This version of the labyrinth originated in the mid 1990s with Live On Planet Earth, an alternative worship community in southeast England. They were inspired by the work of Lauren Artress in reviving the use of labyrinths, but added elements drawn from their own theological readings and background in therapy [see the Theory section for more details].
Their labyrinth service had four main aspects, exploring our relationships with God, ourselves, other people and the planet. The labyrinth itself was the 'relationship with God' aspect, and the other aspects were expressed as separate stations for the use of participants who were waiting to enter the labyrinth, or who had emerged. There was a background of ambient music to the service as a whole, with a live spoken 'overarching' meditation which could be listened to or not. The service ran for two or three hours so that everyone in the congregation had time to walk the labyrinth without it becoming overcrowded - people staggered their entries to maintain space between participants and a correct walking pace.
In 1998-99 a number of 'alternative worship' groups in the London area came together to work on events to mark the Millennium. Several of us had been involved in doing labyrinth services at a number of locations with a wide range of people, and so we asked St Paul's Cathedral if they would allow us to run a labyrinth service in the cathedral. We had expected no more than a space in the crypt or a corner, for a few hours one evening. We were amazed, grateful and rather alarmed to be asked to run a labyrinth in the south transept, all day every day for a week!
At this point we were faced with a number of challenges which forced us to innovate.
1: We were not able to play music out loud in the cathedral. This ruled out both the background music and the overarching meditation.
2: All written materials in the cathedral had to be in six languages [English, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Japanese]. This meant that written instructions on the labyrinth would be unwieldy and confusing.
3: The scale of the space and the numbers of people passing by [circa 5000 tourists a day] meant that it would be difficult to supervise outlying stations as well as the labyrinth itself.
4: The space itself was a rectangle with a diagonal checkerboard floor pattern. This would make a circular pattern marked out on the floor almost unreadable, nor would it fit the space.
We saw that visitors to the cathedral were given headphones and a random-access digital guide [this was in 1999 when such things were uncommon]. This gave us the solution for music, meditations and instructions - we recorded them and gave participants a portable CD player with headphones. We were also able to sell the CD to recoup some of our costs.
We didn't have the expertise, money or timescale to record CDs in the five languages other than English, so we gave people an instrumental version of the CD and booklets with the translated meditations. We also produced the booklet in English, for people who did not feel comfortable with headphones or the CD player.
We incorporated the Self, Planet and Others stations into the labyrinth itself, as part of the outward path, and added corresponding stations for the inward path. This meant we only had to supervise one thing.
We invented a new angular pattern, based on the checkerboard floor and to fit the space, with parts of the path opened out to accommodate the stations. Because of the stations the inward and outward paths had to be by different routes, to prevent confusion. The exit had to be close to the entrance, to facilitate collection of CD players and shoes. The design had to be more or less symmetrical but not immediately readable. It was going to be looked down on by tourists in the dome of the cathedral.
All of the above resulted in a number of compromises.
The first track was too long for its segment of path, even at the slowest walking pace - we recommended that people listened to the track for a while before they entered the labyrinth.
The headphones and music players meant that the experience became primarily individual rather than communal. Total immersion in the private soundworld is wonderful, but something is also lost. In the meditation itself we remind participants to be aware of fellow walkers and their needs.
The greatest compromise was in the experience of labyrinth walking itself. In our version participants are tempted to see the path as just a way to get from station to station, rather than as an essential element of the journey. Experienced labyrinth walkers know how to pace the journey and use the space between stations, but it is disheartening to see people rush suddenly to the next station. They are missing the point, and there is no hurry.
Forgive us our compromises. We only expected this labyrinth to exist for a week.
We had expected the labyrinth to be met with broad indifference, some hostility, and a few people who would understand and enjoy it. In the event we were stunned by the overwhelmingly positive reactions from visitors, of all types and ages.
One such visitor was the editor of American youthwork magazine 'Group', who later returned to us with a proposal for a labyrinth kit that could be sold as a resource. This was marketed as The Prayer Path in the United States, and later as Labyrinth by Proost in the UK. The kit sold well for several years.
Meanwhile, we ran the labyrinth at several festivals and conferences, notably Greenbelt Festival in August 2000, where the doors had to be locked due to pressure of numbers. Youth for Christ then took the installation on a tour of English cathedrals through 2001-2002. We took it to Texas in 2001 - before 9/11 it was possible to get 25 CD players through US Customs in our luggage without questions! Thousands walked the labyrinth at Christian conferences in the US. It ran in Mexico, Croatia, South Korea and Australia [always translated into the local language!].
And our work in creating this labyrinth continues to inform the labyrinths we create for our own local events, in both traditional forms and new inventions to suit particular spaces or themes.