I come full circle

As I approach I can see Notre-Dame de Chartres Cathedral from miles away, standing completely alone on the skyline. Vézelay pilgrims saw Sainte Marie-Madeleine on the top of a far green hill, St Jacques pilgrims taking this route to Santiago see this important stage of their pilgrimage rising before them across a vast plain.   These lowlands are so flat you can see the church in any direction for seven kilometres. At night from my small farmyard gîte I will later see the whole dome of the sky arched above me, and not a man-made light anywhere.

My little gîte on an apple farm

My little gîte on an apple farm

Chartres is a very special destination for me.  A few years ago, when I was going through a time of indecision, a new friend ‘D’ called to tell me that she had constructed a labyrinth in her garden and was going to open it up to friends for the first time on the night of the next full moon. Did I want to come?    I knew nothing about labyrinths and, curious, I accepted her invitation.

We were a small group of men and women who gathered there that evening in a jovial mood. Before we moved towards the labyrinth we had a brief lesson from one of the guests. I learned to my surprise that a labyrinth is not a maze. It is not a puzzle with dead ends that you have to find your way around. A labyrinth has one well-defined, unobstructed path in and out, and one cannot get lost within it.   Rather the idea might be to find oneself.

Labyrinths are ancient and have great symbolic meaning.   They represent one’s own path through life, with its twists and turns, until its end.  For the religious they symbolise the soul’s journey on this Earth and arrival at the centre represents one’s meeting with Christ upon death and transition into the afterlife.

To walk a labyrinth is said to be comparable to making a pilgrimage. Travelling to Chartres and walking through the labyrinth was an important substitute for medieval people who could not make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

When you walk a labyrinth you take a spiritual, or simply meditative, journey.   One enters and exits a labyrinth very slowly and silently, in contemplation, and in journeying into its heart quietly you also journey within yourself, to your own spiritual centre. By journeying within you may find some enlightenment, or the answers to questions that have been bothering you may become clear.   On a fundamental level this might simply be because you are in a meditative, calm state where your mind can be free of the clutter which is obscuring your deeper thoughts and insights.   Others may feel such a walking meditation opens them spiritually to insight.  For yet others it may simply be a time passed in gentle, peaceful and beneficial silence.

As we approached D’s labyrinth I expected a structure with high sides around the path, still thinking of the Hampton Court Palace maze. But no, the labyrinth was laid out on the ground, with its spirals coiling around themselves within a large circle.   D’s labyrinth had been painstakingly dug out of the earth, following a ‘peace pattern’, and white stones had been placed around the winding path which were highlighted by the full moon’s light.

It was a beautiful moment in the dark night, under that moon, as I very slowly walked round and round into the centre of the labyrinth.   I opened my heart to the experience.

I felt calm and peaceful and asked my questions of the moon.   What would the next stage of my life hold for me? Could I really make the changes I desired? Walking into that silent circle in the moonlight anything seemed possible. At the centre I stayed awhile as we had been invited to do and allowed myself to just ‘be’ there. On my return out of the labyrinth I exchanging a silent smile with other people who were still on their way in, and as I exited I felt a warm feeling of well-being and possibility.

When I got home that night I immediately and enthusiastically started researching labyrinths. I was fascinated by what I learned, particularly that there is a famous one laid out on the floor of Chartres Cathedral that is nearly a thousand years old.   I determined that one day I would journey to the Chartres labyrinth and walk it also.

In my mind that experience of walking D’s labyrinth was one element to the start of this Journey, it was also another step on my road to exploring my spiritual self, and about being willing to open myself to the unknown. It became essential that I visited the Chartres labyrinth on this Journey.

And here I was, the aspirations having become the reality, in Chartres.

Cathedral front 1

When I visit Notre-Dame de Chartres, I am taken aback at the size of the labyrinth in the wide nave, but bitterly disappointed that it is almost completely covered with chairs.

Labyrinth length 2

An attendant tells me that they need the chairs for church services and the labyrinth is only uncovered periodically. But even with the chairs covering it the labyrinth is beautiful and atmospheric, with stylised black marble lines marking out the path on the pale flagstones.   It has never been renovated and is in its original state, though the centre stone is well-worn – from how many millions of feet?

Labyrinth side 1

Thwarted and saddened I discreetly walk the path visible to me when there is no one around, but it is not the same.

Feet on labyrinth

Then I stand quietly in the heart of the labyrinth, which is uncovered, and there have a feeling of significance, just thinking of all those who have also done so and wondering – is there is an energy there that I can absorb?   Have all those souls who have stood here over the centuries in prayer, or meditation, in perhaps a state of bliss, left something of themselves here?   I open my mind to that possibility.

