The Labyrinth at Chartres

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.

Step.

Step.

Step.

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)

8 Comments

Filed under Travel

8 responses to “The Labyrinth at Chartres

  1. Franny and Zooey. was a favorite so many years ago – reminds me that i could re-read that one…

    i’ll NEVER understand the speedwalker types. But as you say, they are usually out of our way pretty quickly.

  2. J9

    Walking the labyrinth at the Chartres Cathedral was such a moving experience – and also one of my highlights. I’d recommend a visit to this quaint city to anyone travelling to Paris.

  3. Julie

    Well, there you go. . .a fabulous reason to go back to France. I’ve been to Chartres, but I totally missed the labyrinth. The thing that stands out in my memory of Chartres was actually a bit of grafitti on a side door there. It just said “oui”.

  4. daisy is right. F & Z is due for a reread. Thanks for the reminder.

    There’s a labyrinth painted into the pavement at Union Square park on 16th and Park Ave. It’s impossible to walk properly because of all the pedestrians cutting across it.

  5. We are contemplating a labyrinth at our church. A wonderful way to practice spirituality. I’m sorry your squeaky friend sped through her chance to practice. – Chris

  6. ooooooooooo Labyrinth!

  7. Two things: (a) What I remember of F&Z is one of them (the boy – Z?) lying in the bath and reading (letters?) … seemingly on his way to a breakdown too? (b) I walked a labyrinth in Santa Fe, New Mexico .. I had no idea it was a common thing! X

  8. i meant to comment when I read this after you posted it … i’m smiling … thinking about our journeys … Chartes was such a profound place. I’m ready to go back to france … when you taking me :)

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