Pilgrimage of the head and heart

Pilgrimage of the head
As an artist with a strong interest in history, I have always been fascinated by the aesthetics of the labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral and by the strength of its metaphor for pilgrimage. Chartres Cathedral, in Chartres, France, was completed in 1250 A.D. The labyrinth is built into the floor of the nave, one of many such labyrinths that were constructed in Gothic cathedrals in Europe during the Middle Ages. The labyrinth (which is not the same as a maze – one cannot get lost in a labyrinth) is a symbol found in early cultures around the world and is said to be as much as 4,000 years old – predating Christianity, yet adopted by many Christians throughout the millennia to signify pilgrimage and a spiritual journey toward Christ.

My interest in its form was purely one of academic curiosity. I mused about how one could, by following the path of the labyrinth, walk somewhere in the region of 1/4 km in such a small space (just over 12×12 m). I read stories about how, in the Middle Ages, walking the labyrinth became a substitute for an actual pilgrimage to Jerusalem. I thought about the profound sense of history that must encompass visitors to Chartres who walk the same path that countless people have walked for over 800 years. The labyrinth at Chartres and many others like it have been reproduced in parks, backyards and even on portable mats worldwide so that people can experience the pilgrimage without going too far from home.

When I was asked to make a series of artworks for Forest City Community Church (FCCC) in London a few years ago, I decided to grapple with the symbolism of the labyrinth as pilgrimage. I wanted to explore ways in which this symbol, which connects us with our distant past, could be brought into the present in a meaningful way. To be honest, I didn’t really understand why the experience of walking a labyrinth was so meaningful to so many. I also knew that the labyrinth’s significance and use in church settings is controversial in some Christian circles because of its association with distant pagan origins. I asked a theologian friend what he thought of the labyrinth. He suggested that one very strong argument in its favour is that a labyrinth, quite simply, causes people to slow down.

Not one to shy away from using a potent visual image in my work, I chose to paint the labyrinth along with a road through the wilderness. I wanted to convey that although walking the labyrinth could be a profound spiritual experience for the individual, it was important to remember that we are called to walk in the world. To express this dual purpose, I painted the labyrinth on the ground, stretching across the road, and then reflected it in the sky. I completed the painting and put it aside. Although it looked good, I was unsatisfied with it. Something was missing, and the more I reflected upon it, the more it became clear: what was missing was experience. I had never walked a labyrinth. I had never even really desired to walk a labyrinth. To be honest, even though part of me liked the idea, another part of me felt that it would be a rather empty and somewhat insincere experience for me, personally. What I liked on an intellectual level was not something I had truly embraced on an experiential level. I knew that unless I could reconcile my head and heart, my painting would lack authenticity.

Pilgrimage of the heart
My brother, Greg Jenkins, is a priest at Trinity Anglican Church in downtown Cambridge, Ontario. Not long before I began this journey of creating a series for FCCC, his church had installed a replica of the Chartres labyrinth in a park next door to the church, a bequest of a parishioner who had passed away. I made arrangements to visit Cambridge and walk this labyrinth along with my sister-in-law, Gillian.

Trinity’s labyrinth is located beside the church on a small square of parkland bordered by four city streets. Gillian told me that I should enter the labyrinth with a question on my mind and that by the time I reached the centre, God would provide the answer. I’m sure I gave her a “look” when she said that. I was skeptical. Things just don’t work that way (do they?). But because I wanted to at least attempt to understand the labyrinth experience, I did ask a question as I began my pilgrimage: “What is the labyrinth all about?”

And so I began to follow the labyrinth, slowly placing one foot in front of the other, looking down, hoping that no one was watching. Almost right away, I became annoyed. My “spiritual” experience was being interrupted by the drone of traffic on the street next to me. Car radios blared music with a heavy beat. Chainsaws were cutting down trees in the neighbourhood, and a building nearby was getting a new roof. Worst of all was the loud swearing and coughing of a group of men who were standing near the church. When I reached the middle of the labyrinth, I expressed my frustration to Gillian: “This is the WORST place for a labyrinth! It isn’t meditative at all! And the worst is that group of men over there with their swearing and their hoarse coughs.”

Gillian agreed that it was very noisy. Then, looking at the men, she said, “They’ll go inside soon. They’re just waiting for the soup kitchen to open.” When she said those words, I felt as though the air was knocked out of me. In an instant my negative attitude and my entire perspective changed and I said, “I take it back. This is the PERFECT location for a labyrinth!”

A bit shaken by the experience, I decided to walk the labyrinth a second time and to film my progress, using a camcorder focusing on the path in front of me. The film has a mesmerizing quality. The image sways slightly with each footstep. Relatively straight paths are thrown into sharp 360-degree turns. As the path moves the viewer forward, it turns and winds backwards. When I was screening the film at home, my husband, who at the time was threatened with the possibility of losing his sight, commented: “That’s my life. Just when I think the path is straight, there is a bend in the road.” I was speechless and couldn’t take my eyes from the screen.

The paradox of pilgrimage
Now I had the painting and the film. The painting represented the theoretical side of the experience. The film uncovered the experiential. I had moved from a position that was dismissive about the labyrinth experience to one of deep emotional longing to walk it again. As I watched and re-watched my film, I noticed that the path was dotted with weeds and the occasional cigarette butt. Ants and other insects busied themselves along the edges. The noises of life in the city intruded on birdsong.

This was the path of life.

In his article, “Protestants and Pilgrimage,” Graham Tomlin notes, “There is a paradox to be found at the heart of pilgrimage. A pilgrim goes in search of a closer knowledge, experience or relationship with God. However, a common outcome of good, healthy pilgrimage is a renewed and strengthened sense that God can in fact be found, not just in so-called ‘holy places,’ but anywhere” (Explorations in a Christian Theology of Pilgrimage, edited by Craig Bartholomew and Fred Hughes, 2004). It was this paradox that I needed to represent in my artwork. I did so by adding images of the labyrinth’s path to the piece, just beyond the edges of the original painting. I painted images of the path onto hardened soil. By placing the soil together with the original image, I brought together the two seemingly divergent images of pilgrimage – that of the spirit and that of the world. This, I felt, was significant not only for individual Christians, but for the church in general. It simply is not enough to walk through life on a spiritual path that shuts out the world around us. When we live our lives walking in Christ along the paths he sets before us, we walk on holy ground.


  • Mary Abma is an artist living in Bright’s Grove, Ont.

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