Prayer labyrinths: what they are, how to use them, and why this has become a favorite prayer practice for me.
While most of us may think of labyrinths as mazes or puzzles, I can assure you that prayer labyrinths are much simpler. There are no dead-ends or tricky turns — just one, single path from the start to the center. Simply put, prayer labyrinths are just a form of "embodied prayer.”*
Prayer labyrinths were originally created as a kind of mini-pilgrimage, dating as far back as the 4th century, for those who were unable to travel to Jerusalem. More recently, they’ve become a kind of prayer walk. You can find them on the floors of churches and cathedrals, in monastery gardens and parks, or you can even trace one with your finger.
Bringing My Whole Self to God in Prayer
I walked my first prayer labyrinth at a retreat center outside of Colorado Springs, while on a one-day silent retreat during a seminary class. It was such a meaningful experience that anytime I’m at a retreat center or on the grounds of a monastery, I find out if there’s a labyrinth and spend a few minutes walking the path.
I’ve found prayer labyrinths to be particularly helpful when I’m feeling distracted or need something that will engage my whole self in prayer, including my body. I don’t know if you can relate, but often I feel as though our western culture tends towards compartmentalization of the different parts of ourselves, especially when it comes to our spiritual lives. Interestingly, though, in ancient context, both the Hebrew word for soul (nephesh) and the Greek word for soul (psuche) actually referred to the WHOLE person—not just the spiritual part (I actually had a seminary professor who used to say, “Everything is spiritual”). Engaging myself in prayer means engaging my whole self.
Walking a labyrinth is a way to bring my physical, spiritual, and emotional self to God in prayer. Each slow, intentional step helps me to stay present, to pay attention to something I might otherwise miss. As an “embodied prayer” practice, labyrinths are a reminder to pay attention to the inner workings of my heart even as I pay attention to the rhythm of my breathing, the pace of my heart rate, and the pace of my steps.
Am I distracted by my task list and all of the things I have yet to do, and is my distraction showing itself in how quickly I’m walking the path? Am I looking downward, brow furrowed, trying to understand why the critical words of a colleague are replaying in my thoughts? Am I slowing my pace enough to recognize that deep— and often ignored — longing to hear God’s Spirit speak to me, to sense His nearness and remember His goodness?
Sometimes it takes the entire journey to the center of the labyrinth before I can even begin to answer such questions. And most of the time, that’s when I remember what beautiful symbolism walking the labyrinth contains. While the center of the labyrinth represents communion with God, I have to follow the twists and turns to get there — nearing the center at first, then leading me along the outside, closer to the center again, until at last I reach it. Our spiritual lives are not necessarily linear, going from Point A to Point B—rather, we find ourselves circling back around to things we’ve learned or experience before, but still moving forward as the Spirit graciously leads and shapes us into the image of Jesus.
Once I reach the center, the place that represents intimacy with my God, I can linger and rest for a while. I may need to do a bit more wrestling in inarticulate prayer, or I may just need a few minutes of peace. Whatever it is, God has met me there every single time. And then I remember I have to make the journey back out — back to the world, back to my task lists and responsibilities and relationships, but sent out by the Spirit with a deepened desire for God and a revitalized hope for His world.
How to Use A Prayer Labyrinth
If you’re fortunate enough to have access to a local labyrinth at a retreat center, monastery, church, or park, then I highly recommend walking one. However, you can also find versions online or in bookstores to trace with your finger or a stylus. Walking a labyrinth is about as simple a prayer practice as it gets!
First, take a moment to begin this experience in prayer, asking the Holy Spirit to accompany you. Take a few deep breaths. Start to walk slowly, or at whatever pace feels comfortable.
As you’re walking, making your way to the center step by step, release any distracting thoughts. Let them float by in your mind and drift away. If you have something in particular that you’re bringing before the Lord in prayer, remember that He hears you and He’s with you. Take time to listen to His voice. Sometimes it’s nice to simply walk in His presence, without feeling the pressure to articulate anything. Think of your journey to the center as a journey of releasing.
When you reach the center, stay there a while with the Lord. Open Scripture, wait patiently for His voice, bring your cares before Him, or simply enjoy being with Him and soak in the sunlight. Receive whatever it is that the Lord has for you in those few minutes.
When you’re ready, start making the journey back out, walking the same path and retracting your steps to the entrance of the labyrinth. Continue to pray as you walk. You may feel lighter, you may have greater awareness of God’s presence, or you may even gain some insight from the Holy Spirit. Hold all of that as you journey outward. Think of this journey back out as receiving** and being transformed by the Spirit.
If you’re local to Auburn, CA, good news — you can find a few local labyrinths if you want to give this a try! The Mercy Center Auburn has a beautiful labyrinth on their grounds (just give them a call to let the staff know you’d like to visit and walk the labyrinth), and there’s one located at the community garden downtown off of High Street. If you want to venture a little further, Christ the King retreat center also has one on their grounds in Citrus Heights (again, give them a call first!).
*https://sacredordinarydays.com/blogs/news/tagged/prayer-labyrinth Over at Sacred Ordinary Days’ blog, you can find an entire series dedicated to prayer labyrinths. If you’re looking for a more in-depth explanation, visit their website!
**The language of “releasing” and “receiving” was introduced to me on a short handout on walking labyrinths from Christ the King Passionate Retreat Center in Citrus Heights, CA.