by Kimberly Lowelle Saward
The labyrinth is an ancient symbol that is currently enjoying renewed popularity in modern times. I first encountered the labyrinth in 1995 when I visited Grace Cathedral in San Francisco with a friend who had offered to introduce me to both the labyrinth and to the cathedral in which the walkable labyrinth dominates the floor of the nave. Seeing the labyrinth for the first time, splashed in dappled color as sunlight poured through the cathedral’s stained glass windows, set fire to my soul. Torn between my impulse to move directly onto the spiraling paths and my deeply felt desire to drop to the floor so that I could watch as others walked, I surrendered to my body’s call to participate, first walking, then watching. My experience was of a felt sense of recognition and familiarity, of being held, of having found safety in the midst of a difficult time in my life.
Over the course of that morning, I did what many have done before me; I both walked and watched, I participated and I witnessed, and in doing so felt the direction of my life shift subtly yet perceptibly from an attitude of shutting down to one of opening and flowering. I no longer remember the specific content of the unbidden prayers that flowed so freely and unexpectedly that morning, but the sense of safe containment and colorful flowering within the labyrinth was burned indelibly into my psyche and soul.
I returned to the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral as often as I could, sometimes alone, sometimes as a guide to others, but most frequently and notably in company with fellow students Laura Lopez and Lea Goode-Harris. Together the three of us traveled to San Francisco every second Saturday morning, a practice we continued for nearly two years, walking and watching together. The regularity of these pilgrimages served many functions as we deepened in our relationships with the labyrinth, with each other, and with the research skills we were seeking to develop. This small group provided me with a strong community to witness and reflect the early stages of the transformation I was experiencing.
In the autumn of 1999, still practicing the basic lesson of the labyrinth, that of taking one step at a time and taking each turn as it comes, I attended what I thought would be a labyrinth conference, but which turned out to be the founding circle of what is now a thriving international organization, The Labyrinth Society. Elected by the Society to serve on its Board of Directors, I was transitioning, almost without knowing it, into a new relationship with the labyrinth and a new and exciting direction in my own life. Six months later I responded to an unexplainable and irresistible, though seemingly impossible, inner call to visit the historic labyrinths of England and France. Despite having a heavy work schedule and no spare money, circumstances lined up to allow me to make a month-long pilgrimage, during which, nearly coincidentally, I connected with British labyrinth historian and expert Jeff Saward, who in his gracious way not only set the tone for my travels, but won my heart in the process.
Returning from a month of sacred pilgrimage, intense introspection, and international adventure to resume the demands of a chaotic household and a busy professional life was not easily accomplished. I felt as though my soul had somehow not returned home with me, and I plunged into a depressive longing for something I could not yet name. My soul had stepped across a threshold while my physical reality was still anchored in old commitments and responsibilities—but my path was unfolding rapidly before me.
Casual international telephone conversations with Jeff led quickly to ever-intensifying e-mails and an exciting, though exhausting, travel schedule as our relationship deepened and I walked for a while with one foot in each world. I recognized the familiarity of the symbolic twists and turns of my life path; the labyrinthine pattern I had walked so often as lines drawn out on the ground had mysteriously and metaphorically expanded to guide me through a life transition that can only be described as monumental. The imagery that was evoked so abundantly as I had developed my personal practice of labyrinth walking manifested now as synchronicities and signs to guide my choices and decisions as I entered a new and uncharted territory. My uprooting from one way of life to another was as complete as humanly possible, with every aspect of my old identity stripped. I was in a new relationship with someone who lived eight time zones away, and labyrinths were taking on a heightened prominence in my life as I began traveling throughout Europe and the United States with my new partner, a man who is widely reputed to know more about labyrinths than anyone else in the world.
In a breathtakingly fast turn of events during one of my visits to England, we realized on a rainy Sunday afternoon in February 2000 that our hearts were calling us to make our home in Britain rather than the United States. By the end of that week I had returned home, and the northern California house in which I had lived for 22 years was officially in escrow. Three months later, with my home sold, my household dismantled, job resignations tendered, and goodbyes said, I emigrated to England in order to marry Jeff and to build a new life in which our days revolve both personally and professionally around the labyrinth.
I tell this story to illustrate the effect of implementing the labyrinth’s basic lesson in life, moving along one’s own unfolding path by simply continuing to put one foot in front of the other in order to successfully navigate the twists and turns of the journey one step at a time. The direction of the path is not the transformation of which I write, however, no matter how dramatic the story may be. The transformation I am addressing is the inner movement towards personal growth and individuation that is reflected in the qualities with which one takes those steps. Anyone can keep walking; transformation means to experience a thorough or dramatic change in form, appearance, character, etc., and implies the process of being metaphorically or psychologically reshaped. It refers, in other words, not to the reshaping of one’s external circumstances, but to the reshaping of one’s internal response to those external events.
