On the floor of la cathédrale de Chartres , near the Royal Portal entrance, is un labyrinthe. The church had all but forgotten about the labyrinth, and it was usually covered with chairs for services. In the 1990s, a group of visitors from San Francisco to la cathédrale, one of them being Lauren Artress of Grace (Episcopal) Cathedral. Artress, along with Alan Jones, Dean of Grace Cathedral, and the other visitors from San Francisco located le labyrinthe and began moving chairs off of it. Custodians of la cathédrale were alarmed at these San Franciscans moving chairs and security was called. In the ensuing row, the San Franciscans explained that they wanted to uncover and explore this forgotten labyrinthe. From this grew a project at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco to replicate le labyrinthe de Chartres.
Dr. Artress explains: "The Labyrinth is an archetype, a divine imprint, found in all religious traditions in various forms around the world. By walking a replica of the Chartres labyrinth, laid in the floor of Chartres Cathedral in France around 1220, we are rediscovering a long-forgotten mystical tradition that is insisting to be reborn.
The labyrinth has only one path so there are no tricks to it and no dead ends. The path winds throughout and becomes a mirror for where we are in our lives. It touches our sorrows and releases our joys. Walk it with an open mind and an open heart.
There are three stages of the walk:
1) Purgation (Releasing) ~ A releasing, a letting go of the details of your life. This is the act of shedding thoughts and distractions. A time to open the heart and quiet the mind.
2) Illumination (Receiving) ~ When you reach the center, stay there as long as you like. It is a place of meditation and prayer. Receive what is there for you to receive.
3) Union (Returning) ~ As you leave, following the same path out of the center as you came in, you enter the third stage, which is joining God, your Higher Power, or the healing forces at work in the world. Each time you walk the labyrinth you become more empowered to find and do the work you feel your soul reaching for."
Although in the quote above, Dr. Artress said that le labyrinthe de Chartres dates from 1220, subsequent research showed that it was laid in the floor in 1201. Le labyrinthe de Chartres is made of Beauce quarry stone and an unnamed black stone to delineate the path, was inlaid into the stone floor in 1201. It had been forgotten for the last 250 years, until Artress led a small group of people into la cathédrale de Chartres to remove the chairs to experience the meditative walk first hand.
Of the eighty Gothic cathedrals that were built during le moyen âge, twenty-two of them had labyrinths. Sadly, the only one remaining in its original form is at Chartres.
The Prayer Labyrinth, also known as a meditation labyrinth, is one of the oldest contemplative and transformational tools known, having been used for many hundreds of years for prayer, ritual, initiation, and spiritual growth.
It is believed that the first labyrinth originated in Greek mythology, where it was an elaborate structure constructed for King Minos of Crete and designed by the legendary artificer Daedalus to hold the Minotaur, a creature that was half man and half bull and which was eventually killed by the Athenian hero Theseus. Theseus was aided by Ariadne, who provided him with a fateful thread to wind his way back again, a clue to the single path of the labyrinth. Labyrinths were also used as spiritual aides in ancient Egypt, Peru, and India. Labyrinth designs were found on pottery, tablets and tiles that date as far back as 5000 years. Many patterns are based on spirals and circles mirrored in nature. In Native American tradition, the labyrinth is identical to the Medicine Wheel and Man in the Maze. The Celts described the labyrinth as the Never Ending Circle. It is also known as the Ka bala in mystical Judaism. One feature labyrinths have in common is that they have one path that winds in a circuitous way to the center.
The term labyrinth is often used interchangeably with maze, but modern scholars of the subject use a stricter definition. For them, a maze is a tour puzzle in the form of a complex branching passage, with choices of path and direction, while a single-path ("unicursal") labyrinth has only a single path to the center. A labyrinth has an unambiguous through-route to the center and back and is not designed to be difficult to navigate.
As other pagan cultural practices, the Prayer Labyrinth was adopted by the Church across Europe during the medieval times, being often used as a means to meditate, pray and connect with God in a higher spiritual way. Numerous cathedrals in Europe have prayer labytinths embedded into their floors, with la cathédrale de Chartres, located about 80 km from Paris having one of the most famous prayer labyrinths in the world. Prayer Labyrinths were often viewed and modeled as a journey to Jerusalem and were even called le chemin de Jerusalem (Road of Jerusalem) serving as a spiritual pilgrimage for those who could not afford to travel to Jerusalem, the center of the world.
The widest accepted Prayer Labyrinth in the Church was the eleven-circuit labyrinth, which is more symbolic of Christ's cross with its four quadrants, and grace being symbolized by the never-ending path to the center and back, allowing the pilgrim to walk the path at his own pace, stop for prayer and meditation as needed.
By the 17th and 18th centuries however, Prayer Labyrinths had lost much of their spiritual meaning. In modern times, some clergy and other believers associate labyrinths with "New Age" mystical practices. Despite opposition to labyrinths in some quarters, the practice of walking the Prayer Labyrinth has become popular again in contemporary Christianity. Christian denominations from across the theological spectrum are again adopting the practice of walking the Prayer Labyrinth, with some churches opening their labyrinths to any pilgrim in need of contemplation and prayer, pointing out that the Prayer Labyrinth is not a maze and rather has one path on which one cannot get lost, serving a powerful symbol of individual life journeys and pilgrimage in faith.
A Catholic writer describes their spiritual significance in this way: "The labyrinth is a universal symbol for the world, with its complications and difficulties, which we experience on our journey through life. The entry to the labyrinth is birth; the center is death and eternal life. In Christian terms, the thread that leads us through life is divine grace. Like any pilgrimage, the labyrinth represents the inner pilgrimage we are called to make to take us to the center of our being. It is but one example of how early Christians adapted pre-Christian allegories to Christian doctrine. The center of the labyrinth at Chartres actually once contained an engraved copper plate depicting the battle between Theseus and the Minotaur."
In some Christian circles today the labyrinth continues to be used as an instrument to facilitate meditation, prayer, and personal reflection. For example, when walking the Chartres style labyrinth the believer meanders through each of the four quadrants several times before reaching the goal. An expectation is created as to when the center will be reached. At the center is a rosette design which has a rich symbolic value including that of enlightenment.
After her experience in Chartres, Lauren Artress returned home to San Francisco, painted the design on canvas and opened it to the public. In 1994 the indoor tapestry labyrinth was installed and in 1995 the outdoor terrazzo labyrinth was installed outside. In the summer of 2007, Grace replaced the tapestry labyrinth with a beautiful new stone labyrinth in the floor of the cathedral.
Despite the world-wide renewal of interest in labyrinths that grew from Lauren Artress's and Alan Jones's visit to Chartres in 1991, le labyrinthe de le cathédrale de Chartres remains largely unappreciated by the parish and is usually covered with chairs (as Louis la Vache found much to his chagrin on all three of his visits to Chartres). Le labyrinthe de la cathédrale de Chartres remains unused except on selected Fridays. By contrast, the two labyrinths at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, patterned as they are on le labyrinthe de Chartres, have had millions of visitors.
See also Louis la Vache's histoire de la cathédrale de Chartres.