The Labyrinth at Chartres: Why Are Sacred Places Important?

The Labyrinth at Chartres: Why Are Sacred Places Important?

In our present time, there seems to be a huge market for “buying” your way to enlightenment. Everyone is peddling a secret. Chant this mantra. Hold this crystal. Buy some incense. Rub that oil. Say these words. Go to this retreat. Some of these things may have some value. Spiritual longing is a real part of the human experience. Labyrinths hold a special attraction for me. Can a labyrinth really be a tool for enlightenment? Are sacred places important?

The first labyrinth that I ever experienced was a Chartres Labyrinth, although I was not lucky enough to be in at the famous labyrinth in Chartres, France. I liked it so much I began to investigate labyrinths in general and the Chartres Labyrinth in particular.

Chartres Cathedral was built one thousand years ago to be the site of a Mystery School. Not only was the cathedral an architectural feat but was one of the leading learning centers at the time. The edifice combined the visionary teachings of Plato with Christian mysticism. You must walk the entire labyrinth path before gaining entrance to the Temple. It is the “way in,” if you will, a Chamber of Reflection of sorts.

Those who have been to the actual site in France say that the effect of the Cathedral is peaceful and nurturing. You are at rest, left to wander or to meditate in tranquility. The atmosphere suggests that the veil between the human and celestial worlds is thin, and God is very near. It represents the ideal of a sacred space: a blending of the divine and material. The impact of Chartres on people at that time must have been enormous. How can a place be so heavenly?

Sacred Geometry

The Divine mystery of the labyrinth walk might be due in part to the magical pattern. One path leads inwards to the center, and the same path leads back out again. Chartres has an eleven-circuit design, divided into four quadrants. They are encircled by an outer ring of lunations, thought to represent a type of lunar calendar. The quadrants suggest the even armed cross. At the center is a Rosette pattern of 6 petals which is the place of 14761614336_92dabf6bf4_zrest. It reminds us of the sacred lotus, symbol of enlightenment.

In medieval times, the path was considered a substitute for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It is symbolic of the pilgrim’s journey into his Soul: the Center. It must be a two-way journey, which ends at the starting point. The pilgrim must not seek to remain inside. He goes and comes back. He visits. He walks from the unreal to the real, from the periphery to the center, from the mundane to the spiritual and back. Is this not life?

Symmetry of the Design

In his book, The Mysteries of Chartres Cathedral, Louis Charpentier recalls his first experience of being inside the cathedral. He was immediately struck with the impression that “everything contained its opposite in itself.” He said that the same balance contained in the secret of the Chinese Tai Chi, is at work in Chartres where the “proportions, orientation, position and symbolism have all been designed to alert the psyche and refresh the spirit.”

This idea is hinted at in Chapter 14 of the Tao Te Ching:

The Labyrinth at Chartres

The Labyrinth at Chartres

What we look for beyond seeing 
And call the unseen,
Listen for beyond hearing
And call the unheard.
Grasp for beyond reaching
And call the withheld,
Merge beyond understanding
In a oneness
Which does not merely rise and give light,
Does not merely set and leave darkness,
But forever sends forth a succession of living things as mysterious
As the unbegotten existence to which they return.

Charpentier further states:

“If the pilgrim experienced the entire sensuousness of the cathedral, it would be because the body’s senses had apprehended all the musical and geometrical proportions, and all the numbers and lines expressed in the building’s interior.”

Geometric forms that exist in the labyrinth or even the Masonic Temple such as the cube, triangle, sphere, square, or oblong square could act as a doorway into various states of awareness. “God Geometrizes.” Sacred Temples can be said to stand for an unseen condition of something that can be known.

Beauty as an Expression of Truth

Divine archetypes are said to be not only doorways to the unknown, but as Plato has indicated, they are the very essence of beauty. The nature of beauty cannot always be described in words, and so it is possible, that certain symbols act as a bridge between the visible and the invisible. Satisfying both a physical and metaphysical need, sacred architecture can:

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1. Provide an energetic focusing center on the physical plane wherein the mysteries are learned and enacted;

2. Serve those seekers who enter the building and become intellectually and spiritually stimulated.

The more beautiful the appearance in form – the more closely will it correspond with spiritual truth. Buckminster Fuller stated it like this, “When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty, but when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.”

My sense is that if a person does not appreciate beautiful or holy things, he will lose them. Without reverence, the sacred feeling will diminish and then be forgotten. Thereafter, his only concern will be his personal comfort and selfish desires.

On the other hand, as we honor holy places we will be entrusted with holy things. Just the opposite of disbelief and despair, the goal is eternal life and peace. Contemplating art and architecture, the spiritual and the divine, moves us away from the mundane world of the daily round.

Do sacred spaces make us more enlightened? Some have scoffed at labyrinths, masonic temples, mantra, and things like crystals or incense for centuries. In times of need, I have tried all of them.

