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The Center of the Universe

March 2, 2015


Thanks to everyone for your condolences. I didn’t know Bette Fletcher, my sister-in-law’s mother, that well but I know she had a long happy life. She was a devoted grandmother and loved being in the company of children. She’ll be missed by family and friends.


This past weekend, Mrs. Chatterbox and I drove to Medina, Washington, arriving at St. Thomas Episcopal Church an hour before Bette’s memorial service. With time to kill, we wandered around the church grounds and noticed a mandala-shaped design in the brick pavement separating the church from the rectory. I recognized it as a modern variant of something very old. More people arrived, and it wasn’t long before the design caught the attention of children who started dashing through the intricate path laid out beneath their feet. They were having a grand time running through the twists and turns, although I did hear someone say, “This maze is too easy. It’s impossible to get lost.”



St. Thomas Episcopal Church


The doors to the church opened and everyone filed inside, preventing me from launching into an unsolicited explanation that this design wasn’t a maze or physical puzzle to get lost in; it was a replica of a thousand year old labyrinth. During the Middle Ages, labyrinths adorned most Catholic cathedrals, but many were lost due to remodeling, with many being intentionally removed. Today, the world’s most famous labyrinth is in France’s Chartres Cathedral. No one is certain how old it is, but estimates range from 1,100 to 1,200 years.



The Labryinth in Chartres Cathedral


The Middle Ages were a time of religious pilgrimage, an era that proclaimed Jerusalem as the center of the universe. Knights and people of means were encouraged to make a trip to the Holy Land, which became problematic when the region was occupied by non-Christians. Those who couldn’t make the trip, or simply didn’t want to, could make a symbolic journey by coursing through the labyrinth on their cathedral’s floor. Sinners hoping to receive forgiveness did so on their knees. Today, many of these labyrinths are covered by chairs, but most cathedrals, including Chartres, allow access on certain days of the week, most often Fridays.


If you look closely at the design you’ll notice that the turns line up so that when you reach the center of the universe a cross will emanated from the exact position on which you’re standing. It’s said that from this spot a feeling of tranquility will snuff out all other feelings, making you feel at peace with God and the Universe.


Carl Jung, inventor of analytical psychology, describes in Man and His Symbols the cultural importance of the circle in nearly all civilizations, and labyrinths, such as the one in Chartres, are regaining their popularity even though no longer linked to symbolic pilgrimages.


When I stood at the center of the labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral, I did experience an ineffable sensation I still can’t put into words, but I felt a stronger connection to the universe when the service for Bette Fletcher ended and everyone filed outside, where once again children were captivated by the circular pattern of the labyrinth.


It wasn’t hard to imagine Bette Fletcher among the laughter and little feet, moving with slow determination toward the center of the universe.



