A year and a half ago, I had the privilege of traveling to Chartres, France, to visit the cathedral there. Chartres was a pilgrimage destination in the 11th century, and in addition to some of the finest medieval glass windows in Europe, the cathedral includes a labyrinth in its nave that is the pattern for modern labyrinths found all over the world.
A labyrinth looks a little like a maze, except that there is only one path, winding back and forth to the center. There is no attempt to trick you or lead you down false corridors to dead ends. There are no barriers between one part of the path and another beyond the paving stone laid on the floor: one follows the labyrinth path by choice, so there is no need to prevent walkers from taking short cuts.
Walking a labyrinth is about making a spiritual journey. The labyrinth at Chartres was originally the end of the pilgrim road: the last steps on a journey of many miles. The winding path is walked slowly, with pauses for prayer and attention paid to each step. It is a form of meditation, a way of stilling heart and mind on the way to an encounter with God.
The labyrinth at Chartres cathedral is available for visitors to walk only on Fridays. The rest of the week, the path laid out in light and dark paving stone is covered by chairs for those who attend worship. Many visitors are probably not even aware it is i there. In planning our trip to France, I carefully scheduled our visit to Chartres on the day I could walk its winding paths. Labyrinths are one of my favorite ways to pray, and I’ve walked many of them -- most patterned on the labyrinth at Chartres. While I was interested in the history and architecture of the cathedral of Chartres, what put that particular church on my must-see list was the opportunity to pray in the same way as pilgrims have for centuries.
We arrived fairly early on a gray and chilly day. The interior of the church was barely warmer than the 45F temperatures outside, and the gloominess turned the famous windows into darkly glowing jewels. But the labyrinth inset in the floor beckoned, a warm golden stone patterned with darker brown. I sent my family off to the gift shop, and started walking. There were a handful of other people in the labyrinth with me, but we were all immersed in the experience. We moved past one another silently, smoothly, patiently waiting when someone ahead of us paused to pray. The silence was broken only by the muted sounds of a handful of visitors talking softly elsewhere in the vast space.
And then the tour groups started arriving. One busload of tourists and then another poured through the doors, chattering away, looking up into the shadows of the ceiling, pointing eagerly at the stained glass windows. Tour guides waved closed umbrellas and shouted to rally their groups, and began speaking in carrying tones in a variety of languages I don’t speak. Periodically, a newly-released group would come streaming straight across the labyrinth, talking loudly among themselves, and stopping to take pictures of the rose window over the entrance to the cathedral. I found myself repeatedly having to stop my slow deliberate walk, lest I walk straight into some oblivious tourist. It was clear the guides had not bothered to explain what the labyrinth was, nor suggested that it was sacred ground to be respected. Intent on the architecture, few tourists even noticed the pilgrims in the winding pathways, much less held open that space for silence and prayer.
It was not exactly the experience I had been looking forward to. And at first, I was angry. After all, I had come thousands of miles for the experience of praying the labyrinth, and my silent devotions were now being rudely interrupted by tourists who clearly knew nothing about this sacred space, and who had not come to the cathedral to pray. I considered quitting, just walking away across the pathways before completing the full circuit. But then I realized if I did so, I would just carry my frustration and resentment with me. I would surrender not only the prayerful encounter with God I had sought in the labyrinth, but my enjoyment of the rest of the cathedral, and indeed the entire day.
So instead, I began praying for the tourists crossing my path. I prayed for them as travelers in a far away land, for them to have an encounter with God in this ancient place of worship. I found myself praying for the world, for the places where people were unable to feel God’s presence, because they were too busy, or too under attack, or too afraid. I prayed for the sick, the suffering, and those in any kind of trouble. I let each interruption inspire a new prayer, a little random, but powerful. I continued my journey, and in due time, reached the center of the labyrinth. And then I walked off, and explored the cathedral all those tourists had come to see.
I’ve been thinking about the morning ever since, because I think perhaps it has something to teach us about what it means to be church in a busy world.
Most of us who attend church regularly do so because we love the rhythms of worship and the peace that comes with gathering to pray. Music, liturgy, familiar prayers all draw us into an encounter with God. Sometimes that encounter is in sacrament, sometimes in inner stillness, sometimes in the people who gather with us. But regardless of how it happens, worship is about holding open a space where God can be met.
And we do this in a world full of people who largely do not realize what we are doing. For those who have rarely attended church, the old-fashioned music, unfamiliar language, and odd symbols and gestures may convey little. The reason we are stopped and gathered there may not be immediately evident. And as a result, they may rush on by, barely aware of what we are doing, anxious to accomplish their goals.
But it is holy and important work to hold that space where encounters with God can happen.
I wonder how many tourists to Chartres pause to wonder what these strange, silent walkers are doing. Do they ask their guides, perhaps tentatively set foot in the labyrinth themselves? What would happen if there were spiritual guides stationed nearby, to help them experience the labyrinth as something more than a historical artifact?
I suspect that many of the people who rush by are seeking something, even if they don’t realize or remember what in the busy-ness of the day. For some, the frantic pace of life may be actively crowding out a longing for something deeper: meaning, maybe, or peace, or connection with neighbors, or an encounter with God. That the church continues to hold that holy space where meaning and peace and neighbors and God can be found may be just what they need to remind them that life is not found in the abundance of possessions, and that no one has wished on their death bed that they had spent more time in the grocery store.
Most of the tourists at Chartres that day missed out on a unique opportunity to experience the cathedral as more than an architectural marvel. God was present in that place. But I might have missed out on it as well, if I had allowed their lack of interest or concern for what I was doing to discourage me. And that’s something the church should remember. It’s not about having full pews or being supported by the culture at large. It doesn’t matter if cashiers acknowledge our religious holidays or school sports schedule games to make them convenient for us. We gather to hold holy space, to make possible encounters with God, and we can do that no matter what the circumstances. We can do that simply by claiming the moment for prayer, even when the silence is broken by the babble of voices, even when we’re interrupted by Japanese tour groups photographing everything in sight.
God is with us at all times and all places. It is the church’s job to teach us to listen deeply enough to hear the Spirit’s voice through the cacophony, and to hold open holy space so that others might as well.