Retreat director: Labyrinth prayer ‘a calming, healing process’

| April 21, 2016 | 9 Comments
Labyrinth designer Lisa Moriarty presents on labyrinths at Franciscan Retreats and Spirituality Center April 20. Courtesy Brother Bob Roddy

Labyrinth designer Lisa Moriarty presents on labyrinths at Franciscan Retreats and Spirituality Center April 20. Courtesy Brother Bob Roddy

The words “labyrinth” and “maze” are often used interchangeably, but they’re not the same thing, Lisa Moriarty said, holding up paper examples of each.

A maze, she explained, is designed to trick and confuse, prompting the application of problem-solving skills.

A labyrinth, on the other hand, may look confusing, but it has only one path to the center, as winding as it may be.

“All you need to do is put one foot in front of the other and stay on the path, and you will get to the goal,” she said.

A labyrinth designer from Stillwater, Moriarty spoke to about 35 people at Franciscan Retreats and Spirituality Center in Prior Lake April 20 on “Labyrinths, Ancient Paths of Peace.” As part of the retreat center’s 50th anniversary, its leaders have commissioned Moriarty to design and install a labyrinth on its grounds in May.

Despite their contemporary appeal, labyrinths’ use in Christianity is centuries old. Catholic churches adopted the ancient art forms in the Middle Ages, and scholars theorize that they may have symbolized a person’s spiritual journey and even served as micro-pilgrimages for faithful who couldn’t venture to Jerusalem. Among the most famous is the one inlaid in the floor of Chartres cathedral in France, but others were constructed in churches in Algeria, Spain and Italy.

Although most people associate labyrinths with walkability, most of the earliest labyrinths — which predate Christ by as many as 2,000 years — were small carvings. They appeared in cultures around the world, from Russia and Egypt to Peru and Nepal. It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that they regularly became spaces in which people could move, Moriarty said.

Medieval walkable labyrinths were also used outside of Christian contexts, Moriarty explained, pointing to Swedish fishing communities where fishermen walked labyrinths for luck or to superstitiously trap trolls whom they believed could interfere with their catch.

This past and current use outside a Christian context has raised concerns among some that contemporary labyrinths are solely New Age tools. Catholic experts say that while labyrinths can be used for non-Christian purposes, their appropriateness for Christian prayer depends on the context and user’s intentions.

Contemporary research into labyrinths as prayer tools has sparked a revival of interest and construction. The Twin Cities has more public labyrinths than any other metropolitan area in the world, Moriarty said.

While Catholics aren’t more likely to commission labyrinths than other Christian denominations, several can be found in local Catholic churches — including the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, St. Patrick in Edina and St. Thomas Becket in Eagan. Others are in parks, hospitals and cemeteries. Some local schools use labyrinths to teach conflict resolution skills, Moriarty said.

A Lutheran and consociate of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, Moriarty emphasized that there’s no right way to pray in a labyrinth. Typically, a person choses an intention, prays as he or she navigates the path, and upon reaching the center, pauses for more prayer before reversing the route.

Conventual Franciscan Brother Bob Roddy, Franciscan Retreats’ director, said the graces he’s received from praying in labyrinths inspired him to commission one for the center’s retreatants.

“I’ve done it many, many times on retreats and find it just a really calming, healing kind of process,” he said. “It’s really an emptying. As you focus on just walking and whatever intention you bring in there, everything else just moves off to the side.”

The labyrinth at Franciscan Retreats will include a grassy path outlined with bricks in a spot already shaded by an arc of trees. The center is looking for about 25 volunteers to help construct it May 14.

“It will just give people another tool to enhance their prayer experience here — to calm themselves, to focus and to listen,” Brother Bob said. “We’re surrounded by so much noise . . . so finding ways where people can experience quiet and can slow themselves down is so critical.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated for clarity.

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  • Jennifer Spinler

    I highly recommend all Catholics not to use this method of prayer. The writer of the article should have done their research before writing this piece, and the editor should have researched this also. This practice is New Age and is very dangerous for your soul. See the link below as why this is dangerous for your soul. It should have no place in any Catholic setting ever.

    • Maria Wiering

      Hi Jennifer and St. Paul Catholic,

      Thank you for sharing your perspective. However, it is our policy not to include links in our comments, as we can’t control where they lead.


