More than 100 votive candles glowed in a gentle ring around the outside of the labyrinth on the floor of Chartres Cathedral and the air was hushed and dim, as though something sacred were about to happen. A string quartet played music that had been composed hundreds of years ago and there was a sense of anticipation among the dozens of people from around the world who had convened at Chartres to study Astronomica, the Seventh Liberal Art, with Ubiquity University. We were there to learn, of course, but we were also reconnecting with a feeling of reverence for Mary, Mother of God.
My parents were not religious people and I was raised without benefit of a significant amount of Sunday School, but my studies since then have taught me that Mary’s story is fascinating, and one many non-Catholics find easy to dismiss. Chartres Cathedral is considered Mary’s home, and guests are invited to treat the residence with the respect one would accord the home of an honoured and revered community member.
Exploring the Labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral
Not many people have a massive labyrinth laid out in stones on the floor of their 1000-year-old living room but Mary’s cathedral in Chartres does, and it was our purpose that night to “walk” it. This involves following the pattern the 42-foot-wide circle sets out for the walker, one that weaves back and forth through the circle’s four quarters. If the path were laid out in a line it would measure about 860 feet in length. I’ve been a devotee of labyrinth walking for years now and it is one of the most powerful ways I know to meditate, connect with my Higher Power, and ground myself. The labyrinth at Chartres is one of the best-known labyrinths in the world, and the one closest one to my home, located in Burlington, Ontario, is patterned after this great one at Chartres.
It’s important to note that there is a difference between a labyrinth and a maze. A labyrinth has only one path in to the centre and it’s the same path that leads an individual back out again. You can’t make a wrong turn in a labyrinth, whereas a maze provides numerous decision points. When we think about labyrinths many people typically think back to the Greek myth that has Prince Theseus walking through a labyrinth to slay the Minotaur, grateful that he had that length of string Princess Ariadne had given him. In fact, he was walking through a maze, not a labyrinth.
The Cathedral closes to the public at 7:30 most evenings, and Cathedral officials only take away the chairs that normally cover the surface of the labyrinth on Fridays. So, the members of the group I was with were grateful to be given a special opportunity to be present to the labyrinth and walk its length. When my turn came, I stood at the entrance to the labyrinth and said a small prayer. I took a deep breath and stepped in to the meditative opportunity I had been granted. We don’t talk much in our world about holiness or sacredness, but I can confirm that the experience of walking the Chartres Labyrinth was full of both for me that night. Alone with my thoughts in the company of others, I journeyed to the centre, complete in the experience, and grateful to be there.