Mazes & Labyrinths

the maze at Chartres
by Jim Forest

Life is a maze in which we take the wrong turn before we have learnt to walk. — Cyril Connolly

What could be more delightful than to have in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the humane security of coming home again? — G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

What we call the beginning is often the end, and to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from. — T.S. Eliot

The Archangel Michael, as Henry Adams observed, loves heights.  Fortress-like churches dedicated to the heavenly warrior have often been built on forbidding pinnacles of rock. The most famous, Mont-Saint-Michel, is poised atop a dagger of stone on the tidal flatland just off the southwest coast of Normandy near the border of Brittany. When the tide is up, the abbey is like a magnificent ship anchored offshore. Both location and architecture suggest a readiness to withstand the sieges of armies and the elements. The fortifications may have helped ward off Vikings, but have also made it a major attraction for tourists and pilgrims.

The Virgin Mary seems to prefer more vulnerable locations. In her case, rarely do any remarkable obstacles impede the pilgrim’s way. Take the example of the Cathedral of Our Lady at Chartres, one of the most important centers of pilgrimage in Europe, whose town is set amidst a vast moat of wheat fields.

There has been a church in Chartres dedicated to Christ’s mother at least since the fourth century, when St. Adventinus was the local bishop. Stonemasons have labored on the site again and again. Work on the main part of the present church began in 1194 after a fire destroyed a smaller cathedral. Thanks in large measure to the many thousands of pilgrims who came annually to make a gift of their labor, most of the construction was finished by 1230. The cathedral at Chartres is not only a goal of pilgrimage, but a work of pilgrimage.

These days most pilgrims arrive in Chartres by train, car or bicycle, but even in secular, post-modern Europe there are those who still make the journey on foot. No matter what their mode of travel, pilgrims look eagerly toward the horizon waiting for the grey profile of the cathedral to rise above the grain. For those traveling in groups, there is often a spire-spotting contest. When we were traveling by rented car on our last visit to Chartres, our daughter Anne won a coin for being first to spot those two arrow-sharp towers.

Approaching Chartres through the wide plain of surrounding fields, the hill on which the town and cathedral are built gradually reveals itself. From every vantage point, the cathedral dominates the view, its two great towers rising heavenward from the heart of the town. The cathedral’s spires have a magnetic strength, compelling the pilgrim to make no other stop before reaching the church and entering the western doors — the Royal Portal — that stand between the towers.

Stepping inside the church, the pilgrim stands within in an immense enclosure that seems to be an entrance point to the kingdom of God. The immense, softly-lit, column-lined space is a domain in which ordinary time hardly exists and doesn’t matter. One’s first impression is of a tremendous silence, even among whispered conversations or a softly chanted Mass. The 176 windows — among the best preserved medieval glass the world possesses — are a Bible written in fragments of colored glass. Red and blue are the most dominant: the colors of ice and fire. Others play supporting roles: deep forest green, pale lilac, lemon yellow; all enhanced by ebony lines glazed to the glass to provide image details and the black tracery of lead connecting the pieces.

Those who are drawn to Chartres, whether they see themselves as pilgrims or simply as tourists, often spend many hours “reading” the windows panel by panel and derive the satisfaction of breaking a code as they work out the meaning of each. Camping of the edge of town as our family did during our last visit to Chartres, we stopped one morning at a local camera shop to buy a pair of binoculars, eager to get closer to the glass. We wondered if our ancestors, who read less or not at all, might not have had better eyes for distance vision and thus found it easier to decipher the glasswork.

The windows are a kind of giant puzzle for the eyes and mind. Little by little one sees how all the panels connect — how the story in one panel is threaded to the next, each window in dialogue with its neighbors.

“It’s a giant comic book,” our daughter Anne commented. She was right, so long as one understands “comic” not as a synonym for funny, but in the sense of Dante’s divine comedy.

At the heart of the cathedral, as in every church with a eucharistic tradition, is its main altar. Each altar is a center of the universe. Each altar is a table of divine hospitality. The altar is a place where a frequent miracle occurs — bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. Christ is both hidden and revealed in the most basic of foods.

At the foot of the central aisle that leads toward the main altar is a treasure that visitors often walk over without noticing: a circular maze. It’s the cathedral’s most abstract work of art and the only one designed as much for the feet as for the eye. The mosaic maze is more than thirteen yards from edge to edge, the width of the pillar-bordered avenue that leads to the altar.

Unlike the labyrinth in ancient Crete, where the hero Theseus conquered the Minotaur and cleverly found his way out by following the thread given him by Ariadne, the maze at Chartres is not life-threatening. Its “walls,” traced in black stone, rise only in the imagination. The unicursal path of white stone has no blind alleys, traps, pits, dead ends or secret chambers. If you wish, there is nothing to stop you from walking straight to the center without bothering to follow the path, but something deeply rooted in human nature makes even the casual visitor carefully follow the white track, treating the black lines as impassable barriers. An occasional pilgrim makes the journey on penitential knees, but the majority walk upright. Either way, it’s a reassuring experience. While there are many twists and turns, with the pilgrim often being led away from his goal, whoever stays on the path ultimately reaches the center.

The unicursal journey, with all its detours, condenses the lifelong quest to achieve union with God. It’s a simple model of each person’s journey of faith. The destination at the center represents the most holy of pilgrimage goals: Jerusalem.

Even if the pilgrim cannot lose his way in the Chartres maze, what appears at first glance to be a simple walk within a circle shows itself to be the way of the cross. The path’s many turnings occur around a cruciform pattern. The maze entrance — symbolic of baptism — seems to lead directly to the center but abruptly branches off to the left. Then, where the left arm of the cross would be, the path doubles back, soon returning the walker to the path heading toward the center, but instead only grazes the innermost circle before going outward again. One reaches the maze’s center point — Jerusalem with its empty tomb — only after making a grand tour of the entire circle, with all its sudden turns, a process achieved simply by carefully placing one foot in front of the other, staying on the path, making turns that form the pattern of the life-giving cross.

The maze at Chartres is circular. The circle — a line without beginning or end — is a symbol of eternity. The same symbol is used in Christian iconography to form the halo, the sign that someone has become whole: a new person transformed in Christ-revealing, self-giving love and, united with Christ, now experiencing eternal life.

The circular, cross-containing maze is a simple map of the path to sanctity, a wordless image of the New Testament. Its message: Follow the path of the gospel, and the mercy of God will finally bring you to the heavenly Jerusalem, the kingdom of God, no matter how many turns you make along the way or how many times your goal may seem to recede. Along the way you will discover, and even carry, the cross; but the cross contains the resurrection — life with Christ and all the saints in the new Jerusalem.

[This is a chapter from The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life, published by Orbis Books. For more information about this and other of Jim’s books, see]