    • amanda sanchez


      “I used to
      believe that prayer changes things, but now I know that prayer changes us and
      we change things.” ? Mother Teresa

      Realize that your prayer
      changes you, not anything else. You’re not communicating with a god, but with

  • St. Paul Catholic

    “Beware that labyrinths have been enjoying a surge in popularity recently — but mostly among pagans and Modernist touchy-feely “Catholics” who perceive them as “mandalas,” “earth wombs,” tools for “centering prayer” “the re-integrating of ego and soul,” or tapping into “earth energies” and such nonsense. They are over-valued by those who also value “reiki,” “healing touch,” and “imaging” God as “Womyn.” They are seen by some of these types as being magical and as possessing inherent power — a power often imagined as emanating from the earth itself. I am so wary of the resurgence of popularity of labyrinths and their association with Jungian New Agers and pagans (even in “Catholic” parishes!) that I would recommend never walking a labyrinth that isn’t ancient and in a Christian holy place, or built or installed by you or other contemporary orthodox Christians who are very clear in their understanding; I recommend not supporting the “labyrinth” craze in general unless and until these nonsensical associations die.”

  • Jennifer Spinler

    Here is the link I was referring to:

  • spiritwebmaster

    Please note: Comments are welcome, however by policy we cannot allow external links as we cannot confirm their veracity in a timely manner.

    • Jennifer Spinler

      Please research this topic…this is very harmful for all people and it shouldn’t be published, especially in a Catholic newspaper.

  • Jennifer Spinler

    Here is an article from Mark D. Tooley


    Labyrinths Latest Fad for Spiritual Seekers


    An article about labyrinths which reveals its less than Christian roots and promotion by those who are less than faithful to Catholic tradition.


    Touchstone Magazine


    The Fellowship of St. James, September 2000

    It’s the latest fad in spirituality. Labyrinths, or maze-like circular walking paths intended for meditation, are appearing in hundreds of churches across the country from every denomination. Even hospitals, town squares, the Smithsonian Institution, and the US House of Representatives office building have opened their doors to the labyrinth.

    Actually, a labyrinth is not literally a maze. Mazes have many paths, with dead ends and multiple destinations. A labyrinth consists of a single winding path that leads to the center. In the current craze, the labyrinth is usually printed on a piece of canvas thrown down on the floor of a church meeting hall. But more permanent labyrinths are constructed of raised earth, granite, or wood, sometimes at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Walkers of the labyrinth move through it in a meditative state.

    Is the labyrinth inherently New Age or can orthodox Christians embrace it as an acceptable tool for prayer and meditation? The labyrinth has its origins in ancient pagan rituals, most famously at Knossos in ancient Crete, where one was located in the basement of the famous palace where the man-eating Minotaur was said to roam. The mythic hero Theseus journeyed through the labyrinth to slay the creature, which had a human body and the head of a bull. Theseus’s doubled-headed ax was called a “labrys,” hence the name. Other labyrinths in ancient cultures were tied to fertility rites and goddess worship.

    But the example most enthusiasts cite is the labyrinth embedded in the floor of the medieval Chartres Cathedral in France. There is speculation, but seemingly no firm evidence, that ancient or medieval Christians literally walked through labyrinths, at Chartres or elsewhere. Its advocates within the Christian Church today like to portray labyrinth walking as a “rediscovery” of a lost form of Christian spirituality.

    Some proponents believe that medieval Christians walked through labyrinths as a substitute for pilgrimages to the Holy Land. To support their theory, they point to the placement of labyrinths on cathedral floors as opposed to walls or ceilings.

    Labyrinths in medieval cathedrals and churches almost certainly had symbolic meaning, although documentation is scarce to nonexistent. One possibility is that the ancient Greek myth was Christianized, so that the Minotaur represented the devil, and Theseus represented the victorious Christ. Doreen Prydes, a professor of medieval history at the University of Notre Dame, says there is absolutely no evidence of labyrinth walking in the Middle Ages. She believes that Christians of that era saw the labyrinth as a symbol of redemption, not pilgrimage.

