up a program of regularly uncovering the labyrinth every Friday during the summer months.
But we did not know about this until after the fact.
We came back the next morning for a more thorough tour of the Cathedral (which I'll write about at a later date) -- but-- my labyrinth was covered by lines and lines of chairs.