Lessons from the Labyrinth in Notre Dame


Last night, I was lucky enough to visit Notre Dame de Reims for the Nuit de la Cathedrale (where you visit the cathedral at night). After three choral performances, some organ recitals, and a movie about St. Jean Vanier, they lit up the labyrinth of the church. Notre Dame’s was a bit different from most because it was projected onto the floor, but as you’ll find out later, this added to the experience in an important way.

If you do a google search of Labyrinths and their meaning, what you usually find are blogs which claim that labyrinths are sPirItUaL and they help you meditate and all of that New Agey goop. I’m going to aim for a more realistic angle for the traveller who stumbles across one.

Originally, faithful Catholics used labyrinths to kneel around on penance or walk around instead of going on a pilgrimage. But I came across an extremely fascinating psychological use for labyrinths, courtesy of Dr. Jordan Peterson in one of his Biblical Lectures.

His view, which he borrowed heavily from Carl Jung, was that a labyrinth simulates you fulfilling your potential. In order to do so, you must go to all four corners of the world. Only then can you reach the center. Here’s what he means in real life: if you’re figuring out what your college major should be, you’ve got to try out all of the fields of study out there, and only then can you pick the best one, because you will know them all.

This interpretation strikes me as credible because my life has been just like that. You try to reach this end destination but the way you get there is often unknown except for the next step right in front of you. The rest arranges itself as you go along because, well, if you knew how to get straight to your destination then you’d be there already.

But enough chat! I went around that illuminated labyrinth (not just a maze! as you have only one entrance which doubles as the exit) in Notre Dame de Reims, and here’s what I learned while doing so.

First and foremost, not everyone tries to walk it.

When I got to the maze, there was a guy in the corner with a video camera just recording the labyrinth, and so nobody wanted to disturb his image. But then I said fuck it and started walking on it, even though he glared at me (oops! :). If he were a cameraman for an important authority like the Cathedral then he would’ve asked me to get off, but he didn’t ask me to do so, so I proceeded nonetheless (better to ask for forgiveness than for permission, right?).

A few older people just looked at the labyrinth and at me as I boldly walked right in front of the camera (where the line took me!). But they didn’t come join me. They seemed to look at the labyrinth as a work of art rather than a challenge to surmount.

What this means is that pursuing that ideal goal of yours is something that not very many people have the courage to do. They’re either embarrassed by others watching them (a generic fear), or are afraid of not having permission from authority (represented here by the cameraman), or would rather just live vicariously through other people doing it (the old people watching me).

Two is that you often feel like you’ve skipped the path. While walking around it, I often thought I had skipped a line or missed one. When this happens, you cannot really go back and do it again, because you’d inevitably get lost again. The only thing you can really do is trust in your path and keep going. It turned out for me that while I may have felt as if I was lost multiple times, I stuck to the path and ended up okay.

What this means is that you may be tempted by shiny distractions and sirens in your quest to reach your goal, and if you feel as if you are on the wrong path or as if you have messed up, then the best thing that you can do is to continue marching forward, even when you feel you have skipped a spot or you have lost yourself. The precise reason for this is because your ability to navigate will not improve merely by restarting. You’ve got to follow all the way through to get that improvement.

Three is that the maze is unpredictable. When I first started walking the maze, I thought it would be a simple design which I would internalize in no time and then get bored. I was wrong. It was actually very unpredictable! It took me in directions which I did not expect to go, and I even felt ashamed at one point for thinking that I could easily pick up on the pattern and then get bored.

When I’ve gone on adventures in my life, in business or in romance, I’ve always found that things do not go according to plan. In fact, many cases end in unhappiness and failure. And I think the reason for that is because I thought that I knew what I was doing. I thought I had a good map which accurately reflected the world, except it didn’t. And then, when it didn’t, I felt disappointed and let down. I guess the lesson here is that you must remember that you are not omniscient, and that you will eventually mess up. Life is unpredictable.

Lastly, the center refreshes the world. When I reached the center of the labyrinth, I looked up for the first time in a good couple of minutes, as you have to stay focused on your path, and that means keeping your head down and looking at the line you’re supposed to follow. When I looked up for the first time, it was as if the world around me had been refreshed. The cathedral body opened up in front of my eyes, and it felt great!

The reason for why that happened was because when you are looking at something specific for a very long time, your eyes get used to the distance around you. The only thing that surprises it is the variation around you, like the new lines that appear or turning 90 degrees to your left. But when you look up after an intense amount of staring down (and/or navel gazing), your whole world blows open because after being focused on one specific thing for so long, when you look up, the world seems new again!

So, when the world seems old, rotten, corrupt, and devoid of opportunity, then the way out of that frame of mind is to subject yourself to a rigorous new way of seeing the world. In the labyrinth, that rigour came from staring at the ground for a good 10 minutes while trying not to trip and follow a bunch of lines. Perhaps the real life equivalent of this is going to university for four years, or perhaps it’s shucking oysters at a restaurant as penance for letting a drug problems destroy your restaurant business (this is a reference to Burnt, the amazing movie starring Bradley Cooper, which you should watch). Either way, if you think the world needs a refresh, then refresh yourself by focusing on one specific thing for a bunch of time.

There you have it. Hopefully you found this very long post to be useful, and hopefully you found something in it that was more than just mere cliche. Best of luck pursuing your own mazes in life, and if you ever come across a labyrinth in a church, make sure to go around it for yourself.


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