The Cathedral authorities assert that there is nothing magical about the labyrinth, it simply invites you to be a pilgrim, and the only energies to be found within it are those that live within the men and women who walk it, ready to let themselves be ‘touched by the grace of the moment’.

Maybe, then, one can feel them.

The centre of the labyrinth

The centre of the labyrinth

And then one of those pleasant encounters occurs, when you cross paths with a pleasant stranger and you are enriched by it.   Jean-Jacques and I get talking when we are getting in each other’s way as I take a photograph of the labyrinth. He has lived in Chartres for many years and like many other ‘Chartrains’ has come into town for France’s ‘Journée de Patrimoine’ that day when there are special heritage events organised. I am to later benefit from the free guided tours of the cathedral and the crypt myself.

I learn that Jean-Jacques walks the labyrinth once a year, on mid-summer’s day, when the sunlight falling from the rose window over the main portal shines directly onto, and exactly in the same shape as, the labyrinth below. In fact the central figure of Christ in the rose window is projected onto the labyrinth’s centre rosette stone.

Jean-Jacques tells me that the first time he walked the labyrinth he did so extremely slowly and when he arrived at the centre it felt ‘magnifique’.   The labyrinth is 12 metres (about forty feet) wide, but is designed in such a way that, if it were uncoiled, the path would stretch for 260 metres. Most medieval pilgrims took at least an hour to crisscross it.  (To see the uncovered labyrinth go to the short film at the end of this post.)

Seeing my interest, Jean-Jacques proceeds to show me around. He is in the medical profession and has studied psychology. He is not attracted to ‘religious dogma’ as he calls it but is interested in the history of the cathedral and the motivations and thinking of the people involved – particularly the stone masons and the subtle messages they supposedly left in the stonework, such as the closed books held by the statues which are thought to symbolise the secrets of their profession known only to the initiated masons.

closed book statues

He explains that the cathedral is ‘important’ (i.e. ‘significant’ in English) with many mysteries. It not only has a religious history but a philosophical one and the Cathars had some involvement in its past.   I read later about the ‘School of Chartres’ which was a leading teaching centre with an international reputation in the 11th and 12th centuries. As well as ‘character formation’ and logic the school taught geometry, astronomy, music and medical studies and attracted great scholars at the forefront of intellectual thinking of their time. Indeed there are statues of scholars and philosophers on the cathedral walls and portals, not only saints and apostles.

I also read about various myths surrounding the cathedral including that the secret treasure of the Knights Templar is buried under the centre stone of the labyrinth.   Jean-Jacques does not refer to this and has little time for superstition, I discover.

My friendly guide is knowledgeable and cordial. I learn that Chartres is often called the first ‘bande dessinée’ (cartoon) because its exquisite windows tell stories and that one reads them from left to right and from bottom to top. It is also called a ‘stone bible’ because of the biblical stories sculpted onto its magnificent choir stall, or screen, which in the past would have been a teaching tool for the predominantly illiterate congregation.

The magnificent choir stall which recounts the life of Christ

The magnificent choir stall which recounts the lives of Mary and Christ

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There are about 40 images around the screen

I am shown a special and distinctive paving stone which people have stood on for centuries, also on the summer solstice, when a small round hole deliberately cut into the stained glass window above allows a beam of sunlight to illuminate it.   He ‘hmmphs’ at the idea that some people say they feel a trembling beneath them or some other emotion, saying this is nonsense, but the feature is meaningful ‘quand même’.

I enjoy Jean-Jacques’s company and the way he throws life lessons into his descriptions, as when he reminds me sagely that ‘though one should of course remain modest in life’ when he is praising the magnificent craftsmanship of the great sculpted portals.

Before we shake hands and part, Jean-Jacques says something which stays in my head for some time, and I translate: ‘Me, I just believe in the intelligence of the heart.’   And with that he says au revoir.    I mull this over and I think I understand what he means.

At the centre

At the centre

A one and a half minute film of the open labyrinth is shown here,

courtesy of Lynne McNaughton and Gerard Hobbs.

Comments
5 Responses to “I come full circle”
  1. D, Switzerland says:

    I did not fully appreciate the impact your first labyrinth experience had on you. I am so pleased that you had another labyrinth experience in such a magnificent place. For you or others who want to find a labyrinth visit http://labyrinthsociety.org/ or come and visit mine in Crassier, Switzerland, near Geneva. Happy Travels -D-

  2. Steve Hodgson says:

    Really enjoyed this post, hope all is well in your world….

  3. Denise says:

    An enjoyable piece.Chartres looks fascinating and I Iike the fact that some people walk the labyrinth barefoot showing some kind of respect or reverence. I visited in my early twenties and it brought memories back. I do not think at that age we realised the ‘significance’ of the church and the pilgrim way.

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