What is a Labyrinth?

Most people consider a labyrinth and a maze to be the same thing, but they are distinct in design and purpose. A maze refers to a branching puzzle with choices of path and direction, consisting of unexpected turns and dead ends. Walking mazes are often constructed of tall hedges or walls, intended to hide the path and challenge visitors to find the correct solution.

In contrast, a labyrinth has only a single path, with an unambiguous route to the center and back, and presents no navigational challenge. They are generally flat, made only of colored designs on a stone floor, printed onto a canvas cloth, or built from low stones and plants bordering a gravel path. Traversing a labyrinth is not a mental challenge, but a spiritual and meditative experience.

Labyrinth Origins

Labyrinth is a word of pre-Greek, Minoan origin, which the Greeks associated with the palace of Knossos in Crete. It is also widely associated with the Lydian word labrys (“double-edged axe”), and since the double axe motif appears in the ruins at Knossos, it has been suggested that the original labyrinth was the royal Minoan palace in Crete.

Greek labyrinth coins

By the 4th century BC, the Greeks also associated the Labyrinth with the familiar “Greek key” patterns of endlessly running meanders. Coins from Knossos were struck with the labyrinth symbol in the 5th through 3rd centuries BC. The predominant labyrinth form during this period is the simple seven-circuit style known as the classical labyrinth, and over time the term labyrinth came to be applied to any unicursal maze, which were typically rendered as circular or rectangular patterns.

Christian Use

Labyrinths have on various occasions been used in Christian tradition as a part of worship. The earliest known example is from a fourth-century pavement at the Basilica of St Reparatus, at Orleansville, Algeria, with the words “Sancta Eclesia” at the center, though it is unclear how it might have been used in worship.

In medieval times, labyrinths began to appear on church walls and floors around 1000 A.D. The most famous medieval labyrinth, with great influence on later practice, was created in Chartres Cathedral, France, probably in the early 13th century.

The Chartres Labyrinth

Modern Use

Today, labyrinths can be found in churches, hospitals, parks, prisons, schools, and in private settings. Many walk the labyrinth while grieving the loss of loved ones, facing personal struggles, or coping with change. Others use this walking meditation to focus the mind, to manage stress, to induce a peaceful state to help clear the mind, and to listen to the Spirit of God guiding our lives. The Labyrinth is a path of prayer, introspection, and healing.

There has been a revival of interest in labyrinths since the 1990’s. To date, the World-Wide Labyrinth Locator lists over 5500 labyrinths worldwide. They exist in 80 countries, with 90 located within a 100-mile radius of Charlotte. Most of these have been built since the year 2000. They are commonly constructed with blocks, bricks, crushed stone or simply mown into the grass with stones to delineate the path

How to use a Labyrinth

One can think of labyrinths as symbolic of pilgrimage; people can walk the path, ascending toward salvation or enlightenment. Many labyrinths have been constructed recently in churches, hospitals, and parks. These are often used for contemplation; walking among the turnings, one loses track of direction and of the outside world, and thus quiets the mind.

One Christian approach to the labyrinth is based on the “threefold path”:

  1. Releasing: Entering the labyrinth and walking toward the center is about “letting go”. It is a release of your daily worries and pressing concerns, as you open your heart and quiet your mind.
  2. Receiving: Pausing at the center is about receiving illumination, insight, clarity, and focus. It is here that you are in a receptive, prayerful, meditative state. Stay there as long as you like, sit or stand, meditate or pray.
  3. Returning: The path out is that of becoming grounded and integrating your insights. It is being energized, returning to ordinary time, and preparing to make what you received manifest in the world.

About our Labyrinth

Commons Labyrinth

The Commons labyrinth measures 45′ across, and is based on the Chelsea 5-circuit design using a template from the Labyrinth Company in Kensington, CT. The path is 24″ wide and constructed of a bonded rubber mulch, that is both soft and durable. The border between the paths is a 16″ gap, that contains soft groundcover plants (Sedum Hispanicum) and mulch.

A 4′ concrete medallion in the center is stamped with a colored lotus flower, symbolizing spiritual awakening and enlightenment. The walking distance of the labyrinth from start to finish is 817′, which is about 325 steps or 1/6 of a mile.

Embedded in the walking path are many small glow stones. After a bright sunny day, these will glow softly for a few hours, providing a “galaxy effect” of stars against the dark path material.

We are also registered with the Worldwide Labyrinth Locator.

The Congregational Commons

First Congregational Church purchased the neighboring bank property in late 2016, to turn the once vacant drive-through and cracked asphalt into a green space and community asset.

The bank building now features an elevated stage approximately 27×14 feet, facing a concrete patio and an open park-like courtyard. Benches and colorful trees surround a large lawn, and the featured labyrinth. A flower garden, colorful art projects, and memorials complete the space.

We have already hosted several events and fundraisers at this space, and we welcome visitors to explore our labyrinth or contemplate life on one of our benches. We are also happy to accomodate larger groups, to host your event or celebration as well.

Please feel free to contact us at commons@ucccharlotte.org for more information.