Obligation in Modernity

Obligation in Modernity

Freemasonry is built on the idea of obligating yourself to perform certain tasks, with a specific set of goals in mind. The word “obligation” comes from the roots of Middle English, from the verb “oblige,” which means to formally legally or morally bind someone to a promise. North Americans are used to hearing the phrase “much obliged,” in a sort of archaic sense, which means “to be indebted or grateful.” This is a derivation of the word; the more archaic form, from where the word “obligation” comes from is “to bind (someone) by an oath, promise, or contract.” The current 21st century definition is “an act or course of action to which a person is morally or legally bound; a duty or commitment.”

The most common obligation people run into is that of marriage. Divorce rates in the United States are down, possibly because marriage rates are also down. A shift? What about other obligations we make during our lives, especially the ones to ourselves? Upwards of 25% of current high school Freshmen will never complete high school. College drop out rates are the highest they have ever been, even with the highest enrollments ever. Even fraternal and social groups suffer from those who start and, for whatever reason, drop out.

To be fair, there are many reasons for giving up the path; financial, health, and family issues may cause problems for the student or spouse. Yet, we find little effort being made to surmount those challenges; we see the heroes as ones who complete school against all odds – but those odds are sometimes no greater than odds we all face. Everyone has challenges in their life. Completing or dedicating yourself to an endeavor takes will and strength, a desire to go against the easy life and really work hard to achieve your own success, whatever that might be. In an age of “Alexa” and “Siri,” doing things for yourself is seen as too much effort.

Molecular Thoughts

People who choose an esoteric path have put themselves on an extremely hard working journey. It’s not easy. As Buddha said, “life is suffering.” Enlightenment is not found in simple meditation. Physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual work are all necessary. Freemasonry, an esoteric and mystery path built on the foundations of “operative masonry,” is perhaps the epitome of working esoterically and externally.

An excellent article on the “Obligations of a Freemason” can be found on Pietre-Stones. In this article, the author expounds on the obligations of the individual as well as the collective. As Freemasonry is an “individual path worked in a group/collective,” it’s very right that we also look at not only what our obligations to ourselves but also to the group. In fact, from the very onset, in our application, we are promising certain actions that are considered obligatory.

Why all this emphasis on obligation, promises, and commitment? Is there some deeply esoteric meaning in obligating yourself to someone or something? Perhaps.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” ~ (John 1:1)

Much has been said about the divine logos, or, according to the Greeks, “The One Great Reason.” It’s representative of the unseen force of the universe that links us all together, whether we call it God, Love, the Divine, the Force, or whatever. Our ideas about “the Word,” and I suspect John’s as well, came from the Greek philosophers – Heraclitus, Plato, and Epictetus. Where Plato defined logos as an archetype, an idea representation of the divine in an independent-of-physical world, the Stoics refined the idea of logos to impart to it an active principle, and one which incorporated “the Reason” for all being into the function of “The Word.” It’s clear that The writer of the Gospel of John, as well as Buddhists, Jews, Taoists and others have also integrated this idea of the logos into the active Divine in the function of speaking the Word.

The divine Logos is the divine purpose, plan, or word that is the ultimate reason for the cosmos, which orders the universe and gives it meaning. That is, the sound or word has meaning, weight, in creation. As noted above, the Stoics defined logos as the law of generation in the Universe, which was the principle of the active reason working in inanimate matter. Humans, too, each possess a portion of the divine logos. That is, we humans, through our actions and words have generative power. The act of committing ourselves, or creating a binding agreement to complete work has power over us, either consciously or subconsciously. It also has the power to affect other individuals and other groups. This is a ripple effect; what we achieve has a lasting effect on the world around us, and flows out from us in a physical and metaphysical wave.

LOGOS-GreekThus, in giving our “word” or “bond,” we are creating. We create not only the superficial matter – such as our place in a Lodge or our status as spouse in a marriage, but we are creating an unseen, immaterial ripple that will create an effect throughout time. We create – it’s what humans do – and through our words, we create more than just simple relationships. Each word is a spoken manifestation of divinity.

Thus, promises, obligations, and commitments have weight – perhaps even more weight than we realize – when it comes to our overall spiritual life. It is important that we chose and use them carefully.

It’s funny that some individuals see their obligations as infringements on their time, or resources, or futures; funny because most, if not all commitments, promises, and obligations are solely made as the choice of the individual.  We think the promise we make to ourselves and others is somewhat disposable, minimal, with little effect on others and perhaps not even ourselves. Divorce and breakups, broken familial relationships and school dropouts – these are the failures of not understanding ourselves and our words. Failure is always an option and do-overs are necessary – but in order to achieve relief from the suffering, we have to be willing to be honest with ourselves. Pain is inevitable, and suffering doesn’t arise from pain but from our resistance to it – from our resistance to honesty and careful thought; it comes from our resistance to speak “the Word.”

I’ll leave you with a quote from a children’s fantasy book, one which understands and captures the essence of “the Word” in a very real sense – The Wizard of Earthsea.

“It is no secret. All power is one in source and end, I think. Years and distances, stars and candles, water and wind and wizardry, the craft in a man’s hand and the wisdom in a tree’s root: they all arise together. My name, and yours, and the true name of the sun, or a spring of water, or an unborn child, all are syllables of the great word that is very slowly spoken by the shining of the stars. There is no other power. No other name.”
― Ursula K. Le GuinA Wizard of Earthsea