Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Walking the Labyrinth at Chartres: A Dream Fulfilled

Last winter when a trip to Paris was proposed to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary, I wondered if a side trip to Chartres would be possible. For years I had heard about the labyrinth on the floor of the cathedral in Chartres.  I knew the story of Lauren Artress, an American Episcopalian priest  who is largely responsible for creating interest here in the US in labyrinths as a spiritual tool. She visited Chartres Cathedral in hopes of walking the labyrinth only to discover that it was covered with chairs. Determined to walk it, she and her companions moved the chairs and now because of her passion the labyrinth is once again available.  
      I dreamed of walking that labyrinth myself, but was it even near Paris? How hard would it be to get there? What would I do if my husband and our dear friends traveling with us didn't want to go? Would I be willing to go by myself? Yes. 
       Information about when it is possible to walk the Chartres labyrinth was not readily available. However, Rick Steves, the contemporary god of travel, came to my rescue in his Paris guidebook. He gave all the pertinent information for what turned out to be an easy day trip by train from Paris, especially the fact that Fridays are the only time the labyrinth is not covered with chairs --and not always then.  On the internet I discovered a woman who led tours from Paris every Friday, but not that Friday. Why was that? Was that Friday one in which the labyrinth would not be available? Well, we had one Friday in Paris and if it was meant to be, I would walk the labyrinth.
      We enjoyed the train ride to Chartres, admiring the kitchen gardens, open fields, window boxes, tile roofs and cream stucco homes, and I took advantage of my captive audience to share what I knew about labyrinths as a spiritual tool, since my companions had not yet experienced a labyrinth. Once there we took pictures of the cathedral's gargoyles and angels. We appreciated the gardens and sent best wishes to the bridal couple being photographed. We walked the entire perimeter of the cathedral not sure where to enter. I could feel the anticipation and some anxiety build within me. What if it isn't accessible today? I was almost reluctant to find out, and I realized how often that is my response: to prepare and build and then at the last minute hang back, fearing disappointment or even unworthiness or a lack of self-confidence. 
     My first view inside the dimly lit cathedral was one of chairs. Row after row of chairs. My heart sank, but I took a deep breath and told myself, "Oh well, at least I am here, and this is sacred ground." Bruce was ahead of me, however, as he usually is, and he discovered the uncovered labyrinth where many were walking. I would fulfill my dream.
     I sat in the dark, opening myself to an intention. What did I hope to learn? Did I want insight about writing aspirations specifically or about the next stage of my life generally? I prayed for openness, and then I entered the labyrinth. The path was crowded. I noticed four young adults moving slowly, like parts of one body. A caterpillar moving slowly, deliberately. Pilgrims, I assumed. I was surprised to see Bruce walking  and at times we were on adjoining circuits, passing each other easily, closely. When eventually, he went around me moving quickly on the path, I felt a jolt of loss, of being left behind. I reminded myself to find my own rhythm, to let go, to breathe, to relax, to open, to be here now. 
     Many moved swiftly, not really following the path, cutting across the circuits, even talking as they did so. I am used to walking with those who do so intentionally, understanding the sacred nature of this practice. I sent blessings, but only after reminding myself to be tolerant and to remember that we each have our own path. 
     As I moved towards the center, I thought of all those who have walked before me and those who will come after me, and I prayed for all those I have accompanied on other labyrinths. Once again I felt a reluctance. Was I ready for the center? Had I prayed enough? Let go enough? Was I empty enough to receive?  
      I always hope once in the center for a neon light or a loud ringing directed just to me. "Nancy, your next step is......." Instead the voice, the knowing I receive, if in fact there is one in that moment, is most often subtle and general. This time a familiar theme was repeated. "Live your life. Do what you need and want to do. Be grateful for all the gifts of your life." But this time there was even more. "Don't be too flexible. Act from your essence." Hmmm.
      The walk out, following the path in reverse, was lighter. I didn't know exactly how I would live the whisperings inside my heart, but I felt a certain assurance that I would indeed find my way.
     Oh, and how's this for "meant to be"? Soon after we finished walking, the labyrinth was re-covered with the chairs. Thank you Spirit, for this dream fulfilled.       


  1. Thank you for this wonderful "re-visit," for me, of my trip to Chartres in 2002. That was June 4, 2002 and I'm going to mark my calendar to remind me. Hard to believe that that day was 10 whole years ago. I remember seeing the labyrinth covered with chairs, but having never walked one, didn't know what I'd missed that day. However, my day in Chartres was one of the highlights of my one and only time to be in Europe. How much I have changed since then and how lucky I am to have met someone who has opened my "head" to the labyrinth walking and who walked THE LABYRINTH!

  2. I so appreciate knowing about others' experiences at Chartres. While walking the labyrinth was a major highlight of the entire two weeks in Paris, we also thoroughly enjoyed the village of Chartres. Glad it was such a positive experience for you.


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