    A Big Open House

    The mother of the modern labyrinth movement is Lauren Artress, canon of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. In her public speaking, she is sometimes vague about the theological implications of the labyrinth, which she calls a “big spiritual open house.” Artress, who is also a psychotherapist, speaks more often in the lingo of Jungian psychotherapy than of traditional Christian practice. For her, the labyrinth is for the “transformation of human personality in progress” that can accomplish a “shift in consciousness as we seek spiritual maturity as a species.”

    Artress says she walked her first labyrinth at a seminar in 1991 with psychologist and mystic/channeler Jean Houston, who several years ago assisted First Lady Hillary Clinton in trying to contact the departed spirit of Eleanor Roosevelt. A subsequent visit to Chartres Cathedral, where the medieval labyrinth can still be seen in the floor, further encouraged Artress to write her 1995 book, Walking a Sacred Path: Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Tool, and to launch her national movement, based at Grace Cathedral.

    Having become canon pastor at Grace Cathedral in 1986, Artress established “Quest: Grace Cathedral Center for Spiritual Wholeness,” whose goal is to construct “understanding” between the traditional Church and “nontraditional forms of spirituality.” She calls her discovery of the labyrinth one of the “most astonishing events of my life.” For her, the labyrinth is a “spiritual tool meant to awaken us to the deep rhythm that unites us to ourselves and to the Light that calls from within.”

    Artress had earlier studied with Houston in 1985. At a 1991 “Mystery School” seminar hosted by Houston, Artress recalled that she was overcome with an “almost violent anxiety” as she stepped onto a labyrinth for the first time. Although assured by Houston that the ancient pathway would “lead each of us to our own center,” Artress said she knew immediately it would dramatically shake her life.

    In her book, unlike her public speaking, Artress does not disguise her contempt for “fundamentalism” and the “religious right,” whose “literal interpretation of the Bible . . . breeds small-mindedness and mean-spiritedness.” Its supposed emphasis on following strict rules reminds her of the “shadow of the human spirit that led to Hitler and World War II.” Artress assures readers that she identifies with the “open-minded Christian church,” but confesses plainly that this tradition has lost its spiritual force. The Church must “forge a new identity.”

    After returning from her visit to Chartres, Artress arranged for a labyrinth to be displayed at Grace Cathedral. It immediately drew thousands of San Franciscans to walk its path. Her book recounts that many spiritual seekers openly wept as they found inner healing. Others have even found physical healing from the labyrinth’s supposed power.

    The labyrinth contravenes notions about the “straight and narrow” found within Christianity, which imply that we can make mistakes. Instead, Artress tell us, the labyrinth is more forgiving and leads its followers forward in a flawless path.

    Like many modern adherents of the labyrinth, Artress emphasizes its syncretistic inclusiveness. Found historically in almost every culture, from Hopi medicine wheels to Tibetan sand paintings, the labyrinth is a tool useful to all religions and to persons with no specific religion. Its “sacred geometry is based on ancient, sacred knowledge” that is universal, Artress notes.

    From Chartres to San Francisco

    Nearly every major newspaper in the country has written at some point over the last five years about the growing popularity of labyrinth walking. And nearly every article cites its supposed roots in medieval Christianity and Chartres Cathedral. This claim is odd, because even Artress, the self-described “Johnny Appleseed” of the labyrinth movement, makes no claims, at least in her book, about early or medieval Christians walking labyrinths. Instead, Artress admits there are “no known records of anyone walking the labyrinth” at these churches, and she acknowledges that she knows of “no Christian writers or artists who directly refer to the labyrinth as a spiritual tool” in early or medieval history. But she speculates that labyrinths were perhaps a “sacred tool that no one was allowed to talk about.” Unfortunately, she writes, the historical records of Chartres Cathedral from the period when the labyrinth was constructed have been lost or destroyed.

    At first, Artress apparently had trouble persuading the officials of Chartres Cathedral to adopt her intense interest in the labyrinth. She notes that when she first “discovered” their labyrinth in the floor, it was covered by 256 chairs. She and her friends, without official approval, surreptitiously moved the chairs aside so they could take their first meditative walk through it. Afterwards, cathedral officials erected a sign warning that the labyrinth “cannot be a magical place where man pulls hidden forces from the Earth. That would be (were one to do so) a perversion of the builders/creators. For in doing so, one would substitute man in place of God.”

