Labyrinths and Mazes

As a kid I always enjoyed those printed mazes that they gave out in Sunday School where we had to find our way to the center, and the first one there got a prize. It wasn’t until a few years ago when our kids were young that we experienced our first corn maze around halloween. It was fun with the kids, but the uncertainties of not knowing if we were on the right path bugged me. (And memories of the movie Labyrinth also haunted me at every turn, so I didn’t talk much, for fear I might accidentally say “Piece of cake” and I would be trapped there forever!)

Fast forward a few years and I discovered that a nearby church had a “prayer labyrinth.”  The thought of trying to find my way to the center on my own frightened and frustrated me. What if I took a wrong turn?  Or worse, What if I never found my way to the center? And to combine what with praying?

Even in reading about prayer labyrinths, I had missed a key distinction between labyrinths and mazes.   In a maze, you are confronted with choices at every turn, and I was never sure if I was making the correct choice or if I would wind up at a dead-end, having to retrace my steps and choose a different path.   In a labyrinth, there is a path to follow, and even though it may meander and even lead away from the center, it does eventually lead to the center.

This was the first (and perhaps the most important lesson I learned that day): A labyrinth is not a maze. 

Anxious to begin, I found the first available opening and began to follow the path. It was soft, and covered in dark mulch.  And it quickly led to a dead end.  Frustrated, I came back out, and then discovered that the starting point was half-way further around.  So, I went to the starting point, and again began to follow the softer path. (The other path was lined with crushed shells; it was brighter, but less comfortable for walking.) And, as before, I soon came to a dead end.

On my third attempt, I decided to follow the brighter path, covered with shells. It was harder walking, and the shells were often sharp and walking was uneven.  Most of the way along, there was also the darker, mulch-covered path that ran along beside it. But there would come points where the paths diverged, or the softer path ended abruptly.  There were times walking the soft path that I could see the center–it seemed to close–only a few steps away. But as soon as I thought I was getting “there,” the path would turn and go away from the center, sometimes even looping back all the way to the outside of labyrinth.  Following the path, however wandering and incoherent it seemed to be, eventually did lead me to the center.

My Labyrinthine experience that day was a powerful metaphor for the spiritual journey. The soft paths look inviting but usually either veers off or becomes a dead end. The lighter colored path, even though more difficult to tread and filled with seemingly endless, pointless turns, eventually leads to the Center.  How often when we begin the journey and have gone only a short distance, we are allowed to glimpse the Center, and we think we’re “there.”  But, alas, there is a turn and we find ourselves journeying away–sometimes far away–from the center, and it seems the longer we walk, the further from the Center we find ourselves. Sometimes the path is solid and walking is easy, and sometimes it’s rough and uneven. Sometimes there are even weeds that grow–flowers that bloom along the way and we stop to admire them.  And in a maze, your chosen path may or may not lead to the center.  But in a labyrinth, if you stay on the path by which you enter, you will (eventually) arrive at the Center.

But until we are “there,” we aren’t “There.”  Even though we may see the Center ahead, until we reach it we continue This Labyrinthine Life.


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