In my personal story, I consider the evidence of transformation to be not the dramatic international move with all its personal, cultural, spiritual, and psychological implications, but rather the courage and the faith both in myself and in something larger of which I am a part, that were required for that move. This transformation was rooted in and nourished by my practice of labyrinth walking. I was, in effect, leaving all that was familiar in order to walk into the unknown as it was manifesting in my life and to dance with Mystery. The imagery that has been and continues to be evoked during my interactions with the labyrinth has both anchored and inspired my process. When I need to slake my psycho-spiritual thirst, I go to the well which is the labyrinth, where I consider imagery to be the vital water served up from the depths of the unconscious, personal and collective, to nourish my soul and guide my next steps.
My involvement with the labyrinth was no longer solely personal. In moving to England and assuming the position of Associate Editor of Caerdroia—the Journal of Mazes and Labyrinths, my horizons broadened beyond the labyrinth’s current role as a psycho-spiritual tool, and I began to study it from an historical perspective. In doing so, I came to understand that the symbol has a very long and complex history that is not always well known or accurately reflected by modern spiritual seekers. Many of the most popular stories about the ancient labyrinths and the people who built and used them are riddled with error and misinformation.¹ Indeed, much of my own understanding of the symbol’s history turned out to be highly romanticized, and I found myself in a deep struggle as I tried to reconcile the imaginative stories that had first caught my attention with the historical data I was now responsible for collecting and publishing. I did not want to perpetuate false notions, no matter how much they appealed to my own sentimentality and imagination. Nevertheless, my inner experience of rich imagery and the transformational impact of labyrinth walking on my life and my soul were undeniable. I wanted to continue to take my imaginative experience seriously, even though I was learning I could not always take it literally.²
Meanwhile, the deeper I took my study of the labyrinth, the more complex and convoluted the subject seemed and the more convinced I became of the labyrinth’s function as a multidimensional symbol, weaving image and emotion with a very real and documentable history. My study led me through diverse disciplines, including history, archaeology, religion, anthropology, sociology, horticulture, textile arts, classical mythology, mathematics, and astronomy, to name but a few. While my husband’s fascination lay with the history and archaeology, my fascination lay with the stories of the people, ancient and modern, whose imaginations, like my own, had been fired by this enigmatic symbol.
Our work together bridges these interests; we travel extensively, lecture, lead tours to sacred sites, write for various projects, and generally go wherever the labyrinth takes us. I received my PhD in Psychology from the Institute of Imaginal Studies (now Meridian University) in 2003, where I conducted my dissertation study into the transformative effects of labyrinth walking. I subsequently published Ariadne’s Thread: Legends of the Labyrinth in 2006, documenting labyrinth folklore and traditions found around the world, My work with the Labyrinth Society led me to serve as its president for 5 years from 2003-2008, and I now coordinate a Facebook page for the labyrinth community here in Britain. Currently I am researching and writing about the labyrinth symbol as a spot motif in needlework samplers. My research grows out of my love and respect for the labyrinth and my deep study of it, both in an historical context and in consideration of the psychological and cultural impact of the current revival of labyrinth interest, enthusiasm, and use. As co-director of Labyrinthos, a labyrinth resource center, publishing house, and archive, I have the opportunity to witness this enthusiasm and to study the spate of publications and correspondence that is the inevitable result of applying the benefits of modern technology to the current wave of enthusiasm.
Labyrinths are not my only interest, of course; I work with symbols through dreamwork and divination, and seek to build community locally by teaching knitting and beadweaving, and internationally by managing and writing for several social media sites. Along with my labyrinth writing, I am currently working on two other projects, one the story of an adoption triangle and the other an exploration of vintage charms and their owners. Primarily, I am a pilgrim at heart; whether I am following the labyrinth’s path or pursuing the threads of my many interests, I am seeking both the path and the thread of divine connection.
- Jeff Saward and Kimberly Lowelle Saward, “Is That a Fact?,” Caerdroia – the Journal of Mazes & Labyrinths 33 (2003): 14-28.
- The idea of “a midrealm where imagination is taken seriously though not literally” comes from Thomas Moore who managed to express so eloquently what I had been feeling for so long. Thomas Moore, The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), xix.
My Labyrinth Journey is excerpted and adapted from my doctoral dissertation, Ariadne’s Thread: The Transformative Practice of Labyrinth Walking, 2003.
© Kimberly Lowelle Saward