The small town of Chartres, about forty minutes outside of Paris, is darling, quaint, and old. You see the cathedral immediately, looming as the tallest building for miles. There are no words to aptly describe this medieval church. Therefore: immense, intricate in detail, magnificent in design, and stunning with stained glass, will just have to do. Despite the transit strike, I managed to catch a train and arrive by 1:30 on a Friday, the only day of the week the famous labyrinth is open to walk.
I am a labyrinth junkie, and have been lusting after this specific one for a very long stretch, having walked its replica many times. I love how labyrinths are metaphors for the womb of the Great Mother Goddess and one walks it as a way of initiation, a way of rebirth. Enter knowing what you wish to release, walk the path shedding it like a serpent’s skin. In the center, pray, set intention, offer gratitude and return spiritually reborn.
Of course, in the Catholic Chartres Cathedral, there is no talk of the Great Mother Goddess. The informational poster tells of the Bishop who stands in the center tossing a ball of yellow wool to pilgrims standing at the edge on Easter, creating a "festive and rhythmic dance". There is a small nod to the origin of this spiritual model, to Ariadne’s thread that led Theseus to the center to kill the Minotaur. But that is another story. Today I feel no resentment for the co-opting of this ancient practice. Today I feel nothing but gratitude.
This day is auspicious for more reasons than just that I attain my long awaited goal as one of the thousands of pilgrims who have come here to walk this circuitous spiritual path over the centuries. Today is also Friday the thirteenth and a full moon. The next time the moon is full on a Friday the thirteenth will be in 2049. I’ll be ninety.
The air is cool within the stone walls of the capacious cathedral. The labyrinth is situated just a few yards from the huge wooden doors that serve as entrance. Chairs have been moved away to reveal the yellowed marble blocks that form it’s shape, the path delineated by dark brown stone. I notice that many people are barefoot as they walk, and immediately decide I must do the same. This is uncharacteristic of me. I never go barefoot. I was raised to keep my shoes on, that shoes-off only happens when mourning the dead. Then, as a dancer, I was particularly protective of my money-makers so I continued to remain thus accustomed and don’t do anything barefoot except bathe and sleep. But now I know I will cast my sandals aside.
I stand nearby taking in the scene. People from all over the globe are walking the labyrinth; every color skin, every age from infants in arms to elders using canes. I observe how one person stands in each of the six petals of the central rosette while one person stands in the middle. When that person steps out, everyone moves one petal clockwise as the next steps in. It is beautiful, seemingly choreographed so that the central person is held sacred and witnessed by the others in their moment at the core of the mystery. I am savoring my anticipation in a way one can only do when they know its gratification is about to occur.
At the entrance, I wait until the person before me turns the first corner before entering. And then, after all these years of yearning, I take a deep breath, bring to mind my intention to let go of all unfinished business about being an artist, and step in! The marble is cold beneath my feet. With no callouses to shield them, I feel every crack in the uneven slabs, every small speck of earthly accrual. I walk slowly, consciously, one foot carefully placed before the next, listening to the hushed voices echoing off the cavernous walls like low and distant thunder. I imagine my fears, my self- imposed limitations, my infernal impossible rules dropping off my shoulders, spilling from my heart, flying out of my head. When I get toward the center, I see that now several people are crowding around the rosette and I hear myself worry, “That’s not how it’s supposed to go! It should be one person on each petal. They are not following the rules and it’s almost my turn.”
It does not escape me that everything that happens on a pilgrimage is part of the spiritual lesson. This worry about how it’s supposed to be done, this internal cry to control the situation, this mental invasion of my soulful experience isexactly what I need to become aware of as I reach the center of the labyrinth to meet my Goddess. And then I hear Her as clearly as if She says the words out loud.
“Art breaks the rules, Judith.”
Laughing inside, I step into the center as I turn to face the directions and Her insight fills me. It’s time to break these old rules that I have been slave to; that being an artist is somehow shameful, frivolous, unworthy. I slay my monster, my Minotaur, at the core of my unhappiness. My heart trills fervent thanks as I stand where I have longed to stand, in the center with my Goddess. Walking out, I feel giddy, delighted, excited. Soon I find my pace once more, stepping in sync with my breath. All too soon, I exit the labyrinth, the soles of my feet grey with the dirt of thousands of shoes, hundreds of years, the remnants of prayers uttered for centuries.
The thing about a pilgrimage is that every step of the way is part of it. It doesn’t happen when you arrive at the destination, it is happening all along the way. Almost from the moment you decide to do it. A pilgrimage needn’t be an ordeal, but it often is. There is something about leaving on a quest away from all that is familiar for a holy purpose. It means leaving your comfort zone, staying with and enduring uncertainty. And then it is immense gratitude for the friendly Frenchman who helps you buy the correct train ticket for the last leg of the trip, stepping out of the norm in your tender bare feet, hearing the central message that changes your life.