“Symbols, like metaphors, carry meaning between spirit and matter.” Dr. Lauren Artress, The Path of the Holy Fool, p. 25.
“Metaphor yokes matter and spirit together without bloodshed.” Marion Woodman, The Ravaged Bridegroom, p. 24
Back in the mid-nineties five women and I launched a group we called The Matrix. Its purpose was to address what is valuable in the lives of women. For ten years we invited noted authors, speakers, and spiritual leaders like Dawna Markova, Margaret Wheatley, and Luisah Teish to present weekend workshops in Central Florida. We also worked with charitable organizations and launched several interest groups. A few of them are still meeting today.
One of our projects involved working with a female Methodist minister, a female Episcopal priest, a Catholic priest, and a few other spiritual leaders to purchase and bring a 36-square foot canvas Chartres Cathedral-style eleven circuit labyrinth to Central Florida. After we painted the path to distinguish it from the in-between spaces, we held a weekend “Walking the Labyrinth” retreat at a nearby Catholic retreat center.
Last month a dear friend gifted me with a new book written by the Reverend Dr. Lauren Artress, one of the originators of the Labyrinth Movement which began in 1991. I’ve only finished the Introduction and Chapter One, but I’m hooked. During her 30 years of working with the labyrinth, Dr. Artress established two permanent labyrinths at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco and introduced countless people to its healing meditative powers.
Dr. Artress explains in her book,The Path of the Holy Fool: How the Labyrinth Ignites Our Visionary Powers, that the source of these powers is the in-between realm of our imagination. When we use our imagination to reflect on the symbols and images that come in our dreams and waking life, we’re making a connection with the Self, the religious function at the core of our psyche that sends them to us. Noticing and following the personal meaning we find in these messages is a spiritual path.
The labyrinth with its many twists and turns is a particularly apt symbol for this inner journey. As you can see from the image above, you start at the open gateway at the bottom of the circle and head straight for the center, imagining you’ll arrive at your goal in no time. As does every neophyte spiritual seeker. But before you know it, you find yourself on a detour away from the center into a realm you don’t really want to visit…your unconscious self. After a while you circle back. Yes! Now you’re on your way again. You’re almost there when it takes you even farther away from the center, this time in a different direction.
These stops and starts, twists and turns, remind me of the realities of my daily life. The conflicts, the good intentions that get thwarted, the pleasant anticipation that turns into frustration. The setbacks I experience over and over again. At night my dreams are filled with tasks I think I’m supposed to do that don’t work out the way I think they should. Reflecting on them causes me to wonder if I really want to do them. If so, why? Is this something I need, or is it just habit, a rut I’m stuck in? Sometimes this inner movement in my imagination leads to forward movement in my waking life.
I’ve also found the reverse to be true. When I’m stuck in my thinking about the next direction I want to take in my writing, I get up and move around the house and somehow that physical effort sparks new images and ideas. This is what makes the labyrinth such a powerful self-reflective aid. As your body moves in different directions, your mind is stimulated to open into new areas…to notice how you feel about going this way, then see how things look from another angle. And all the while you’re held in a container where you’re committed to stay until you reach the center, rest for a while, then make your way out again.
I think this is what Artress means in the above quote about how engaging with imaginative symbols—like a labyrinth—can connect your spirit and the physical matter of your body. You can walk ten miles without making any difference in your spiritual life whatsoever if you’re not being held in the container of your imagination. A labyrinth provides sacred space and time to notice images you see around you and in your mind’s eye, follow your thoughts, examine your feelings, listen to your senses, and trust your instincts.
The last time I walked a labyrinth I realized I was feeling anxious about a new experience I was about to have with people I didn’t know. Would I like them? Would they like me? How should I act? This kind of self-consciousness is typical of introverted types. Stay open to everyone and everything. Release your attachment to outcomes was the message that came. My time with them was effortless and enjoyable.
“Imagination might be the most powerful tool we have in making sense of the complex world and times in which we live.” Lauren Artress, The Path of the Holy Fool, p. 19.
“The Franciscan theologian Bonaventure…describes the soul as a mirror. Our human task is to keep the mirror clean, unclouded, so it can reflect the vision of a loving God. We do this through self-reflection. Self-reflection is an act of the imagination. The ability to self-reflect is a mark of spiritual maturity.” Artress, p. 28.
I look forward to reading the rest of this book. What tools enlist your imagination and aid your spiritual growth?
Jean Raffa’s The Bridge to Wholeness and Dream Theatres of the Soul are at Amazon. E-book versions are also at Kobo, Barnes And Noble and Smashwords. Healing the Sacred Divide can be found at Amazon and Larson Publications.com. Her new book, The Soul’s Twins, is available at Schiffer, Red Feather Mind, Body, Spirit and wherever books are sold. Subscribe to her newsletter at www.jeanbenedictraffa.com.