May 2018 - Rector's Ramblings

Three times in the last year I have found myself going round in circles.   Well, more precisely, tracing out the path of a labyrinth, set out in an intended place of worship as a means of devotion, contemplative striding and exploration.

The first of these was in a very out of the way setting at a local church in the north part of Ottawa, Canada, at which we worshipped on the morning of 2 July 2017.   It was laid out very carefully, and proudly, by the parishioners.  In fact there was one version outside, and a replica  - still large enough to walk around, when I partook of my post-service coffee  - in the relative warmth of the church hall.  The parish church had a strong support for the creative arts, both in worship and beyond.

The second labyrinth was in the open space within the west end of Portsmouth’s Anglican  Cathedral, which we visited last summer on a day off.   This complex pattern was set out in white adhesive tape on the floor.  To be fair, it needed a little attention and repair.   Portsmouth Cathedral has a deserved reputation for challenging some of the traditional formats for the setting out of a place of worship, with a large gathering area in this part of the building, and an intentional sense of journey and movement through the different areas within its walls.

The third labyrinth, was found delightfully last month, as we visited the Holy Isle of Lindisfarne, off the Northumbrian Coast.   On the one dry day of our Easter break we found ourselves in the outer precincts of Lindisfarne Castle.  Down by the sea, around that rocky headland, endless numbers of visitors (pilgrims?) have built cairns of securely balanced stones and pebbles, and of the same material we saw laid out a lovely and complex maze, on a grand scale, the sides of whose pathways were delineated with a succession of beautiful stones piled up to produce a very low wall at the edge of each winding section of the pathway.   It was lovely, gentle, intentional, yet not prescriptive but intriguingly invitational.   As with the two other labyrinths that I had encountered this year, I walked its path in still gladness and prayer.

What’s it all about?  Well, I wasn’t really sure; but my research, since, fitted comfortably with the use I had made of these three footpaths.   A labyrinth is simply a place to walk and pray. It offers you the freedom to walk around while focusing your mind on God – and not worry about getting lost!   Its course contains a single walking path to the centre and then back out again. It has many turns but, unlike mazes, does not have dead ends.  

Some are hesitant in that its origins are well outside of Christianity, but the use of labyrinths took on a distinctly Christian flavour by the Middle Ages.  Easter rituals appeared; and the most famous of all ecclesiastical labyrinths was laid out in the Cathedral at Chartres around the year 1200.

In Christian usage, the labyrinth has become distinctly fashionable in the last 30 years, maybe something to do with the growing popularity both of prayer walks and of the very practice of contemplation.  One way to pray a labyrinth is to praise God in your heart as you proceed towards the centre, and then to intercede for people and concerns as you walk back to the outside.  Another, is to meditate on a scriptural theme or passage on the way in; rejoice in God, at your arrival at the centre; and determine how you will put the fruits of your contemplation into action in your life as you return to the perimeter once again.  Whatever approach you take, however, the twisting route is offered as an aid to worship: a means to offer your self, and your moments, before God.

It won’t be for everyone, but I enjoyed the process of walking those three paths.  In each, I found the assurance of where I was going, the light concentration needed to stay on track, the conviction that I was progressing towards a blessed goal, and the balance and level-pacedness, to be things that promoted prayer in my feet, in my breath and in my thought.

Leave it alone, if it’s not for you.  But I love walking, and I love to pray.  And in this newfound pursuit the two came gladly together.

Andrew Doye, Rector

The Diocese of Chichester has suggested that we hold this present year as a Year of Prayer

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