by Marcella Kearns, MCT Education and Literary Manager
|Labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral in France|
In the 1990s, the labyrinth, an ancient spiritual symbol with roots around the globe, enjoyed a resurgence and renaissance in disparate communities of retreat, healing, and faith. Now, with Greg Pierce’s SLOWGIRL, MCT brings its own labyrinth to the Milwaukee stage. Both literally and figuratively, Pierce etches a labyrinthine journey into the heart of his piece. For your enjoyment, here’s a primer on this evocative symbol.
Significantly for the play, labyrinths and mazes aren’t the same beast. This separation is critical, though the two are so often equated the difference is usually lost. Mazes are “multicursal,” with many paths, and tend to puzzle or trap those who enter. Sometimes, it’s a mortal affair, like the most famous maze of western lore—the Minotaur’s maze in Crete, into which King Minos sent tributes of young Athenians for the monster to devour. The challenge of most mazes isn’t so mortally risky a quest, though recent young adult book and film franchises are capitalizing on that conceit. Still, the maze, by definition, presents the potential for failure given its twists.
A labyrinth, on the other hand, has only one path. Ari Berk paraphrases Hermann Kern’s complex definition so:
…a true labyrinth is a structure or design whose path can assume numerous forms, but cannot intersect itself. There are no choices for the traveler. You must enter and exit in the same place. Also, your path will fold back on itself, changing direction frequently, and will fill the entire space within its boundaries. It will move you temptingly past the center and then away again before leading you, eventually, to the center. (16)
The design of the Chartres Cathedral labyrinth in France fits this definition beautifully. A rosette with six sides forms its heart, around which multiple curves radiate in four directions and loop back on themselves. One entrance, like the stem of a flower, doubles as its exit. Built into the floor of the cathedral in the early 1200s, the labyrinth served as a pilgrimage-in-place for Christians who couldn’t make the trek to the Holy Land. Today, copies of the Chartres design and simpler models, which have bloomed as painted canvas, stone in grass, inlaid stone inside and outdoors, and even finger-tracing sculpture, can be found in multiple locations across the United States. Several of Milwaukee’s faith communities boast their own portable or inlaid design.
Walking a well-constructed labyrinth is a simple but potentially powerful form of meditation, if not for indefinable spiritual benefit, at the very least for mathematical satisfaction. A guide published by St. Mary Catholic Faith Community in Hales Corners suggests that a pilgrim walking the labyrinth considers three phases in her walk: purgation (letting go cares and concerns), illumination (being open to receive what is there at the center), and union (bringing a refreshed spirit back to the world). The single path allows opportunity for contemplation at this level or simple enjoyment of order, of beauty.
It’s this design which Greg Pierce conjures as a central symbol—and, arguably, plot structure—in SLOWGIRL. The character Sterling, played by Peter Reeves, has exiled himself from the United States and taken up residence in Costa Rica. He has built himself a labyrinth, a place of contemplation, order, and retreat. His teenage niece Becky (Sara Zientek) encounters the labyrinth without the same reverence, but possibly with the same level of need. The estranged family members, two pilgrims untangling the most difficult events of their own lives, couldn’t be more different, but the labyrinth calls them both.
What will happen? No spoilers, but optimism recalls the sweet secret of a labyrinth. As contemporary spiritual practitioners maintain, one who chooses to enter the labyrinth can’t get lost. There are no wrong turns. There are no dead ends. The fundamental choice is the choice to enter. As long as he enters, and keeps walking, he will reach the center of the labyrinth and its secret heart. Then, as long as he keeps on walking, he will come out again.
A comforting thought.
Anonymous. “The Labyrinth at St. Mary Catholic Faith Community.” Pamphlet.
Berk, Ari. “The Dance of the Labyrinth is twisting, turning, and timeless.” Realms of Fantasy October 2004: 16-24, 88-89.
Curry, Helen. The Way of the Labyrinth: A Powerful Meditation for Everyday Life. New York: Penguin Compass, 2000.
Hamilton, Edith. Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes. Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1942.
Heinen, Tom. “For many, a walk through a labyrinth evokes a circuitous spiritual journey.” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 13 April 1998: 1A, 8A.