Spiralling the Centre

The Chartres labyrinth beside Eliot College, University of Kent. Photo F. Phillips

I met my first labyrinth in 2011. I was working at the Living Well, the diocesan healing centre for Canterbury Diocese. There is a small Cretan labyrinth in the garden there and I walked it regularly in the six months I was there. At the time my first marriage had just ended, and I found the journey of the labyrinth a mirror of my own journey into life as a newly single parent, the sense of the unknown as I journeyed inwards, the sense of comfort which came from trusting the path into the centre and the way it would take me out again.

In 2016 I took a workshop as part of a course of study. We walked labyrinths at Canterbury Christchurch University and at the University of Kent. At UKC we gathered on the grassed slopes of the labyrinth by Eliot College. We were told about the journey we make into the centre, and the way we can leave our concerns there, before experiencing our outward journey as a path of renewal. We were invited to pause before we stepped onto the path, to mentally shift from one way of being into sacred space. We were taught the etiquette of walking such a path with others, to step quietly to one side to allow others to pass, to walk in silence. We were invited to think of what we would leave in the centre, and, when we arrived there, gifted a word chosen from a bag to carry with us out into the world.

At the second labyrinth we walked by candlelight on a grass path in the autumn dusk. This was a completely different experience. The lack of light, the sense of shadow in between the candles, of a sometimes-invisible path brought a sense of risk. Reflecting back, I can see parallels with our life journey and with the practice of pilgrimage. Often, we walk in the darkness, unsure of our footing, unsure of our next steps. It takes determination, focus and courage to keep going when we are in this liminal space. Yet we are, often despite ourselves perhaps, carried safely into the centre of our initiation, and led back out into the world renewed.

That same autumn we walked a route which took us to many of the Medway Megaliths. In a grove of yew trees, we scratched a labyrinth in fallen leaves and walked it, that same sense of journey, of pilgrimage even there, in our rudimentary creation.

Walking a labyrinth is always different. I have walked the labyrinth at the University of Kent several times each year since 2016, often around the equinoxes or solstices, and the experience is ever changing. Each time I enter I bring different concerns, a different context, each time I walk I experience the sense of disorientation as the path twists and shifts. I focus on my feet, on next steps. Sometimes I notice dandelions in the grass, sometimes broken glass from student revels, or rabbit scrapes where they have been burrowing. Sometimes my mind and heart are quiet, sometimes full. This ritual has become an anchor in my year, something timeless and sacred.

A pebble labyrinth on the beach at Reculver. Photo F. Phillips.

Today we walked back to the Eliot College labyrinth for our final walk before our move. Usually when we walk it is early in the day, but today the sun was setting. This wasn’t planned, but seemed timely, our journey taken at the end of the day, a closing and surrender. We were not alone. A student sat on a bench on her phone, a mum with two young children on another, the boy practising keepy-uppies on the stone path. Eliot Pathway was busy with Sunday afternoon dog walkers and cyclists. I stopped at the entrance to the path and paused. Then stepping out I began my walk. My mind was occupied listening to other people’s conversations, sensing the cooling air, the golden light of the sun breaking through the trees when I turned towards the west. I noticed how lush the grass was after recent rain. I saw the path come close to the centre and then carry me far out to the very edges. I stepped with deliberation. At times I could only focus on the next step, at other moments I could see a few twists ahead of me. In the centre I paused, looking across the valley to the tower of the cathedral, framed between leafy trees. I thought about how my life has rested here for many years, and about the gift of that time and all that has been. I had carried a single acorn with me to this spot, and I placed it down onto the stone, planting the seed of my new life.

Then I spiralled my way back out, purposefully, trusting the path before my feet to take me to where I need to be. Pausing again on the grass slopes I looked back down to Bell Harry tower, to the spiral before me and then turned in search of new paths and coffee.

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