    Since then, cathedral officials seem to have become more open towards the labyrinth movement. Artress has conducted two programs there. Last year, the cathedral devoted a month to examination of the labyrinth, and hundreds of labyrinth walkers were invited to walk the path by candlelight. The rector at Chartres has become an honorary canon at Grace Cathedral, with Chartres reciprocating with an honorific title for Artress’s superior, Dean Alan Jones of Grace Cathedral.

    The Divine Mother

    At least initially, officials at Chartres Cathedral seemed to understand about the labyrinth movement what many US churches apparently do not. The emphasis of the labyrinth’s proponents is upon the mystical powers of the inner self, not on the transcendent God of traditional Christianity.

    Artress frequently mentions “the Source,” “the Sacred,” and “the God within,” which has been “destroyed through centuries of patriarchal domination, through fears of creativity and of the traits associated with the feminine.” Artress prefers this “Source” to the transcendent God “out there” who “keeps track of whether we follow the rules.”

    Besides cases of both emotional and physical healing found in the labyrinth, Artress cites “revelatory experiences” resulting from the walk. One friend, she reports, frequently experiences a “Hara” stream of energy beginning at her abdomen and rushing through her body.

    Artress repeats the claims of some radical feminist theologians that nine million women were burned at the stake as witches during the Middle Ages in a patriarchal attempt to suppress feminine spiritual vitality. “The old religions that embraced the connection to the natural world were destroyed,” she laments. “We lost our connection to creation. Trusting the labyrinth is one step towards reclaiming that connection,” she concludes.

    Tragically for Artress and other labyrinth enthusiasts, Yahweh remains a “stumbling block for many seekers.” This stern, jealous, male God, who is so “repugnant” to many people, is supposed to have created all of the natural order, “usurping” the role of the “Mother, the creator of life.” Artress asserts that too many Christians are afraid to liberate themselves from this tyrannical deity and to trust instead “our inner, objective experience.”

    Artress likes to quote Carl Jung about “archetypes” and Joseph Campbell about “the numinous.” She has helped Matthew Fox organize his pantheistic “planetary mass.” She also seems to be an adherent of process theology, believing that “God” is constantly unfolding into a new process and new identity, revealed through our own experiences. Like the labyrinth, this “Mother god weaves the web of creation.” The labyrinth, like the goddess, is “all-encompassing in its twists and turns, reflecting the presence of the Divine.”

    A Dubious Tapestry

    Admitting that some still find mercy in Christ, whose teachings she admits illustrate compassion, Artress also observes that Jesus as the Christ is too often not helpful because he is closely tied to the patriarchy. Instead, she summons us to the more inclusive “Father and Mother God” and “The Greening Power of God, the Holy Spirit in all Her mystery,” who is found in the “power of The Divine within.”

    “She [the Holy Spirit] weaves each of us into the tapestry of this physical life,” Artress continues. “It is this Power that will bring spiritual transformation to fruition. The labyrinth is a tool that can connect us to this Power. The creative intelligence that gave us this labyrinth understood the Mystery behind human existence.”

    Despite Artress’s contempt for their faith, no doubt some faithful Christians have walked the labyrinth that Artress has popularized. No doubt they have prayed to Christ as they turned and swiveled through the curving path, believing that they have been drawn closer to the Lord by the experience. It should be acknowledged that there is historical precedent for the transformation of pagan symbols into instruments for Christian worship.

    But Christians who walk the labyrinth should know there is little if any proof in church history that labyrinth walking has been a spiritual tool for Christians. More important, they should know that its current popularizers see the labyrinth’s spiritually amorphous path more as a partial replacement for the transcendent God of Christianity than as a tool to bring followers closer to him.

    Correspondent Mark Tooley directs the United Methodist committee of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C.

    Copyright © 2000. The Fellowship of St. James.

  • Jennifer Spinler

    Also an answer from Susan Brinkmann contributer to the Women of Grace blog and expert in this subject:

    Should you walk the labyrinth?
    Posted on January 28, 2010 by SBrinkmann
    SA writes: “I was told that the Catholic Church does not approve of the use of labryinths for prayer. Yet I see so many priests and nuns engaged in and teaching this type of practice. When I tell other Catholics this is not a Catholic practice, but New Age, they say it is nobody’s business how they choose to pray. I have found confusing data regarding this matter. Would you please enlighten me?”

