Sunday, 6 October 2013

Into the Labyrinth

"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. 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." (Grace Cathedral Booklet))

"I cannot name all that is happening with the labyrinth. However, I know that it is having a profound, yet invisible effect on the transformation of human consciousness both in the individual and the groups of people walking it together." (Reverend Lauren Artress, The Voice of the Labyrinth Movement)

One of the most intriguingly different events in St Brelade's Festival of Spirituality was the beach labyrinth. It was built out of sand by two Cornishmen, Dave Legumi and Andrew Nicholson who had been doing making these designs in the South West of England, and had been invited by the Festival Organiser, Brian Clarke, to come to Jersey and be part of it.

Where it differed from other festival events was that it brought the festival to a wide, open, public space. There is not much space more open and public than St Brelade's Bay, and this was constructed just below Midbay, in easy access for members of the public.

It took a lot of hard work to make. It was not roughly done like a giant sand castle, but neither was it a work of art like sand sculpture. It was a carefully designed path though short walls of sand to the centre and back again. Here is Andrew describing it being built:

"It didn't look too promising at first the next morning as we saw the area of beach just down from St Brelade's Church -it was right at the far corner of the beach, where very few people would be able to see it and was totally waterlogged! Thankfully, Jo (who did a fantastic job of looking after us) managed to get permission for us to build it right in the middle of the beach, overlooked by the promenade, which was ideal. We had a few helpers from the local hostel that the church runs, to help dig with us. Then I realised I had left all of the info sheets and the flag back at the hotel! (er, Jo, help! Thanks!) The sand was really compact and water kept seeping up, and at one point we seemed to be getting nowhere. I genuinely wondered if this was possible. But we persevered, and eventually it began to take shape, and after a good couple of hours we were done (in!)."

And it drew in people. The idea was to walk slowly to the centre carrying with you a token piece of rubbish, either from the beach, or one given to you, and to place it in the centre and choose and collect a stone to take back with you. It seems so simple, but it is a symbolic act. As flesh and blood human beings, body and mind are inextricably linked, and the taking and laying down a burden and taking back a gift are symbolised by these actions.

But there is more than describing it from the outside. There is a distinction C.S. Lewis makes in a short piece called "Meditation in a Toolshed" about the difference between looking at, and looking along, and he notes that "You get one experience of a thing when you look along it and another when you look at it"

The same applied to the labyrinth on the beach. People got far more out of participating in the experience than by looking at the mechanics of what you needed to do. You needed to be "inside" the experience to understand it. There is a mythic dimension to life, which cannot be fully put into rational forms, and it is in the balance between logos and mythos that we find out true selves.  As the Reverend Lauren Artress said, when she opened a replica of the 13th century labyrinth of Chartres Cathedral:

"The labyrinth provides a sacred space where the inner and outer world can commune, where the thinking mind and the imaginative heart flow together... a space to listen to our inner voice of wisdom". She goes on to speak of the experience of walking the labyrinth in the following manner: "Walking the labyrinth is a spiritual discipline that invites us to trust the path, to surrender to the many turns our lives take, and to walk through the confusion, the fear, the anger, the grief that we cannot avoid experiencing as we live our earthly lives. The labyrinth is a place where we can open ourselves to the Holy Spirit. We can ask for guidance and pray for ourselves and our loved ones "

Certainly the labyrinth in St Brelade's Bay opened the lives of the people who visited it, and so much that many stayed and talked and shared their experiences with the builders, who were there on the beach to explain the concept. It is something very much lacking in the modern world, with all its rush and fast pace that often leaves no time. But as Andrew Nicholson noted:

"It was very slow indeed initially, I wondered if we would get anyone, but the sun came out and people started to appear. A polo match was also taking place on the beach which drew in a crowd and added to the passers by. The afternoon turned into something very special. People came over to walk it and I was struck by how carefully people took part. We had some great conversations with people who made time to talk. One lady said she felt released of her problems and had let them go, another said she felt "a little lighter". Dave prayed with someone who felt that God had called her to do this after hearing about it on the radio. Someone came back the next morning to tell us she felt wonderful," like a great weight had been lifted from me". In the end 67 people had walked it, when I wondered if we would get 5! but it was the depth of conversations and comments that was really special."

And because of the tidal reach, the labyrinth on the beach had an extra dimension; each day it would be washed away by the tide, and each day it needed to be made anew. It was almost as if it was washing the burdens that people had placed there. We may not forge as many chains as Scrooge and Marley, but we still forge our own chains and become bound by them.

This labyrinth was an opportunity for letting go, and it could be undertaken by people from many walks of life. You take away what you bring to this kind of experience, and you don't need to be specifically religious or Christian to do so. A friend of mine who is a modern druid found it also spoke very much to her. She wrote:

"The idea of your wishes or burdens being absolved and dispersed by the Sea Goddess then re-built the next day is meaningful and relevant..We had a good chat the men running it, nice people."

Andrew Nicholson noted on the final day,

"Very misty first thing, but it cleared up through the morning to leave us with a glorious sunny and very warm afternoon - summer had returned! Digging this was a real challenge. The guys from the hostel couldn't make it, so it was just me and Dave digging. The tide had not long turned to go out, so the sand was very heavy. We built it as near to the promenade wall as we could, but even then, as soon as we dug down, water just seeped up through - challenging! Eventually, after a lot of bailing out and digging irrigation channels to drain the water, we got there."

When I walked along it, I was struck by how even the younger children drawn to it walked slowly, at a measured pace. It was as if people knew, by an inner intuition, whatever their ages, that this sand had been marked out as special, as sacred, and elicited the appropriate response to that. The legend of Moses and the burning bush is like that; the burning bush is a symbol marking aside the ordinary as made holy, and here the sand remained just sand, but the pattern spoke to people.

"We had a few folks from the church come down to walk it which was great, but what struck me was how carefully almost everyone walked the labyrinth during the day, whether they had a church background, or none at all. It really felt like Holy ground."

And there were more tales to tell of people who came and how their lives were touched by walking along the labyrinth, of whatever background.

"We had an amazing conversation with one lady who was moved to tears at the centre. She was on holiday and her elderly father was supposed to have come too, but he had a fall, and was unable to come. She walked it a second time and said "This has been a complete inspiration for me". She took a stone to give to her father when she got back. She only heard about it by picking up one of the flyers at the hotel she was staying at, because someone who had walked it on the Saturday was staying at the same place and took some flyers with her! Then we had a couple who walked it with the man saying to us afterwards "I feel freed". An 86 year old lady walked it and found at the centre she was overwhelmed with a sense of thankfulness for her good health."

Andrew Nicholson summed up what he and Dave had observed and experienced with this poem, and I think it is fitting to end this piece.

Sacred shapes in the sand meander
I watch a procession of slow, purposeful footsteps
The litter of life gathers
Assembled problems abandoned
Hope filters through the flotsam
A symbol of pain transformed
Tears are spilt
Heavy hearts begin to heal
Stones are grabbed, held tightly
Amidst the chaos of our condition
A path of simplicity emerges
And through the mist the sunshine blazes

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