My first experience with the labyrinth wasn’t, um…traditional. For those of you unfamiliar with prayer labyrinths, they are paths which lead, via a circuitous, unicursal (only a single path) route, to the center of an intricate design and back out again. Walking a labyrinth is a means of praying with the body along with the mind and soul. Often installed near, or inside, churches and cathedrals they are meant for spiritual journeys, or, as Travis Scholl wrote in his new book Walking the Labyrinth: A Place to Pray and Seek God, a labyrinth is “a path of pilgrimage and prayer, a living symbol of the journey of faith in a sinful, broken world.”
But again, my first experience with a prayer labyrinth wasn’t of stone and grass, intricate designs or holy architecture…it involved TVs, trash-cans, and staring at a mirror. No, it wasn't an odyssey into the strange world of David Bowie's "Labyrinth" film (though, that is a trip). Designed as an “interactive installation for spiritual journeys” the one I first walked was a contemporary twist on an ancient tradition, aimed at a digital, and distracted, generation. You can even explore the labyrinth online HERE.
Since that first experience at a Lutheran youth gathering in Palm Springs, CA I have since explored labyrinths in Nelson, New Zealand, Paris, France, and in Houston, TX. Each one took me on its own particular path toward “the unknowable center of life, its mystery, unseen and unheard in the babble and hustle of our everyday existence.” Indeed, as Scholl intimates, we living in a hurried, inundated, and constantly connected world “need the labyrinth.”
More than anything else, walking a prayer labyrinth is engaging in a physical-spiritual discipline with ancient roots. To understand the labyrinthine ins-and-outs of prayer labyrinths, and to invite readers into a journey of curiosity, discovery, and even divine encounter, Travis Scholl — managing editor of theological publications at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO — wrote this new book with a foreword from Walter Wangerin Jr.
Designed to serve as a 40-day devotional exploration of prayer labyrinth reflections this text is a perfect resource for the season of Lent. Bringing together historical context on the labyrinth, first-hand biographical transparency, creative and intricate writing, and weighty devotional commentary on the crossing of the labyrinth, and indeed the crossing of life, I highly recommend Scholl’s work.
*You can purchase it HERE.
To learn more about the man, his journey, and the book itself read the in-depth interview below:
Tell me a little bit about what got you initially interested with the labyrinth…
My first introduction to the labyrinth came through literature. As an undergrad English major, I read Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges’ Labyrinths, which is a collection of his short stories, parables, and various fictions. Borges’ stories got me very interested in the labyrinth as a literary symbol of paradox and mystery. A passage from Borges is one of the epigraphs to my book. I should also add that I liked playing with maze games as a kid, including Rubik’s Cube, which is, in its own way, a labyrinth.
Why did you decide to interweave your journey with, and through, the labyrinth with a devotional expedition through Lent?
After I discovered the church labyrinth in our neighborhood, it just seemed like an interesting daily discipline to use during Lent. Nothing more, nothing less. As I approached Ash Wednesday, it occurred to me that I could also use it as a daily writing exercise. I actually wrote about that initial experience in my St. Louis Post-Dispatch blog. The book arose from there.
Now, you're Lutheran and the labyrinth, well, isn’t (at least historically). At the very least, you don’t see labyrinths at Lutheran churches and there is some censure that comes from conservative Lutheran circles about practices like this. What kind of blowback do you expect, or have received, and what is your response?
I knew going in that the labyrinth has been coopted by various, for lack of a better word, New Age-y type mysticisms. But I also knew that its roots in medieval Christianity were strong (I had studied the architecture of Chartres cathedral in France during undergrad too). So, as it developed, I saw my book as an attempt to recover the labyrinth as an authentically Christian practice. I don’t know if I really expected “blowback,” but I guess it didn’t surprise me when people misconstrued the labyrinth’s history or what my book is trying to accomplish. No, the labyrinth is not typically “Lutheran.” But then again, 50 years ago, the last thing you’d see on a Lutheran pastor is a chasuble. So, what I’ve always found refreshing as a Lutheran is our tradition’s ability to recover practices from Christian history and re-energize them with a Gospel-centered focus.
You move back-and-forth between history and present, walking the labyrinth and moving through the Gospel of Mark. What does this unconventional approach bring to the readers’ enjoyment of this book and contemplation of its themes?
I hope it does for readers the same thing it did for me: it brought me face-to-face with Jesus Christ in the Scriptures. And it showed that the path Jesus walks in the Gospel of Mark is very much its own kind of labyrinth, the way he moves back-and-forth, around and around Galilee, the way his steps lead inescapably, like a vortex, to the cross. And, finally, the way the empty tomb leads us back out of the vortex, into “our” Galilee.
Have you gone back to walk the labyrinth since you finished the book? What’s different, the same, with this discipline for you now?
After my Lenten discipline, and while I was working on the book, I intentionally stayed away from the actual labyrinth I walked. Mainly because I wanted to get some distance from the experience, the kind of critical distance any writer needs to be able to finish a book. Since then, I’ve walked it a time or three, and what strikes me is how the physical grounds of the labyrinth have changed. There’s a community garden there now, among other things. That may sound trivial, but that’s to me a key component of the labyrinth as a discipline, the way it awakens us to what is happening right in front of our face, which we often don’t see because our mind is somewhere else or our nose is buried in a smartphone. I guess in that sense I see “labyrinths” in a lot of different places now, being attentive to the world around me anytime I walk from one place to another.
When you touch on the Gospel narratives you bring a certain humanizing touch to the narrative (e.g. Jesus laughing p. 175). What does this bring to the story of the Gospels?
I don’t know if it’s something I “bring” to the story of the Gospels as much as it’s something I see or hear happening within them as I read the Gospels. I’m very much drawn to the biblical idea of midrash as a way of reading the Bible, that when we read closely between the lines of texts, we can see something that illuminates the whole of them. It is a way of living in the text rather than simply looking at the text.
Walking the labyrinth is a discipline of the body, the soul, the mind. How does such a practice augment lived Christian spirituality in the 21st century?
This is a great question, because it points to the way that the labyrinth, as one among various Christian practices, involves the whole body, the whole self (similar to, for instance, the Stations of the Cross). For a faith that is centered in the incarnation, I think this is essential to Christian living, especially now when so much of our life and culture pulls us away from the body, from the stuff of earth, which I think is really just another form of Gnosticism, the heresy which simply says the body is “all bad” and the soul is “all good.”
You mention that walking the labyrinth makes you more attentive to the world around you. What did you, by walking the labyrinth, notice about the world that you didn’t before?
I touched on this a little bit already, but one of the things I noticed is that there are so many interesting things we can notice, even on a little patch of grass in the middle of a bustling city, if we just stop for a moment. We miss so much of it. I talk about it in the book, but I remember one day when I could smell warm maple syrup from the café across the street. Or the way the leaves broke open the trees at that particular time in spring. This is life happening before our very eyes, all over the place, so simple but so profound.
What do you hope people get out of this book?
That’s a difficult question for me to answer, because I don’t want to preempt people into a certain way of reading the book. I do hope people can themselves become more attentive to the world around them by reading the book. I certainly hope it gives readers a window into the literary labyrinth we call the Gospel of Mark. But, honestly, I would be incredibly flattered if people simply found a few well-written words in there, words that stick with them for awhile.
Anything else you want to share?
Thanks much for the opportunity to talk about Walking the Labyrinth. I welcome feedback on Twitter (@travisjscholl). Grace and peace in the walking.