    “The modern labyrinth movement is a troubling New Age trend that is introducing people to a non-Christian belief system that has no place in a Catholic setting.

    For those who don’t know, a labyrinth is a circular maze with eleven concentric circles and a single path which makes 28 loops – seven in each of the four quadrants of the circle. People walk the path as a spiritual device to meditate, relax, or “find their soul assignments” as New Agers like to say.

    The origin of the labyrinth comes from King Minos of Greek mythology who created the first maze as a prison for a wayward minotaur. It has been used ever since as a religious symbol and spiritual tool by a variety of pagan cultures such as the Mayans, Celts, and Native Americans.

    The first “Christian” labyrinth appeared in a fourth-century Basilica in Orleansville, Algeria, which contained the words “Sancta Eclesia,” indicating its use for religious purposes. The most famous example can be found at the Cathedral of Chartres in France, which was constructed in the thirteenth century and allegedly used by Christians as a substitute for going on pilgrimage to Jerusalem during the Crusades.

    However, the labyrinths in use today are not even remotely associated with these Christian labyrinths. Today’s version was popularized by an Episcopalian canon and New Age devotee named Lauren Artress who describes walking a labyrinth as a “way to find healing, self-knowledge and our soul assignments and to continue weaving the Web of Creation.”

    In her writings about the labyrinth, Artress reveals her feminist disdain for the God of the Bible. Instead, she refers to “the Source,” “the Sacred,” and “the God within,” which she claims has been “destroyed through centuries of patriarchal domination, through fears of creativity and of the traits associated with the feminine.” Artress says she prefers this “Source” to the transcendent God “out there” who “keeps track of whether we follow the rules.”

    She also says that Jesus as the Christ is too often not helpful because he is closely tied to the patriarchy. Instead, she calls people to the more inclusive “Father and Mother God” and “The Greening Power of God, the Holy Spirit in all Her mystery,” who is found in the “power of The Divine within.”

    Artress openly admits that neopagan journalist and Wiccan priestess, Margot Adler (author of Drawing Down the Moon) and New Ager Jean Houston, one of the founders of the Human Potential Movement, influenced her modern labyrinth movement.

    Such a firm New Age foundation certainly explains why the emphasis for labyrinth walkers is always upon the self rather than on God.

    Knowing the belief system of the creator of the modern labyrinth movement hardly makes this so-called “meditation tool” very appealing to Christians. But this doesn’t stop retreat centers in need of the Christian market from presenting the labyrinth in ways that will appeal to them.

    For instance, some try to “Christianize” it by using terms associated with the Christian mystical tradition although the meanings are radically different (something that is never explained to the walker!).

    For instance, the three stages of a typical labyrinth walk are referred to as the purgation, illumination and unitive stages, all of which have meaning in the Catholic mystical tradition. But purgation doesn’t mean turning away from sin and embracing the gospel as it does in Christianity; it means “letting go of the details of your life.” Illumination means to “receive what is there for you to receive” rather than the Catholic concept of illumination which is a new closeness to God after a deeper conversion. The unitive stage in labyrinth language is when one “is joining God, your Higher Power, or the healing forces at work in the world” not achieving transforming union with God as is taught in the Catholic tradition.

    Other retreat centers simply present their labyrinths to the faithful in terms so nebulous no one can figure out what it is, such as this snippet from a retreat center’s website: “When you stand at the threshold of the labyrinth, you stand at the threshold of your own consciousness, ready to step from the exterior to your own interior space, that interior space being represented by the labyrinth.”

    Labyrinths are also used in a variety of pagan rituals, many of which can do serious harm to the soul. For example, after publishing an article about the labyrinth in our diocesan newspaper, I got a phone call from a woman whose son had begun to run with a crowd of young men who were all wearing a strange symbol on a chain around their necks. Ever since he began running with this crowd, he stopped going to church and no longer believed in God. It was not until she opened the paper and saw the picture that we ran along with the article that she recognized the symbol her son was wearing – a labyrinth!

    The labyrinth might be the hip thing to do at retreat centers these days, but one hardly needs to rely on such a devious device to find God, meditate, or make sense out of life.

    There is much more to be said about the labyrinth which is why we have published a booklet about it in our Learn to Discern: Is it Christian or New Age series.”