Dr. Kathryn Barush is Thomas E. Bertelsen Jr. Associate Professor of Art History and Religion and GTU Core Doctoral Faculty
Labyrinths, whether made of stone, turf, or ink on paper, tend to be “thin places”, a concept originating through Celtic traditions. The phrase is used to describe sacred places where the time and distance between this world and the next seems to dissolve; spaces that invite encounter and connection. The ancient practice of tracing a labyrinth can help us find a moment of peace and solace in times of mourning, difficulty, and crisis.
The memory of the winding labyrinth paths I have negotiated in different places and at pivotal points in my life allow for reflections on past and future, as if an older version of myself has joined in communitas, crossing temporal boundaries through the augury of the ancient form. There were the miniature finger labyrinths with shallow paths carved into wood mounted on the wall at the progressive public high school I attended in Vermont, made by the students in a senior-year philosophy elective (where I first learned what a “paradigm shift” is!). There is the stone labyrinth in the little California beach town of Bolinas at high summer where the hot sun cuts through the ocean wind (I have walked that one with three generations of women in my family). Then there is the time that I stood, feet planted slightly apart and hands clasped behind me, right in the very center of the Chartres Cathedral pavement labyrinth while heavily pregnant with my daughter. I was on the return journey from Santiago de Compostela as she somersaulted in utero on a journey of her own, leading me to contemplate the liminal stages and passages of life and their relationship to the mysterious medieval paths before me, in both the stones of the cathedral and then onward. My aching feet and body led my mind to reflect on whether these paths were interchangeable--would they lead to the same revelations?
The ancient practice of tracing a labyrinth can help us find a moment of peace and solace in times of mourning, difficulty, and crisis.
Some have posited that labyrinths originated as scaled-down pilgrimages for those unable to travel the long distance to a holy place. As we have faced the COVID-19 pandemic as a community, many have been called to practice self-isolation and “social distancing” to limit the spread of this virus. For those of us who are restless wanderers, travelers, and pilgrims, it has been a challenging adjustment. Even traveling to the little labyrinth in Bolinas, which has brought me so much joy, could put the community in peril as there is no way to maintain six feet of distance while passing others on the narrow path.
One way to engage in “pilgrimage-in-place,” as my friend Annie O’Neil has called it, is by following a labyrinth with the eyes, the fingers, or even a paint brush. Pilgrimage through making or engaging with sacred art is a practice that crosses cultural and temporal boundaries. It is a form of prayer and contemplation in many cultures including Celtic Christianity, the Dharma religions, and earth-based spirituality. The interlaced knotwork of an illuminated manuscript like the books of Kells and Durrow, the sacred geometric matrices of a painted mandala, or the incised circles on ancient stones are an invitation to an outward journey of the eye that creates a channel to the innermost soul.
As we shelter-in-place, these old and winding pathways can be a holy place of solace; a pilgrimage on paper.
Labyrinths are distinct from mazes or traps. When walking or tracing a labyrinth, we follow a circuitous path to the center and back out again, often emerging a little wiser or at least a little less stressed. That center place (which one long-time California labyrinth maker, Thomas Nann, described to me as a center-peace) invites a moment of rest. In a form of prayer said to have originated in the ancient Celtic corners of the world, the pilgrim calls out, ‘Circle me O God’ and envisions a sanctuary space of love and protection. The inner circle of the labyrinth nested within the outward rings can be thought of as engendering this idea. Even as we shelter-in-place, these old and winding pathways can be a holy place of solace; a pilgrimage on paper.
We invite you to view Dr. Barush's video at the bottom of this page or clicking here.
Labyrinths for printing and painting from the Labyrinth Society (like the one that Electra is coloring): https://labyrinthsociety.org/download-a-labyrinth
A resource from Veriditas, the Labyrinth Movement…guided finger labyrinth walks and meditations that you can do at home through the month of April: https://veriditas.org
‘In this difficult and uncertain time, while many of us are under a "shelter in place" order, we invite you to join us for an online Finger Labyrinth Walk and Meditation every Friday at 4:00 pm pacific in April. Let's come together as the labyrinth community and send our healing energy out to the world.’
Mandala Base, early 1400s. China, Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Cloisonné enamel; diameter: 30.8 cm (12 1/8 in.). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund 1987.58
A ritual object of Tibetan Buddhism, this cloisonné disc is used as the base for a three-dimensional mandala composed of miniature buildings. The decoration includes the lotus flowers and the Eight Buddhist Treasures: the wheel, the conch, the umbrella, the canopy, the lotus, the paired fish, the vase, and the endless knot.
Huntington, John C., Dina Bangdel, and Robert A. F. Thurman. The Circle of Bliss: Buddhist Meditational Art. Chicago: Serindia Publications, 2003.
Twenty-three Deity Nairatma Mandala, c. 1375. Central Tibet, Sakya-affiliated monastery, 14th century. Opaque watercolor, gold, and ink on cloth; overall: 82.5 x 72.4 cm (32 1/2 x 28 1/2 in.). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund 1993.4
One of the main types of imagery in tantric Buddhist art is the mandala, a two-dimensional diagram of the realm of an enlightened being. This mandala depicts the palace of Vajradakini, who dances in the center surrounded by her entourage. Using the painting as a guide, the tantric practitioner in meditation mentally projects the two-dimensional plan into three-dimensional space and enters into it. (https://www.clevelandart.org/art/1993.4)
The Book of Durrow f.85v (detail), Late 7th Century
From the collection of the Library of Trinity College Dublin
Annie’s shelter-in-place front yard labyrinth
Electra & I in the center of a labyrinth, thinking about how we can share the joy on our outward journey
Painted labyrinth based on the medieval pavement labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral, France