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Fascinating. I didn't know the history behind those labyrinth circles. I hope Bette was enjoying the children's laughter.
By: Alex J. Cavanaugh on March 2, 2015
Hi sorry, due to being ill, I'm only just catching up with my blog reading. Sorry to here about the death of Bette. I'm glad the memorial service wasn't too upsetting and you managed to get comfort from the church environment.
By: LL Cool Joe on March 2, 2015
I meant "hear" not "here". Maybe I need to go back to bed.
By: LL Cool Joe on March 2, 2015
You share my love of such things. You also taught me things I didn't know and labyrinths being covered over. Resurrection has a labyrinth in the woods. I don't know that many people walk it, but i have and would like to again if I should ever venture there.
By: Snowbrush on March 2, 2015
Symbols still make connections it seems. Glad that some churches hang on to these and I was not sure how they worked. I have walked a maze or two in prayer is always for peace on earth.
By: Tabor on March 2, 2015
I've always found the labyrinths fascinating, but never knew the history. I'll look at them with new eyes from now on. And my condolences in the passing of Bette. She sounds like she made the world a richer place.
By: Shelly on March 2, 2015
i have never walked a labyrinth but worked with a woman who did several times a year. i know it is meditative/contemplative, but it still seems a bit odd to me. :)
By: TexWisGirl on March 2, 2015
I know a tiny bit more of the subject thanks to you.
By: Daniel LaFrance on March 2, 2015
Once again, you make learning FUN!!
By: fishducky on March 2, 2015
That is amazing. I had no idea.
By: Val on March 2, 2015
Thank you for the lesson. Now I am sure if I see one, I will make my way to the center and hope for a feeling of peace. I learn so much here.
By: Akansas Patti on March 2, 2015
I guess the modern day equivalent of the maze are rooms you can pay to get locked up inside and you have only so much time to figure out the way out. One of those was highlighted on Big Bang Theory last week.
By: Michael Offutt on March 2, 2015
A very interesting post , even at sad times we are surrounded by things which can take us pleasantly by surprise!
By: John on March 2, 2015
Symbolism holds a strong message. Kids seem to get it first.
By: red on March 2, 2015
Boy my Priest would LOVE to have that labyrinth at our church! We set up a temporary one during Lent last year, but it wasn't the same at all...
By: The Bug on March 2, 2015
Stephen: One of your most fascinating posts. To assuage a girlfriend who teaches Yoga, I walked a Labyrinth with her class. It was fascinating.
By: Michael Manning on March 2, 2015
Interesting post. I have a friend who for years has built labyrinths in all kinds of places to introduce people to the spiritual pilgrimage that can be found therein.
By: Charles Kinnaird on March 2, 2015
Interesting post. I have a friend who for years has built labyrinths in all kinds of places to introduce people to the spiritual pilgrimage that can be found therein.
By: Charles Kinnaird on March 2, 2015
Such labyrinths are a wonderful way to meditate. Or, if you are a child and want to play, to have a great time.
By: mimi on March 2, 2015
I never knew that labyrinths have such a significant background. I always thought of them a just a "fun" thing. You do teach us a lot with your posts.Thanks!
By: Pixel Peeper on March 2, 2015
what a lovely day for Bette's service....complete with laughing children. I am sure she was smiling!
By: Kathe W. on March 2, 2015
I'm sorry for your and your extended family's loss, Stephen. It's beautiful how you and the children found meaning and fun in the labyrinth. I'm thinking, too, of the circle of life. Blessings.
By: Robyn Engel on March 2, 2015
A fascinating post. Your last line is beautiful and poignant.
By: Tom Cochrun on March 2, 2015
Each year a different maze is cut into the grass in my local park. Last year they cut a labyrinth instead. I'm not sure how many people realised the significance of it. I know I didn't and I'm fairly sure the children playing didn't but it gave them so much pleasure. It's nice to know a little of the history behind them.
By: Sarah Mac on March 3, 2015
Whan Aprille with hir shoures sote, the droghte of March hath perced to the roote . . . I might have misspelled some of these words, but I remember how to pronounce them. It's the beginning of The Canterbury Tales. Love, Janie
By: Janie Junebug on March 3, 2015
May Bette RIP, and thanks for the FASCINATING history lesson.
By: Scott Park on March 3, 2015
Wow, I didn't know that! Thank you! Now I can add another bit of knowledge upon which I can wax eloquent (or wax car) to unsuspecting family members. Who says you can't learn anything from the internet?
By: Al Penwasser on March 3, 2015
That is a nice way to describe the traveling after someone leaves this life. Some day that will be us and then we will find out what really happens.
By: CiCi on March 3, 2015
Fascinating. Firstly, belated condolances for your family's loss. I did not know that about labyrinth - though I do know there are many ancient beliefs associated with them. I love the way you have linked the belief with Bette.
By: Mike@A Bit About Britain on March 4, 2015
i would love a labyrinth in our yard. My wife is trying to get one funded at the alcohol and drug rehab place where she works. It would be a walking/meditation labyrinth.
By: Rick Watson on March 4, 2015
Fascinating as always! Thanks for the post.
By: J.T. lewis on March 4, 2015
interesting history. I think they are used more for meditation nowadays. so did you walk the labyrinth to get to the center or just cut across?
By: Ellen Abbott on March 4, 2015

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