Until a few years ago, I only knew labyrinths from my high school studies of Greek mythology. King Minos of Crete built an elaborate labyrinth to keep the frightful Minotaur at bay. But when I went on my first pilgrimage with the youth from my church, I learned that the practice of walking a labyrinth while saying a breath prayer was alive and well today–and, in fact, that it had been a part of the Christian tradition for centuries.
(An aside–did you ever read J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey? If all you know of Salinger is Catcher in the Rye, I implore you to read his short stories about the fictional Glass family of New York, circa 1955. In the story, Franny is obsessed with a book called The Way of the Pilgrim in which the main character, a Russian peasant, practices prayer without ceasing–that is, he has a breath prayer that he says to himself at all times…with every inhale and exhale. Franny tries to emulate this practice and, in the process, gives herself a nervous breakdown.)
One of the highlights of my recent journey to Paris was a day trip to the Medieval town of Chartres and its famous cathedral.
The cathedral was built in the 1200s and its stained glass is some of Europe’s finest.
But what really sets this cathedral apart is its labyrinth–an elaborate, circular path that’s only available for walking a days during the year. Happily, that coincided with our visit there.
The day we were there, the cathedral had quite a few visitors–many bearing the familiar backpack of the modern-day pilgrims, some with the shells that signify those who have walked Spain’s Compostela route. After wandering though the cathedral for a while, I started in on the labyrinth, trying to concentrate on matching my pace with my breath prayer.
But there was a problem–an unpleasant-looking woman was speed walking her way through the maze.
Squeak. Every time she pivoted, her tennis shoes made a disagreeable sound. She was going as fast as she could, passing people who were in her way. Determined to set a record for how fast she could walk the famed labyrinth at Chartres. No doubt she was on one of those “17 countries in 14 days” types of package tours–speed walking her way through Europe without seeing a single thing on the way.
Done properly, this labyrinth takes about 30 minutes. I doubt she took 10. But at least she was gone soon and I could finally find my own rhythm without being distracted by her squeaky shoes.
(Pictures courtesy on my traveling companion J9. Follow her on Instagram at j9win)