by Kimberly Lowelle Saward
Some years ago when I was very new to the labyrinth and its eclectic community of enthusiasts, I heard a wise woman say something that has profoundly impacted my life ever since. She spoke of differing relationships to the labyrinth, and suggested that people can often be categorized as labyrinth builders, labyrinth tenders, or labyrinth connectors¹. As my own position within this global community has deepened, I’ve reflected on this many, many times, and have found it to be a good foundation for a useful perspective.
Since marrying my husband, labyrinth historian Jeff Saward, we have built our lives around the labyrinth symbol, and throughout our travels and work, I have seen firsthand the differing relationships people have with the labyrinth symbol, and have, above all, come to associate the word diversity with the labyrinth. It has taken me a long time to define my own relationship with the labyrinth. I’ve known all along that I am not a labyrinth builder…. I understand the basic structure, but the intricacies of their geometric proportions challenge me. As I have the privilege of sharing my office and life with someone who does, however, I know labyrinth design to be both an art and a skill.
Nor am I a labyrinth tender. Too many labyrinths are outside in bug-land, where I become an immediate target… and I simply don’t enjoy gardening. Nor do I see my path in the world as one who takes a canvas labyrinth around to hold labyrinth walks to share the joys of my passion. I am a people person, a community-builder, in a way that rises from the depths of my soul – a labyrinth connector. And as a labyrinth connector, I have been privileged to not only visit many labyrinths around the world, but to be welcomed into their communities. As such, I’ve learned few things…
Labyrinths are archetypal symbols that refuse to be pigeon-holed. The symbol has been carried around the world in an adopt-and-adapt fashion, as the word spreads far and wide by people sharing their enthusiasm and interest with others, who take the idea back to their own communities, then apply local traditions and use local materials to create labyrinths unique to their settings. Creativity is, and perhaps always has been, a hallmark. A study of labyrinth history and development quickly shows that the symbol has evolved steadily and continually, while still maintaining a recognizable base element.
For me, the delight in this is coming to appreciate the differences as well as the similarities in labyrinth designs, examples, and customs. It can be so easy to believe that our way is the right way, but that attitude is at odds with the flowing meander that rests at the very heart of the labyrinth symbol. Labyrinth philosophy can become as fundamentalist as religious beliefs.
Perhaps there are as many ways of walking labyrinth as there labyrinths. In my idealistic mind, I like to think that there should be few rules, but an incident in Mumbai, India, quickly taught me the importance of respecting local customs, and allowing them the rules that have arisen from local experience. We had helped to build a stone labyrinth in the grounds of an ancient Devi temple, a great privilege. Working with the local community was a wonderful experience of cultural exchange and good-natured international camaraderie. One of the leaders asked for a committee to be formed to make the Rules for the Labyrinth. With my typical abstractedness, I said something to the effect that labyrinths didn’t really need formal rules. Oh no, I was assured, we need rules to post outside the labyrinth. Who was I to argue? So we started making a set of rules that would augment the existing rules governing visits to the little temple itself, which included admonitions not to gossip or play cards while in the temple precinct. I had no argument with the suggestion that mantras could be chanted silently while walking, and we agreed that people could pass others with respect, and that organized groups might chant or sing aloud while on the labyrinth… I was okay with it all, until they hit Rule #5: No walking the labyrinth at night. This on a very hot day where I had been looking forward to the cooler air of twilight. I argued that nighttime labyrinth walks could be very lovely…. which they can. But I was quickly silenced by their rebuttal that at night we would have to watch out for snakes, crocodiles, and leopards. Hmmmm… Note to self: Ignore local rules at your peril!
While that is perhaps an extreme example, I think the same principle holds true at more subtle levels. We need to trust — and respect — our local labyrinth tenders to make the rules for their labyrinths. We may not like them, but we need to consider ourselves as guests. We can make ourselves welcome by being courteous and respectful, or embarrass ourselves by demanding to inflict our beliefs and practices onto someone else’s labyrinth. It’s our choice.
More recently I’ve seen similar things closer to home, where local hosts have struggled to impress the significance of their practices and traditions onto visitors who hadn’t been expecting to be asked to do things any differently than they would at home. Spiritual experiences come in all shapes and sizes. Appreciating the setting and context for a labyrinth cannot be underestimated, and adapting one’s practice can significantly enhance one’s experience as well as one’s welcome.
In France, for instance, it is considered very impolite to take your shoes off in a cathedral, which is, of course, the house of God. Walking the labyrinth in Chartres with bare feet, therefore, can cause offense. In Scandinavia, where many of the labyrinths are located in coastal settings, it is believed that if you walk to the center of a labyrinth, you must run out as fast as possible, in hopes that you will leave the smâgubbar (little people) who cause bad luck and misfortune trapped inside where they will be unable to do you damage.
Some years ago, we took a group of American women to visit our ‘local’ labyrinth, the famous 17th century turf labyrinth on the Saffron Walden common, about an hour away from our home. The labyrinth is much loved and well used by local residents. On this occasion there was a circus tent set up nearby, and strains of lively music accompanied our labyrinth walk. The music crescendoed to an obvious climax, at which point the tent flaps opened and children poured out…. some of whom raced straight to the labyrinth where our friends were walking sedately and reverently, prayer shawls around their shoulders. Watching from the side, I witnessed an amazing and impressive flexibility when these middle-aged women instantly and wordlessly transformed their shawls into colourful props for scarf dances and races with the exuberant children. That, I thought to myself, is truly spirituality in action…. While our friends might not have had the experience they expected, I think I can safely say that a good time was had by all!
Living as I do, a California born-and-bred woman relocated to an English village, I’ve had to learn my way is not the only way, that local traditions are deeply important to people, and that cultural differences are what give colour and personality to communities. I’m slowly learning to listen first, without rushing to impose my own opinions. For me, that has necessarily included everything from word pronunciation to unfamiliar food combinations, but I would suggest that as members of a world-wide labyrinth community, we might want to develop a similar sensitivity as we visit labyrinths far and wide. The concept of the labyrinth has been successfully adapted as it has made its way around the world, so perhaps we as enthusiasts can follow its example as we meander the tourist trails, visiting labyrinths as we go. The dialogue we crave cannot happen until a groundwork of mutual respect is achieved, a respect we model as we value the various cultural, spiritual, and historical contexts in which the labyrinth finds a place.
As Rumi said,
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
There is a field. I’ll meet you there.
- Toby Evans wrote a letter that went out to a small group of friends sometime in early 1999, with information describing these different relationships and responsibilities to the labyrinth. None of us can find the original letter, but I remember the words…. and want to give credit where credit is due. Over the years, Toby Evans has become a dear friend and treasured mentor.
I’ll Meet You There first appeared in Labyrinth Pathway 5, September 2011, Labyrinthos. © Kimberly Lowelle Saward