I often encourage my congregants to step outside of their comfort zone and stretch spiritually.
Recently, I had the opportunity to practice what I preach.
Our friends in New Orleans, one of whom is a retired minister, and his wife invited us to join them for a meditative experience. Each Tuesday at 6 p.m., they head over to the Trinity Episcopal Cathedral for an hour of meditation. This experience, though, was out of the ordinary when it comes to meditation. On the church altar there was a tarp that reproduced the design of a walking labyrinth from the 13th-century French cathedral in the city of Chartres.
The labyrinth is not a maze but a walking path that leads to the center of an intricate design and back out again. Such labyrinths have been in existence for over 3,500 years. Archaeological evidence demonstrates that many cultures adopted them in religious rituals from Egypt and Crete to the North American Indians.
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In Christianity, the labyrinth was used as far back as the fourth century. The Catholic church used them for meditation and as a symbol for various theological ideas such as the road to God, mystical ascension to salvation and enlightenment, and even as a symbolic journey to Jerusalem for those who could not make the actual trip.
Today, the Global Labyrinth Project strives to use the labyrinth to advance a universal message of personal healing and spiritual growth. The path is supposed to be a "mirror for where we are in our lives."
There are three stages to the walk.
The first is called purgation, which means we are supposed to let go of thoughts and emotions and simply clear our minds.
The second stage is called illumination, which occurs when the person is standing at the center of the labyrinth, looks out into the cathedral and receives the spiritual emotion and engages in profound meditative moments. It is the insight of receiving prayer.
The third stage is called Union, which means growing closer to the "Higher Power" or God inside us. Accordingly, each time a person walks the labyrinth, they find a clearer direction to God and to doing good deeds, which fulfill the potential of the soul.
This was not the first time I saw a labyrinth at an Episcopal church. All Saints Church in Ocean Springs, Miss., on the last leg of our trip south, has an outside labyrinth on its grounds. The New Orleans labyrinth, however, was the first time I'd participated in this ancient ritual.
There are no prayers or liturgy associated with the tradition. People simply sit in the pews, let their minds relax and meditate. At any moment, a person may walk up the steps and begin the labyrinth. The beautiful pipe organ inspires with powerful and then quiet music in the background.
As I began to relax and clear my mind, I was unsure whether it was appropriate for me, as Jew and rabbi, to participate. Admittedly, I was a bit intimidated at first. Eventually I mustered the courage by taking my shoes off, walking up to the altar and beginning the labyrinth walk. As I carefully followed the design, I could feel that I was not so much walking the labyrinth as it was pulling me along.
I ended up at the center. There was something powerful about standing at the center and gazing out into the world. My friend explained to me afterward that for her, liturgy alone is not what a religious experience is all about. Liturgy can be confining and too structured. For her, the labyrinth is about peace and contemplation, the opportunity to reflect and center oneself.
I left the labyrinth feeling relaxed and at peace with myself. It was a cleansing experience of the soul, and doing it in a church was for me an outside-the-box spiritual experience.
I felt a powerful but gentle connection to a universal spiritual insight that we are all capable of reaching out while walking our own path to the universal God or higher power that created us all.
Experiencing other religious traditions, particularly those with a definite universal orientation, does not diminish or threaten the integrity of our own faith traditions.
It just means we are open to experience the beauty of religious diversity in the world.
Isn't that a good thing that brings us closer together?
Columnist Rabbi Brad L. Bloom is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head Island. He can be reached at 843-689-2178. Read his blog at http://www.fusion613.blogspot.com and follow him at twitter.com/rabbibloom.